The leading arts consultant and administrator on the role that public art plays in creating emotional equity in architecture

Interview by Sheri Hansen

After 20 years at FOX 9 News, Robyne Robinson opened the curtains on a second act fostering public art and community building. Her recent role as art director at the Minneapolis–St. Paul International Airport created new opportunities, including positions as founder and principal of fiveXfive Art Consultants, board chair at the Minnesota Museum of American Art, and now public art coordinator for the City of Carlsbad, California. Robinson is forging a new creative path connecting public art and the built environment.

In January, Robinson sat down for an extended conversation with Architecture MN at the Soo Visual Arts Center (SooVAC) in South Minneapolis. She serves on the SooVAC board.

What kinds of projects are you working on with fiveXfive right now?

We do community and large-scale state and federal projects. We’ll be working with Forecast Public Art on the Federal Reserve Bank’s Heritage Landing Parking Ramp in Minneapolis’s North Loop and the Fort Snelling revitalization project. Last year, we completed an amazing community mural on 38th Street at Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis. Murals can really express the past, present, and future of a community.

One of the concepts we created for fiveXfive is bringing home the idea of emotional equity. We merge the creation of space and the defining of space, which allows us to better define who the client is and who is part of the community created around that client’s space. We want people to feel ownership and investment in the spaces and public art they help shape.

When we bring these elements together and community members see themselves in the finished project, that’s emotional equity. It’s what we’re talking about when we say people have an attachment to their bar, their church, their school. It’s what the combination of art and design can do for people. We want to get past the idea of welcome, past the idea of inclusion, to investment. We want to get to the point where a person feels like, “I’m part of this space. This space is part of me.”

How can architects create spaces where public art can thrive?

Architects can bring the different facets of a community together. They can walk the streets and talk to people about the hopes and concerns they have for the neighborhood. They can ask people what the neighborhood was like years ago and what it’s like now. They can find out who is new to the neighborhood, and who longtime residents view as gentrifiers or interlopers.

Architects can bring everyone to the table to build a unified mission; they can help communities identify and articulate their goals and ideas, setting the stage for creating an authentic vision. Then comes what I see as the most important element: adding an artist or artists from the community to the team. With all those elements, the process can allow the mission, the goals, and the vision to blend.

When that happens, the ideas start to explode; then architects and the rest of those engaged in the collaborative process have to narrow the ideas down and fine-tune them to put together a project that nearly everybody is happy with. You’re not going to always have 100-percent happiness with the project, but you try to get as much of it as you possibly can. And the more collaborative the process is—the more partners like architects build meaningful engagement—the more likely it is that the end result will have a high number of invested and pleased members of the impacted community.

Did you try to follow that kind of process with the art installations at the airport?

There were a lot of people with different goals for the airport who needed to be at the table as we set the tone for the public art update. The commissioners wanted spaces that represented Minnesota; the top administration wanted public art that made MSP the People’s Airport. The architects had the vision and the design ideas, and all groups were in the midst of a massive operational-improvement project. And, of course, they all wanted it to be beautiful.

It took over a year to put together a blue-ribbon panel of representatives from the airport and the community to lead the way on the multiyear project. As I said, everyone had ideas on what exactly to do. The architects at Alliiance took me under their wing and showed me a whole new world of what design can be in community space.

We did consensus building throughout the project—even down to the display cases. It took a lot of hard work, but it really paid off. I feel fortunate; I walked into something for which I was totally untested, and they gave me the opportunity to paint a canvas alongside them and earn their respect.

The space is singular in many ways. There are stories being told in murals and bathrooms and all the nooks and crannies. Travelers have the opportunity to see ballet and the work of filmmakers and visual artists, to hear hip-hop and native flute music. We’re getting beyond the jokes about flyover country. We are a world-class airport.

You are the board chair at the Minnesota Museum of American Art in St. Paul. What’s ahead for that institution?

The M is our opportunity to create a truly American art museum. That means going back to the philosophies and theories of fiveXfive: People need to see themselves in what is created or they will avoid that place.

We’ve just opened an amazing exhibit of the photography of Gordon Parks and Jamel Shabazz. It was curated by a former museum board member who is also a great niece of Parks. Parks lived in St. Paul as a teenager. It’s where he developed his interest in photography, before he got his work with the Farm Security Administration in the 1940s and went on to become an internationally recognized photographer and film director.

This is an opportunity to take the oldest museum in the state and pair it with the present so people can see themselves in the exhibits—and young people can see their future. We’ve done some seminal shows like Ken Gonzales-Day’s “Shadowlands,” a collection of photos and research that examined historic and contemporary constructions of race, and Brad Kahlhamer’s “A Nation of One,” which explored the artist’s multicultural experience as a Native American adopted by German Americans.

The more shows we do like these, and the more community programming we do around them, the more we allow people to really understand that they are America, that each of our voices is part of the collaborative voice of our country, and that we all define what that voice can be in the future.

The museum completed the first phase of a two-phase renovation of its space in the historic Pioneer-Endicott Building in late 2018. Are the renovations all designed to accommodate the kinds of installations you’re talking about?

Yes, they’ve helped us create a radical 21st-century museum. Working with VJAA, a woman-led architecture firm, we’re taking 19th-century loading docks and converting them to galleries. We’re removing the antique Venetian glass in the ceiling of the building’s L-shaped commercial arcade, cleaning each piece. We’ve already added glass walkways on the skyway level so that even if people are only passing through they can look down and see what’s happening in the museum. We’re preserving the Pioneer-Endicott’s rich history but also shaping something new and inviting with it: a living, breathing working space that’s also a museum.

We’re also trying to create emotional equity in the M. If you haven’t been to a lot of museums and for you a security guard at the entrance is an intimidating presence, you’re going to keep walking instead of going in. Or maybe you don’t go in because you’re worried you’re not wearing the right clothes, or that you have to buy drinks inside. It’s hard to feel connected to a space that carries all these associations.

We’re trying to open the museum up by removing those barriers, to let people know they are welcome here. We want everybody to feel like they can just walk in at any time, no matter who they are. This is their place, too.