Posted by: Jacquelyn Vasvari-Toke on Friday, October 8, 2021

On September 29th we had Art and Culture Day for Leadership Tampa Class of 2022, chaired by the incredible Jill Witecki, Director of Marketing & Community Relations at the Tampa Theatre, who had us running all around Tampa to see all that we could possibly see in 11 hours!

We started the day bright and early at the Tampa Bay History Center, where we could watch the sun come up! There we had a presentation by the University of South Florida’s Digital Heritage and Humanities Collection team, Dr. Lori Collins, who showed us the 3D scanning work that their team did at the Jackson Rooming House. Next, we heard from Brad Massey who showed us old documents and artifacts that had been collected throughout time here in Tampa, which included old maps of the city and showed details logs on slave trades. After hearing about the Jackson Rooming House, we got to go and visit it in person so that we could get a better idea of its location in the community and see the kind of shape it is in.

Next, we arrived at the St. James Episcopal Church, a beautiful old church in the Encore Development’s downtown area that was recently restored because it is such an important part of the history of the area.  We were then able to walk around and see the Tampa Housing Authority’s Encore District, with David Hollis, Grant Administrator at the Tampa Housing Authority, who acted as our guide. We got to walk around and see the vibrant history of Tampa’s African American community, where there were streets and buildings named after notable African Americans who had an impact on Tampa —such as Ray Charles and Ella Fitzgerald. We ended that tour with a beautiful little park that was for residents of the Encore District to enjoy that had gorgeous wildflowers and a beautiful sculpture of women carrying water baskets on their heads.

Then we got back on the air-conditioned bus which felt great after the sun was beating on us as we walked around the Encore District. Once on the bus we got an art tour with Robin Nigh, Manager of Arts & Cultural Affairs at the City of Tampa and she discussed the City of Tampa’s public art, looking at how the beautiful art pieces around Tampa were incorporated into the public spaces. It made me realize just how many incredible pieces of art we had scattered all around Tampa that I didn’t even know about. We even stopped off at the Tampa postcard and did a group photo to commemorate the day.

Our next stop was to the J.C. Newman Cigar Co. Once we got there, we were lucky enough to hear from Eric Newman, President of J.C. Newman Cigar Co. and fourth generation of his family to own the factory. He talked to us about the history of the factory, his family’s history, and about how Ybor City played such an important role in the cigar industry. We also got to hear from City Councilman Guido Maniscalco who also discussed the history and culture of Tampa and Ybor City, and how to embrace our Tampeno Culture. Then we got the full tour of the J.C. Newman Cigar Co. which was incredibly informative and interesting. We got to see the whole process of the cigars being made, from those who hand-rolled, to those that would wet the tobacco, the drying process, and event those that would use the leaves to create the cigars through the machines. It was incredibly fascinating, and the guides were very knowledgeable and well-versed in every step of the process so that they could tell us exactly what was happening as the products went through each step.

We then headed over to the Columbia Restaurant Group’s Museum where we had on incredible Columbia Restaurant food (1905 Salad of course). We also got to hear directly from Andrea Gonzmart Williams, the 5th Generation Owner of the Columbia Restaurant Group. She told us beautiful stories about her family and their decisions that lead to them opening the Columbia, U-le-le, Goody Goody, and other Columbia Restaurants throughout the state of Florida. We also had an exciting presentation from Jeff Houck, Marketing & PR Manager at the Columbia Restaurant Group, who used to be a food writer for Tampa, and he talked about the history of Tampa’s “foodie” culture and how far he’s seen the food scene progress here in Tampa. As a major “foodie” and Columbia Restaurant lover, I think this was my favorite part of the session and left me feeling so grateful to live in a city like Tampa that has so many wonderful restaurant options and owners like the Gonzmarts who give back so much to our city and region.

Next, we rode over to the Straz Center for the Performing Arts to learn more about their facilities and offerings. We started our session first by hearing from Julie Britton, Executive Vice President of Development at the Straz to hear about the impact of the past 2 years, and their plans for the future. We then split into two groups, and my group started by doing a fun improv exercise with Matthew Belopavlovich, who showed us the basics of some applications of theater that we could use in conflict resolution and focused on our body-language when communicating. We then had an informative tour from CJ Marshall, Senior Director of Operations at the Straz, who showed us all of the theatres and discussed the logistics of putting on a show and the innerworkings of their team.

After the Straz we walked over to the Tampa Museum of Art and listened to a panel of incredible speakers. We got to hear from Michael Tomar, Penny and Jeff Vinik Executive Director, Tampa Museum of Art; Karla Hartley, Producing Artistic Director, Stageworks Theatre; Tom DeGeorge, Owner, Crowbar and Regional President, Save Our Stages Initiative; and a representative from The Straz Center for the Performing Arts. We heard from each of the organizations about how the past 2 years dealing with COVID-19 has impacted their organizations and how they’ve found a way forward. We also talked about the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion and ensuring that the arts are accessible for everyone in our community.

We ended our long day at the Tampa Theatre where we were surprised with popcorn and soda!! The Tampa Theatre is by far one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen, and it was a treat to just be in the theatre. We then were lucky enough to watch a few minutes of The Phantom of the Opera silent film and have a live performance of the resident organ player—it was incredible, and I got goosebumps watching and listening to the performance. We finished our day with a panel discussion, moderated by John Bell, President & CEO at the Tampa Theatre and heard from Tracy Midulla, Creative Director, Tempus Projects; and the Tampa Arts Alliance: Michele Smith, Executive Director, Tampa Arts Alliance; Bill Carlson, President, Tucker/Hall; and Neil Gobioff, President, Gobioff Foundation. We had a great discussion about ways for the community to get more involved in the initiatives that the arts community is putting on such as art shows, festivals, and art galleries. We also discussed how to ensure we establish our own brand in Tampa as an arts community instead of just replicating the brand or vibe of another community. It was a great discussion about how we all can do more to support the art community and be involved with encouraging local art here in Tampa Bay.