Fresh off a more-than-successful career  in advertising up in New York City, Sam Alfstad came to Sarasota in 2012, having sold his business and semi-retired, but with entrepreneurial dreams of artistic abundance. Setting up shop in the Rosemary District—presciently pre-revitalization—the next six years saw the relative newcomer investing heavily in his newfound home, opening avant-garde galleries, assisting Sarasota Contemporary Dance through a triumphant rebrand and relocation, and spearheading unprecedented public art partnerships. The commitment continues today with Alfstad& Editions, a new printshop and community art-space in the heart of the Rosemary. Fruitful if not lucrative—but always interesting—the course of true love never did run smooth.

What was your initial impression of Sarasota?   Like a lot of people that were new to Sarasota—a lot of arts and culture organizations for a small town. You think, “Wow. People are supporting art. It would be a great place to open a gallery.” I wasn’t quite ready to retire. I’ve always been interested in the arts, and so I thought, I’ll just start a gallery. Pretty naïve thought.

Why a gallery and not a private collection?   I thought it would be fun. I care about art and I enjoy meeting new artists, getting to know them and helping their careers. That’s something I will always take away from what I’ve done. I met the local artists here—Andrea Dasha Reich and Mike Solomon, Michael Wyshock and Jorge Blanco. I also met artists from all around the world. Hans Weigand, I went out to Vienna to meet him and bring him here to do a show. Anne Patterson is from New York. And I consider them friends, and I want to support them. 

How did you prepare?    I talked to Allyn Gallup. I talked to Kevin Dean at Ringling College. I talked to a lot of people who knew a lot about Sarasota and its history with art. I talked to Mike Solomon, going back to his father, Syd Solomon, and all the abstract expressionists. Artist after artist was here. John Chamberlain was here. It was on its way to becoming a real, secondary center to New York.

PHOTO BY WYATT KOSTYGAN.

Was The Ice House fun?     We had a lot of fun. Big space, big pieces, big shows. But you had to have big art to fill those walls, so it was expensive. And you had to have a big show; that was expensive. There was no way it was economically feasible. A lot of fun, and a lot of big shows—and it certainly made a splash in Sarasota—but at the end of the year, I said, “This isn’t the way to do it. Let me figure it out.” 

How did you approach Alfstad& Contemporary differently?    We could still do the things we were trying to do, which was bring contemporary art from around the world and give contemporary artists here a place to show. But it had a much bigger front space and would be smaller than what we were doing. We could concentrate on smaller shows, smaller pieces—really get into it—and maybe it would be more economical.

Was selling the point? The Zimoun installation, for example, literally could not be sold.   Well, selling certainly wasn’t my forte. We were having great shows. People were coming. Big opening nights, people were always raving about it. The media here was very good to us. We were a lot of fun to write about and come look at. But we weren’t so good at the sales part.

What’s the vision behind Alfstad& Editions?   It’ll swing more into education, with classes, and Chris Schumaker being able to pass on what he knows. And giving people, either well known artists who need the equipment or amateurs who want to exercise their artistic abilities in new ways, a place for them to come and do that. This will be a place for artists of all levels to come and really exist, and learn, and talk—more of a community organization. People can come and sit on the couch, talk with each other and learn from each other, go downstairs and use the equipment, really make art. 

And you’re stepping back from the day-to-day?    Chris is taking over. Chris has been with me for the last five years—a graduate from Ringling, and print-master. We decided to scale back, that he could handle everything. He could introduce the printmaking classes. He’s always wanted to pass on what he does, and I’ve always been excited about printmaking, always liked the texture of it.

Why prints?   Prints are a way to appeal to the emerging collector. I’d always heard about emerging artists but, when you stop and think about it, there really are emerging collectors. Young people that don’t just want a poster on the wall anymore, but can’t really afford the higher prices of a painting or something like that. Prints are a great way for them to segue into the bigger art world. Art is going to influence their life.

Is that where your emphasis on public art comes from?    It’s been shown in city after city, in place after place in the world, art really brings in a lot of people. There is one heck of a lot of great art here, a lot of monumental art, and people maybe don’t know to look. A lot of it grew out of the Season of Sculpture. I’ve always had a fantasy of creating a website for Sarasota, highlighting where all the different pieces of public art are, what they are and where they came from. And making a little map, so people could go find it and explore the city that way. We’ve got a great monumental piece by Hans Van de Bovenkamp, Stella in the Wind, we’re trying to get seated here in Rosemary.

Do we have to rely on the city for monumental art?    Monumental art within the city has kind of been ceded over to the city. People feel the city’s going to do that—and the city is doing a pretty good job. But, there are other ways for the city to show art and be involved with art. Whether it’s murals, which is starting to happen here in the Rosemary, or monumental art. If we could get the backing to bring the Season of Sculpture back, that would be great. The fact that that isn’t happening right now is a shame. But a lot of people have to stand up. It could make a big difference in the economy.

How do we amass that support?    Sarasota is known as a cultural place. A lot of people say it. But, Sarasota really needs to take that mantle and own it. We should be using marketing and communication tools to tell everybody else in the country, and Europe, and the world, that this is a cultural center. Right now, Sarasota’s in competition with every other city in Florida. A beach is a beach is a beach. I don’t care if Dr. Beach says you’re number one or number 15, a beach is a beach is a beach. How do you get those people that are coming for the warm water and the beaches to come to Sarasota instead of someplace else?

How do you?  A smart, well-shaped, strategic marketing plan, where you make Sarasota the capital of culture and cuisine in Florida, would be worth a billion dollars. A lot of people don’t realize how a marketing campaign works. It’s not just shooting what you want to say out to the world. It’s also telling the people that are inside the company, or, in this case, inside the city. That word of mouth is so much more powerful than anything you can put on TV or anything else. And it’s free. But we have to believe it. Everybody here in Sarasota has to know it and be selling the same story again and again and again. It’s better for the hotels. It’s better for the restaurants. Everybody profits from it, and that makes Sarasota grow.

What’s standing in the way?  We don’t have that unifying vision. But we’ve got the basis to start it with the great cultural institutions that are here. Sarasota can deliver like almost no place in Florida.  


Boaz Vaadia

Last May, Sarasota welcomed a grand new addition to its public art portfolio with Ba’al and Yizhaq, a monumental sculpture from the late Israeli-American artist Boaz Vaadia, who passed a year prior. Situated on Ringling Boulevard, just West of the Sabal Palm Bank building, the installation cost upwards of $200,000, and only came about by way of a novel collaboration between the City of Sarasota, developer Dr. Mark Kauffman and Alfstad, representing Alfstad& Contemporary. And while Alfstad hoped this tripartite agreement would set the stage for similar future partnerships between the City, developers and community-minded private businesses to bring international art to the area, meeting the artist provided its own indelible memories.

“I got to go to New York a couple times and meet Boaz. He has since passed away. Certainly, getting to know Boaz and spend time with him was great. I got to talk to one of the best sculptors in the world. At the end of his life, he was very philosophical about art, and very realistic about some of the difficulties about the art. It’s something—that time, those words—that I’ll always treasure. It was beautiful. He was a very special artist and a special human being.”