Thirty years of Columbia’s Art Bar. This is one of the oldest and weirdest bars in town | Food news and features
Art Bar co-owner Andy Rodgers likes to compare the lifespan of a bar to that of a dog — bars, like dogs, don’t usually stick around as long as humans tend to.
“Seas live as long as dogs live, you know,” Rodgers said. “It’s like… you know, a bar has been running for 17 or 18 years, that’s a good run for a dog. Thirty years is just crazy, it’s amazing because it’s so out of the norm.
Its longtime Vista watering hole is far from the norm — surviving 30 years of change and growth as one of Columbia’s oldest and weirdest bars.
Art Bar opened on September 18, 1992 when the arts and entertainment district, the Vista, was in its infancy – back then the arts district was very different, according to Vista Guild general manager Abby Anderson. There were only a handful of businesses in the neighborhood, two of them being Art Bar and Motor Supply Company Bistro, two Vista staples.
“The Art Bar is something the rest of Columbia doesn’t have, so it’s very unique that we have it in the Vista,” said Abby Anderson, executive director of the Vista Guild. She called the Art Bar a “unique and funky thing”. that celebrates what Columbia is.
The original owners, Clark Ellefson and Jeff Helsley, decided to open a place unlike anything Columbia had seen. They achieved that goal – bartenders, regulars and former employees alike said the bar is unlike any other in the city, with its quirky decor, friendly staff and laid-back atmosphere.
Thirty years later, the eclectic bar just off rue Gervais attracts everyone, according to bartenders and regulars.
“Art Bar is an open bar for everyone,” said Will Woodward, who has been an on-site bartender for 10 years. “I truly believe anyone can come in and be welcomed as long as they welcome others.”
The bar was one of the first in Colombia at the time to openly and actively welcome members of the LGBTQ community – a decision that often confused it with being a gay bar, so much so that it has for years won ‘best gay bar’. in Colombia in the Free Times Best of Columbia awards.
But it’s a label the owners and staff casually reject, the same way they reject any other label for the bar. From being a spot for older, longtime regulars to attracting more of a younger crowd in recent years, the bar doesn’t fit in a box. And he’s proud of it.
“We didn’t want to be the live music venue, or the dance club or the gay bar. I mean, we wanted to be all of that,” Rodgers said.
The “everything” is honored each evening during the various events of the Art Bar. Mondays are Movie Mockery night, where local comics “make the most of really bad movies.” On Tuesdays, the bar hosts open-mic comedies. Wednesdays are the iconic karaoke night. Thursdays are trivia. Every weekend the bar hosts a range of live music and DJs.
The bar has made changes since its inception. When it first opened, the bar was stocked with a handful of beers and had a microwave in what is now a supply cupboard to heat up bar food. The bar now offers over 80 beers on tap, including craft beers unreleased in the early 90s, and a cooking program led by Steve Gibson.
Bartenders not only had to run the bar, but also keep the songs lined up in the early days before the Art Bar started offering live music and DJs, at a time when there were few venues in the city for alternative and live music.
“At that time, The Whig didn’t exist, Transmission didn’t exist, New Brookland wasn’t where it is now,” Phill Blair said. Art Bar was like the place to go. Blair worked as an on-site doorman in the early 2000s before working and becoming the owner of The Whig, a beloved dive bar on the corner of Gervais and Main.
While much of what became of Art Bar – the unique and welcoming staple right next door to Gervais – was intentional, one aspect of the bar was not – the robots.
The art spot is often referred to as “the robot bar,” Rodgers said. The bar’s logo even features a minimalist robot head outline. But robot-mania was born on a whim.
“The crazy thing is that robots didn’t show up until 10 or 15 years after Art Bar opened and it was luck and kind of luck,” Rodgers said.
Then co-owner Jeff Helsley found someone selling a handful of vintage robots. Helsley and Ellefson bought them, cleaned them up and they became an instant hit with bar patrons.
“People loved them,” Rodgers said. “I don’t think anyone ever really imagined it would be so popular.”
The robots and other artistic decor, the familiar bartenders and the simplicity of the place have been attracting regulars and keeping them coming for decades.
Kerry Johnston has been on site since it opened and now manages the bar’s social media. Johnston came to Columbia for college and said the Art Bar has always been a special place because of its staff and the care it gives to bar patrons.
“I feel safe there,” she said. “I know all of their customers are taken care of… One of their biggest priorities is keeping people safe, so you know as a woman growing up at Columbia, she’s always been a place where I knew I would be safe.
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