Over the course of its 22-year history, Art Bar has always been enigmatic. Opened prior to the surrounding Vista’s emergence as an upscale hotspot, the bar’s identity is notoriously difficult to pinpoint: Is it a dance club? A live music spot? A gay bar? Or simply an enduring watering hole for the hipper denizens of the capital city?
“We’ve always been hard to identify, hard to put your finger on,” admits Andy Rodgers, Art Bar’s general manager and one of its co-founders. “But we like that we avoid being pigeonholed, that people aren’t quite sure of us.”
What: Blue Lady Lounge 10th Anniversary
Where: Art Bar, 1211 Park St.
When: Saturday, Aug. 9, 8 p.m.
With: Thee Knee Jerks, Capital City Playboys, The Viet Mammies, James and the Strays.
More Info: 929-0198, artbarsc.com
Festooned with graffiti, fake robots and industrial art ambience, the bar’s varied rooms and spaces offer a bit of mystery and grime that starkly contrast the sleek businesses all around them, self-identifying as a haven for those seeking an alternative scene.
Rodgers says that the club opened in 1992 with the goal of becoming a progressive dance destination. That plan was quickly abandoned.
“The scene kind of changed on us, so we had to change our scheme a bit,” he explains.
Nothing about the bar has ever stayed static for long. While it maintains a connection to dance music — particularly during its Friday DJ nights — the years have seen everything from poetry slams and art exhibits to karaoke, trivia and improv comedy dotting its schedule.
But since the launch of the Blue Lady Lounge, the adjoining room off the main bar that gave the club a dedicated performance space 10 years ago, the Art Bar has cemented itself as one of the primary hubs for the local music scene. The club celebrates this anniversary with a party on Saturday. Still, the club only books shows consistently on Saturday nights and skews local due to a modest capacity of 237 — smaller in the Lounge, which can barely break triple digits.
“Sometimes I don’t think we get a lot of credit in the live music scene because we only book on Saturdays,” he says. “But it’s nice to get some recognition for it after 10 years.”
For the last decade, Art Bar has remained dedicated to music, bringing in under-the-radar touring acts — like The Rosebuds, which have grown in renown since playing the club — to compliment local offerings. Since adding a permanent stage this winter and completing upgrades to the sound system, the room has hosted sporadic shows on Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays booked by local promoter Greg Slattery. Also the driving force behind the local ‘zine Stereofly, he has brought in more regional acts — a September appearance by the quickly ascending Nashville rock band Diarrhea Planet, for instance — and occasional day-long festivals — such as the upcoming second edition of Stereofly’s Labor Day weekend event Worker’s Comp — that bolster the local-leaning Saturdays organized by longtime booker Marty Fort.
“The new stage adds a lot of possibilities for national and regional acts to play more,” Slattery offers. “We’re starting to do more Thursday shows, which has been great for offering some of the buzzing regional touring bands another option.”
On the cusp of its latest milestone, the club continues to change things up. Its recently launched happy hours offer food — bulgogi tacos and kimchi burgers, for example — and remarkably cheap drink specials. The bar has also added draft beer and extended its hours in an attempt to bring in new and different customers to bolster some of the bar’s more vacant nights.
“It’s a challenge getting people into the door every night,” Rodgers admits, adding that he “wouldn’t use the word ‘struggling’” to describe the bar’s current status. Instead, he explains that all businesses need to change to stay competitive.
“We know what’s not working just by the numbers,” he says. “We’re really proud of our part in continuing to improve live music in Columbia.”