If you’ve ever driven through Columbia’s Vista, you’ve probably noticed a building right off of Park Street lit by colorful string lights. You’ll see the words “ART BAR” in bold lights plastered on the front window. You’ll be curious.
That bar has been successful since the early ‘90s and will celebrate its 30-year anniversary on Sept. 18.
The brainchild of local artist and owner of Lewis and Clark, Clark Ellefson and former owner of Goatfeather’s Jeff Helsley, Art Bar has been a trademark to Columbia long before the Vista became the bustling entertainment and nightlife district that it is today. Helsley left the bar business years after, and Art Bar is now co-owned by Andy Rodgers, who started as a bartender nearly two weeks after its opening.
“The music was the first thing that hit me,” Rodgers said on the first time he stepped foot into Art Bar after its opening. “I mean they were playing the Smiths and REM — not your typical college rock. It was more alternative.”
And that’s what Art Bar became known for over the years: an alternative bar where everyone was welcome. Local art covers the walls, an island bar rests in the middle of the front room and pinball machines are found in the extended back room for entertainment. But it all started with an idea.
“I was working in my studio until nine or 10 at night, and I wanted a bar where I could go drink and have fun,” Ellefson said on starting Art Bar. “Plus, I was in the custom woodwork business which is very tough, and I thought I needed another form of business that doesn’t rely on me at the center of everything and I can kind of set it up, and it’ll have a life of its own. So, I chose the bar.”
The rest is history.
Today, the bar brings local shows and entertainment of every genre to Columbia — from concerts and comedy acts to late-night karaoke — all ideas brought throughout the years by the local community.
And the community has always been at the forefront of Art Bar, creating a space where everyone had a place to feel welcome — where diversity and inclusion was equally supported.
“We were cultivating people who felt more at home in a place that was a little more alternative,” Rodgers said. “And it was different. There were plenty of old English pubs and whatnot out there, but you walk in this place and it was like Vegas.”
And now, on Sept. 18, 2022, Art Bar will celebrate its 30-year anniversary. The bar will offer a week-long celebration from Sept. 19 through Sept. 25.
Ellefson had the idea to continue the weekly events that have built their success, like comedy night and karaoke, while integrating their celebration into the events.
Art Bar has a lot to celebrate. They survived a pandemic, watched the Vista grow from the ground up around them, earned the title of “home” to many community members and have even watched multiple celebrities walk through their doors, including Danny DeVito, Kevin Bacon, Tony Hawk and SC resident Bill Murray.
But nothing takes away the passion they have for the community and giving back — from supporting those who walk through their business door to supporting the small business community in Columbia.
“We have more community involvement now than ever,” Rodgers said. “And that’s something we always wanted to do.”
And for them, Columbia will always be home for Art Bar. An original place that can only be found here, and a place where anyone can walk through the front door and feel at home.
For more information about Art Bar’s 30-year anniversary celebration, visit artbarsc.com, and follow their regular weekly activities on Instagram and Facebook.