A History of Las Damas de Arte
In the early 1970’s the Chamber of Commerce building in Ybor city was the place where people would come to pay their utility bills. Oscar Aguayo wanted art work in the building to bring ’art to the people’. He asked Maella Logan and Linda Garcia (now Christian) to display their art and they included work by Joan Burpee in the first show. This area became known as the Latin Quarter Art Gallery which then continued with monthly shows, usually of several artists at a time. In exchange, artists would help with hanging the shows and encourage friends to visit the gallery. Ybor City was in the throes of an urban renewal reaching back to the 1960s, and was not considered a safe neighborhood, so the gallery was designed in part to draw attention to the Latin Quarter in a positive way. As the gallery grew, more artists became involved and the core of the Las Damas group developed. The original organization’s goals were to host monthly art shows and further the art education of the members. It was established that they would limit the membership to 60 invited women and place an emphasis on crafts as well as visual arts. Connie Newton, a Tampa club woman, artist and later a professional art restorer was the charter president and Noni Brill was charter vice president.
An invitation to join Las Damas required sponsorship by two members and board approval. Dues were $10 a year and all members were required to donate their time and efforts toward the goals of the group. Las Damas met initially at the gallery and any money raised went toward hiring a professional artist or crafter to teach workshops that were limited to club members. The workshops featured noted instructors from craft schools such as Penland and Haystack. These professionals worked for a much-reduced fee, staying as guests in club member’s homes, generously sharing their expertise. Weekend-long workshops were held at the renovated cigar factory, Ybor Square which had been designed by member Claudette McKenna’s husband, architect John McKenna. Workshops were held on the then-unoccupied second floor, and included famed NC ceramist Jane Peiser and Cambridge, Mass. fabric artist Marcia Rhodes, who incorporated pop psychology into a sculpture workshop. Talented group members also shared their expertise with Las Damas, among them Joan Burpee, who was working in painting on silk, Cynthia Stanley, on macramé weaving, and Rita Lacerte, on creative crochet.
The first Holiday auction, the brain child of Noni Brill, was held early in December, 1971 at the Carrollwood home of Jackie Reynolds. It raised $350 and every item auctioned was created by a member. The auction is still an evening event, with members paying a small fee, bringing handmade items for auction and inviting guests. Various formats, from a spaghetti dinner to hors d’oeuvres and wine, have been tried but the principal remains the same, have the event in a member’s home, serve food and wine, make something to sell, buy something, and have members as auctioneers.
In 1972-1973, Tampa philanthropist and supporter of the arts Frank Weaner donated $5,000 to the Latin Quarter Gallery, (thereafter known as the Frank A. Weaner Latin Quarter Gallery), and provided a scholarship for Tampa Times art critic Bob Martin to attend graduate school for a year. This boosted the group’s morale and sense of purpose and improved Las Damas’ low-key profile in the media and also that of the gallery. In gratitude for the gift, Helen Weaner was made the first lifetime member of Las Damas. Artist Florence Bidwell, Linda Garcia and Maella Logan were also added to the lifetime member list in 1972.
In the early 1980s, the Gallery closed its doors due to lack of community support. Las Damas was left with no official meeting place and no gallery to champion. But the strong friendships that had been made encouraged the group to continue meeting at Ybor Square and in each other’s homes, and to keep expanding its artistic horizons. Re-energized, members voted to give scholarships to deserving art students at the University of South Florida, the University of Tampa and Hillsborough Community College. Although initial contributions were small (under $1,000), in time the need for increased contributions became obvious, and with it, the need to raise more money than the holiday auction could provide.
Sunday in the Arts (SITA) began in 1985 with the help of Pat Harvey, wife of Frank Harvey, CEO of Maas Brothers. She volunteered in the furniture department at the Gandy Blvd store and spearheaded Las Damas de Arte’s first major fund-raiser. Scholarship money for the three colleges increased dramatically. SITA thereafter became the principal moneymaker for the group. Burdine’s generously gave us space for several years when Maas Brothers discontinued its role as host organization, and later the Scarfone Gallery became the home for the event. In 2006 SITA began a new era by staging the event in a different venue each year.
In the mid-1980s, the membership decided that 75 percent of funds raised should go to the three colleges and 25 percent allocated to other, vetted recipients. In 2005, this was altered due to increased need by many worthy groups. Fifty percent of the funds raised would be given to the colleges and 50% would be distributed as grants to deserving organizations and groups, focusing on art-based programs.
Self education has remained a primary goal of Las Damas. Workshops are offered and members are encouraged to show their work at SITA, exchange information and attend each others’ exhibits. An informative newsletter keeps members abreast of all activities, pertinent art shows and opportunities for exhibiting work. Las Damas de Arte boasts retention of many of its original charter members, a testament to the friendships forged throughout its history and to the value they place on the organization. It is a very personal group and its heritage of camaraderie, encouragement of personal and artistic growth and volunteerism in the service of the arts have kept it vital. It has grown and developed, as a good organization must, while keeping its values and original intent.