At Kress Building, an arts and cultural renaissance in Ybor City

Over the past 150 years, Ybor City has had its ups and downs, from the country’s leading cigar producer supporting a thriving multicultural community to a run-down neighborhood filled with empty buildings when economic circumstances changed. 

The historic neighborhood’s rebirth began in the 1990s following the establishment under Florida law of the Ybor City Community Redevelopment Area (CRA). Once Ybor was named a CRA district, the Tampa City Council adopted an ordinance establishing the redevelopment trust fund to support efforts encouraging private-sector investment and business activity in the area.

Today, Ybor City is experiencing its most recent renaissance. Head for Seventh Avenue on any night and you’ll find the district’s sidewalks filled with lively crowds enjoying the area’s bars, clubs and restaurants, as music blares into the street. 
It was just such a scene that surrounded Tempus Projects’ official January 26 re-opening in their new permanent home in the landmark Kress Building at 1624 E. Seventh Ave. 

Originally part of the S. H. Kress and Co. "five and dime" department store chain, the three-story brick building, built in 1929, is now on the National Register of Historic Places, which seems appropriate since Ybor City is one of only three National Historic Landmark Districts in the State of Florida. 

Tempus Projects, founded in 2009 by fourth-generation Tampanian Tracy Midulla, is a non-profit arts organization run by volunteers with funding provided by local sponsors, public donations and community grants. 

A community grant tied to those hometown connections is what helped to give Tempus Projects its start. Midulla and Gianna Gobioff went to junior high school together. As Midulla was building her organization, the Gobioff Foundation heard about her efforts, which fit perfectly with their mission of “funding art organizations that enhance the cultural landscape of the Tampa Bay region through exhibitions and public performances."

“Neil and Gianna Gobioff have changed the face of the arts in Tampa,” Midulla says. 

They urged her to become a non-profit and helped her build a board of directors. Then they gave Tempus its real start with a substantial check for seed money. The first Tempus Project gallery was located in a three-car garage behind a building where they did screen printing. The garage had no plumbing. The organization’s next move was to what Tracy Midulla describes as a “legit storefront on Florida Avenue,” where they stayed for seven years. 

In December 2019, Tempus celebrated its tenth anniversary. In January 2020, the decision was made to not renew their lease. Sometimes, timing is everything. Tempus Project was able to weather the pandemic without rent payments. 

As the pandemic eased it was time to find Tempus a new home. Neil Gobioff was working on several projects with Tampa developer and entrepreneur Darryl Shaw, who was focused on redevelopment projects to transform Ybor City into a livable, walkable neighborhood and return it to its roots as a visual and performing arts district. 

Shaw was planning the renovation project for the Meatyard Ybor building on Second Avenue, which will feature more than 50 multi-artist working spaces when complete. Shaw asked Midulla if she wanted to be part of curating an art show for a pre-renovation open house. It went so well that Shaw asked Midulla if she’d like to take a look at his next project, the Kress Building. Was it suitable for conversion to an arts center?

The answer to that question is three floors of creative space in an arts hub that includes galleries, artist studios, a micro-cinema and a permanent new home for Tempus Projects. 

The street-level first floor is soon to be occupied by the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts (FMoPA). A recent FMoPA press release states that their new location in the Kress Building will feature over 3,000 square feet of exhibition space, including a dedicated area for the museum’s permanent collection as well as rotating exhibitions of contemporary and historic photography in addition to a gift shop and space for lectures and artist talks. 

The Kress Building’s second-floor gallery had a formal opening in late January with Tampa-based sculptor, Kendra Frorup’s exhibition “Jewels and Binoculars Hang from the Head of the Mule” and Tampa artist Takeo Faison’s first solo exhibition titled “What Does the Cowboy Dream About.”

Artist Takeo Faison at the opening reception for his exhibit "What Does the Cowboy Dream About?" A Tampa Bay-based artist and designer, Faison says his screen print wearable art is a representation, an avatar, for the history of America, the view of ourselves that we sell to other countries. Faison says he was thrilled at the opportunity offered to him by Tempus Projects and the development of the Kress Building. 

Those sentiments were echoed by the developer himself. Asked how he felt watching his plans come to life, Shaw says it was exciting to be able to help broaden Ybor City’s future and to have it be known as a diverse historical district. He felt that artists are a very important part of that diversity. 

“If we bring back the arts, we bring back diversity,” he says.  

Surrounding the Kress Building’s second-floor gallery are creative arts spaces and artist studios. One of which is occupied by GRATUS, the studio of photographer Jenny Carey. Her opening exhibition “A New Perspective” showcases the theme of intimate environments through urban elements. 

Carey says she had her studio in her house but it didn’t generate the same kind of creative energy that emanates from interacting with other creative artists and the public. 

“The energy here makes me more productive,” she says.

Carey has long been an active participant in Tampa Bay’s arts and creative community, with roots in Ybor City, where she began a long stint as an arts columnist. She says she is delighted to return to Ybor City and be part of the arts hub, which is known as the Kress Collective. Artist Jenny Carey in her studio and gallery GRATUS

That Kress Collective, including the third-floor artist studios and visual and performing arts small business spaces, now encompasses such community-based creative organizations as Jessica Todd’s Parachute Gallery, Screen Door Microcinema, Tampa City Ballet, QUAID Gallery, Heard ‘Em Say Youth Arts Collective, Kitchen Table Literary Arts, GrowHouse and Dave Decker Photography. 

Tracy Midulla and Darryl Shaw envision a bright future for Tempus Projects, the Kress Building and Ybor City. A future filled with exhibits, artists-in-residence, lecture series and workshops, intimate concerts, meeting space and hosting small private parties. 

“There’s something very exciting going on here”, says Midulla. “A creative culture growing again in Ybor City. Tempus and Kress are part of that excitement.”

For more information, go to Tempus Projects.
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Read more articles by Pamela Varkony.

Pamela Varkony’s non-fiction topics range from politics to economic development to women's empowerment. A feature writer and former columnist for Tribune Publishing, Pamela's work has appeared in newspapers, magazines, and in PBS and NPR on-air commentaries. Her poetry has been published in the New York Times. Recognized by the Pennsylvania Women's Press Association with an "Excellence in Journalism" award, Pamela often uses her writing to advocate for women's rights and empowerment both at home and abroad. She has twice traveled to Afghanistan on fact-finding missions. Pamela was named the 2017 Pearl S. Buck International Woman of Influence for her humanitarian work. Born and raised in rural Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Pamela often weaves the lessons learned on those backcountry roads throughout her stories.