Kinsey Robb is giving Art Center Sarasota a makeover

Categories: Stories of Impact, BELONGING AND CULTURE: Cultural Development & the Arts,

The Gagosian gallery veteran is upgrading the arts venue's interiors and technology and revamping the submission process for juried shows.

If she wasn't an arts administrator, Kinsey Robb would make a good shrink.

The executive director of Art Center Sarasota is adept at maintaining a neutral expression. Not like someone who has had one too many Botox injections. Just calm but curious. You feel as if you've entered a judgment-free zone.

The ability to convey neutrality is an enviable quality when dealing with artists, donors and other stakeholders who might not all share the same vision for Art Center Sarasota.

The only time you might see a flicker of annoyance on Robb's face is when someone describes Art Center Sarasota as "amateur."

Then she patiently explains, not for the first time nor for the last, that many exhibitors are indeed professionals and if they weren't when their work was exhibited on the walls of Art Center Sarasota, they will be later on.

About those walls. During a recent walkthrough of the annual juried regional show, Robb tells a visitor that the first thing she did after starting as executive director in May 2021 was to get rid of the carpet on the walls and the linoleum on the floors. A

The walls really do talk

When the carpet was removed, the art center found messages from former directors and artists underneath. "You've heard the expression, 'If these walls could talk,' " Robb said. "Well, our walls do talk."

She repeats the story later in the week during a presentation at Arts Advocates, a group that promote awareness of visual art, in the Crossings at Siesta Key mall. Both times she notes the upgrade was made possible due to a grant from the Selby Foundation.

"We renovated our space to be more respectful to artists," she says. That same attitude also prompted the art center to hire professional installers to hang the shows and to limit the number of submissions in its juried shows. "There's space to contemplate the art now," she says. "It's not crowded."

Not all the changes Robb has made have won favor with artists.

There is now a three-year time limit between when a piece of art was created and when it can be submitted to a juried show. (There will be six juried shows during the 2023-24 season, including two exclusively for members.)

Submissions for the center's juried show must now be done electronically, which has been anxiety-producing for artists who aren't tech-savvy. In the past, pieces were dropped off at the center to submit for a show.

New submission process gives artists more freedom

During her Arts Advocates talk, Robb said electronic submissions give artists the freedom to submit an artwork elsewhere since it's not sitting in the center's offices at 777 N. Tamiami Trail.

She said artists that Christina Baril, Art Center Sarasota's exhibitions director, is happy to help with the electronic submission process. Robb noted that iPhone photos are easy to take and their quality is high enough to be used for submissions.

But Robb's not a proponent of change for the sake of change. Art Center Sarasota's logo remains the same as when she arrived. Black aprons and hats adorned with a white modified capital "A" are for sale in the lobby and on the website.

"You gotta have good merch," she says.

Everything about Robb and her plans for Art Center Sarasota exudes professionalism. That's to be expected, given her blue-chip credentials in the art world. A graduate of Syracuse University's Visual and Performing Arts program, Robb worked at high-powered art galleries in New York before moving to Sarasota. Big names, like Gagosian, Lehmann Maupin and Perrotin.

Her international art street cred was on display front and center during her Arts Advocates presentation. Robb regaled an enraptured audience with war stories from the trenches, including "Bananagate."

That incident took place in 2019 at Art Basel Miami, when a performance artist ate a ripening banana that was part of Maurizio Cattelan's "Comedian," a piece that had already been sold for $120,000.

Not all fun and games

"Art is spectacle," Robb said with a smile, as she displayed a picture of dozens of arts patrons holding up cellphones to capture David Datuna eating the banana.

Still, art's not all fun and games. Robb's mood turned serious when she talked about how artists need to keep pricing consistent. If Art Center Sarasota has priced a piece at $1,000, the artist shouldn't sell a similar work out of their home or online for $200. Offering friends and family a discount is one thing, Robb says, but prices shouldn't be all over the map.

Art Center Sarasota has bragging rights for being the first arts organization in town, but it is surely one of the most misunderstood. Founded in 1926 as the Sarasota Arts Association by Marcia Rader, the art superintendent of the Sarasota school system, its inception predates that of the John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art.

The building that houses the art center's Gallery 3 was designed in 1949 by father-and-son team T.R. and Frank Martin in the Sarasota School of Architecture style. While Mid-Century Modern design is respected these days, the art center's building seems humble, especially compared to the Ringling Museum's majestic spread.

But the comparison isn't fair. Art Center Sarasota wasn't founded by a circus magnate and it is not a museum. It doesn't charge admission and the work on display is for sale.

Although it sells art, Sarasota Art Center is not a gallery. It is a nonprofit dedicated to arts education and raising the profile of area artists.

Grants fund new donor tracking system

On a recent day, the interior space of its main gallery was filled with children attending a summer arts camp. In May, it hosted the North County section of Sarasota County Schools annual exhibit of student art. Ringling College of Art and Design students, including Haitian-American fine arts photographer Jesse Clark, have exhibited at the center. "He's going places," says Robb.

Now that Robb has elevated the walls and floors in Art Center Sarasota's gallery spaces, she's ready to tackle its technology. A $6,000 grant from the John and Tana Sandefur Foundation and the Gus Lobenwein Memorial Fund of the Community Foundation of Sarasota County was recently used to purchase a system called Donor Perfect.

In a statement, Robb said that the new donor management system provides “valuable tracking information so we can easily provide appreciation and services to our donors and members, who are the backbone of our organization.”

Next on her checklist: hiring a director of development to add more names to the ranks of those donors. But rather than hosting pricey black-tie events with tables selling for $25,000 each Robb would rather have philanthropists write out a check for that amount. Later, she walks that back and says a gala could be a possibility, depending on a development plan in the works by the center's board.

Robb may not have the financial heft of some of Sarasota's well-heeled arts organizations, but it's sitting pretty. That's because its building is located within the confines of The Bay, the new 53-acre bayfront park that officially opened in October.

A seat at the table

Robb literally had a seat at the table when decisions about the giant park were being made. "One day, A.G. (Lafley, the former Procter & Gamble Inc. chairman and CEO and first president of the Bay Park Conservancy) referred to me by name and I was shocked that he knew who I was," Robb said.

But she is no stranger to rubbing elbows with C-suite types and philanthropists, nor to Sarasota. The daughter of the former CEO of an apparel conglomerate has been coming to Sarasota ever since her parents bought a house here.

Despite her worldly connections, there's something decidedly down to earth about Kinsey Robb. Dressed in rolled-up Levi's, she still looks like the girl next door even if she's paired the jeans with four-inch designer heels and a filmy cream-colored blouse that reveals a black bra underneath and a tattoo on her back.

Robb recalls how when she first was starting out at a New York City art gallery and the staff ordered in lunch, her boss asked, "What's that?" when a cheeseburger and fries came out amid all the salads.

"My lunch," she replied.

Don't be fooled by Robb's placid demeanor and fresh-faced looks. She gets exactly what she wants.

See this story as it originally appeared on July 5, 2023, in The Observer at