Robyne Robinson Q&A

November 18, 2019
Robyne Robinson went from broadcast journalism to fine art consulting with her customary panache.

“This is a new era in museum culture. Inclusion is the lifeblood of today’s institutions, from administration to exhibition. It’s important to build emotional equity. And the only way to do that is to include a diverse group of people in the conversation.”

You spent 20 years as a broadcast journalist with KMSP-TV. Do you ever miss it?

It’s analogous to having a family when you spend 20 years at a station. I grew up on the air there, covered amazing stories with people close to my heart. But you learn, you grow, the family expands and you go on your adventure. There are things I’ll always miss: live newscasts, election campaigns, the people. But there’s a lot of crazy in TV news, which I don’t miss.

While you were at KMSP-TV, you started “The Buzz,” the first segment on local TV dedicated to reporting on the music scene. Why was that important to you?

It was important personally and professionally. I had to lobby for my job on the main newscast, and wasn’t getting equal treatment. I needed to build my own audience to give me leverage. I was finding my way into the art and music community and a couple of dear friends not only vouched for me to get inside with some of the top artists and acts, but defended “The Buzz” to management and rallied the Twin Cities to keep it on the air. The arts scene here is one of the most creative, important communities in the country — and internationally. It breeds the best in each generation. What if there was a TV segment that celebrated that genius, not critique it? That’s how “The Buzz” started and that’s why area artists supported it. By the end of its eight-year run, it had been written about in Variety, The Source, Chicago Tribune and on the BBC, and we had collaborative relationships with most of the top venues in town – the Walker, the Hennepin Theatre Trust, the Ordway, First Avenue.

You’ve spoken warmly about your friendship with Prince, talking about his playful side. It seems like he had a tremendous sense of humor that most of us didn’t get to see. Was he a naturally funny person?

He was and I only got glimpses of it because he tried to keep things professional between us. It would pop out in a gesture or look, or he was good with repeating lines from movies or comedians as a joke. But sometimes he was funny and didn’t know it. He’d crack me up with something he did or said in earnest. He was smart and caring and odd and sometimes a jerk but always a genius.

You’ve shown an entrepreneurial desire at several points in your career, including starting Rox Jewelry and your art consulting firm five x five. Was that always a dream of yours?

I did always dream of owning an art gallery. It started with Flatland (2000-2003). It was a great gallery, and many of the emerging artists then have done incredibly well in their careers. Rox grew out of Flatland – I started selling pieces there before it was picked up by Macy’s and selling worldwide: Hanoi, London, Athens, Anguilla. Both of those enterprises helped with my transition to MSP Airport as art director and the things I learned encouraged me to explore my interest in transportation design and public art, which has now resulted in five x five.

You’ve won acclaim for your work with MPS Airport as art director. How did you prepare for this role? What should travelers not miss?

There are nearly 50 arts airport programs in the U.S. and North America. I visited other airports and met many of the other administrators in the six years as art director (one year as consultant). Each are unique and beautifully curated and designed in their own way, and enough to make you swoon. I’m a competitive person and believe the program that’s developing at MSP is one of the best in the country, modeled on the idea that we should celebrate what makes us unique: the arts and our Minnesota history. The airport is the gateway to all that makes us outstanding, and travelers should know about us and what’s happening here the moment they step off a plane. They become ambassadors for us once they board for another city. That’s why we were voted one of the 12 most beautiful terminals in the world in 2017 by travel bloggers. Not for waterfalls or ice skating rinks – but for our installations, all made by local artists. If you’re traveling, you shouldn’t miss the beautiful restroom murals that we’re noted for, check out arts programming by TPT and films co-curated with the Mpls St. Paul Film Society on Concourse C. I’m proud to have worked with Alliance architects, MSP Airport and Jen Lewin on the Signature Sculpture at Terminal 1. It’s her first airport installation and she’s an amazing IT artist and architect. The motion-sound-climate-activated Aurora Borealis should be ready by December 2020.

When did you first hear Brian Eno’s 1978 ambient album “Music For Airports”? What kind of impact did it have on you?

It was like a jolt — an awakening. I first heard “Here Come the Warm Jets” in college and then my friend gave me “Music for Airports.” Only when I started traveling a lot in later years did it become a staple in my headphones for floating through terminals at 5 a.m. when airports become these breathtaking, quiet temples for quiet worship. I love thinking of airports that way, and prefer traveling super early for that reason alone. The only regret I have about MSP is that I didn’t get to create the Brian Eno Composer’s Competition for Airports. Maybe it will become a five x five project.

Is there any update on the Art Park — a one-mile stretch between Terminal One and the Intercontinental Hotel — that you can share?

I don’t have any information on the Art Park; it will be a tough one because the blade-shaped area needs irrigation for landscaping. But if it sticks to Kimley-Horn and architect Alan Howell’s plans there will be an area for meditation, performing arts, sound, sculpture and an area honoring our military. One of the projects I last worked on is coming along: the aluminum parking facing on the new Silver Ramp in Terminal One will feature diverse faces from the community, created by Steve Ozone. East Departures in Terminal One will have a beautiful 60-foot image by Craig Blacklock. And Valet Parking will be spectacular, with mosaics by Carey Dean and sustainable bench designs by Wood From the Hood.

You’ve long been a key figure in the Twin Cities on issues of diversity. How important is it to you that an art collection have what you call emotional equity?

This is a new era in museum culture: inclusion is the lifeblood of today’s institutions, from administration to exhibition. An American museum cannot exist if it doesn’t reflect the faces and culture of the community it serves.  We must maintain our history but weave all of its people into the fabric of that narrative or it will fail. Creating emotional equity simply means buying in: we all refer to my grocery store or my barber shop – places we adopt as ours because we feel welcome and comfortable in that space. Museums must do the same. And the only way is to include a diverse group of people in the conversation. When government cuts funding to the arts, you are purposely keeping people in fear.

You’ve mentioned in interviews that “five x five” is an aeronautic term that means “clear sailing.” Have you had that name in mind for a while?

Yes! I was trying to develop a name for a blog site on transportation design and chose five X five. I wanted to express how design has led to a revolution, or fresh and imaginative ideas for travel and architecture. I thought it was perfect – until a millennial pointed out to me that Buffy the Vampire’s friend Faith used that phrase when they started a vampire hunt. I was slightly crushed.

You’ve mentioned that you’re working with painter Chris Mars of Replacements fame. His work is so rich with detail. Are you drawn to the meticulous nature of artists like Mars?

Chris’s work is surreal, comical, political and personal. He reminds me a great deal of Albrecht Dürer in his detail and Hieronymus Bosch in content. It’s dark. DARK. But in some instances, gentle. Many pieces were influenced by his late brother Joe, who was schizophrenic. The monsters are also beautiful in what they reflect. Chris is a self-taught master, and is now being acquired by museums like MIA and the MN Museum of American Art. He’s exhibited at the Louvre, and with geniuses like director Guillermo del Toro. Chris and Sally are great people and great friends, and run a great international dog rescue group: Mutt Mutt Engine.

Both of your parents were schoolteachers. Did you ever think about becoming a teacher yourself?

God no. You have to really like kids, deal with parents, be prepared with lesson plans and be of moral character.  There’s a reason I chose broadcasting and journalism.

You have such strong roots in Chicago. Have you ever felt the pull to return?

The Chicago I love is a place of the past. Mayor Richard Daley, the 1968 Democratic Convention, civil rights, Bobby Rush and the Chicago 7, Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam, Black on Black Love and Frankie Knuckles and the Warehouse, the University of Chicago, Hyde Park and Lincoln Park and Rogers Park, Neo and Coconuts and the Octagon, Carol’s Speakeasy, Max Robinson and Fahey Flynn, Harold Washington and Eugene Sawyer. My dad. I miss that Chicago. But you can’t go back to the past.

Do you still love New Mexico?

I adore New Mexico. When they call it the Land of Enchantment, it’s not a joke. It’s intoxicating. Purple sunsets and Pinon in the air. Amazingly clear, blue skies. Hikes on Old Taos Road. Posole and tamales and tapas. Marcy Street art galleries and shops. Spas and massages. Zorongo! Amazing people and artists. I miss it when I’m not there. It is a very special place for me. I started going there about 12 years ago, before a lot of people caught on, but people are starting to find it. I love the desert and mountains.