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Breaking the Ice

After a closing the unwieldy yet creative hub of the Ice House last year, founder and art lover Sam Alfstad is looking to change the art to consumer dynamic

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  • | 9:15 a.m. June 21, 2015
Sam Alfstad in his new gallery goes the extra mile to fit artists' work, big or small, into his gallery
Sam Alfstad in his new gallery goes the extra mile to fit artists' work, big or small, into his gallery
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It’s 9 o’clock at night — Sam Alfstad's favorite part of the day. As the restaurants in the Rosemary District are in the middle of the dinner rush, Alfstad’s gallery is closing for the night. After guests and possible buyers file out of the gallery, the owner is left with the art. In the meditative silence, he thinks about his mistakes, his present show and the future. More importantly, Alfstad is trying to figure out his ultimate puzzle: changing the relationship between artists and consumers.

This last year has been a year full of reflection for Alfstaft and his staff at the contemporary art gallery, which lies on the other side of Fruitville Road, away from the collection of galleries on Palm Avenue. Nestled in a bright and inviting gallery space off the corner of Fifth Street and Central Avenue, the Alfstad& Contemporary is the result of more than a year of risk, experimentation and regrouping with Alfstad’s previous visual art venture: the Ice House. What started as a pop-up gallery in 2013 turned into an expansive art show space inside the old 10th Street ice house building. Simply titled the Ice House, Alfstad and his staff converted the space into an unique fusion of gallery, museum, performance space and hang out for Sarasota’s vibrant population of artists and art connoisseurs. The maiden exhibition was a tribute to influential husband and wife Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keefe. Alfstad recruited approximately 20 different artists to create Stieglitz- and O’Keefe-inspired works.

“I feel that creativity isn’t this genius type of creation where you wake up one morning and you have this magically great idea,” says Alfstad. “I’ve always thought it was putting together things from your life and combining them.”

According to Alfstad everyone in the arts community loved the space and the show but one thing the art-lover didn’t expect: The space was too big for his dreams. The Ice House closed in May 2014 after a few months of operation due to labor, capital and the demanding size of the 8,900-square-foot building.

“The facility, management and size of it just sucked us up,” says Alfstad. “We were working 14 hours a day. The labor and capital required was way over the top. It was a lot of fun and had some great show, and I decided I don’t want to do this another year. It’s churning up too much time and money. We retreated from the space.”

However, the former New York City ad man couldn't sit still for long. Alfstad, 69, comes by his determination to succeed naturally. He attended his hometown college of the University of Colorado Boulder and majored in psychology and triple minored in English, literature and fine arts. After graduation he moved to New York City with a naive boldness and determination to find work in the film industry or advertising. And like a scene from some big city morality tale, Alfstad found his way into the ad industry by starting at the very bottom: the mailroom of a small firm on the 64th floor of the Chrysler Building.

“I stayed in advertising and became a copywriter, a group head, a creative director and senior vice president at firms around Manhattan like Luarence, Charles and Free, Esty and D’Arcy," Alfstad says.

 For the first two decades of his career, Alfstad contributed to campaigns for Colgate toothpaste, the U.S. Air Force, Air France, Pfizer and Mars Candy and M&M’s. Alfstad contributed to America’s candy culture by helping introduce the Marathon candy bar, Twix and Skittles into the nation’s sweet tooth consciousness. Each ad campaign or product reserved Alfstad’s tireless energy.

“If we needed to work through the night, we worked through the night,” says Alfstad. “No one ever questioned it or said it was a little rough. It was a can-do attitude and frustration with limitation is something I don’t like. We’ll figure it out.”

Art lovers enjoying Mike Solomon's wave and ocean inspired work.
Art lovers enjoying Mike Solomon's wave and ocean inspired work.
 A complex featured in a retrospective on the late local artist and professor Kevin Dean.
A complex featured in a retrospective on the late local artist and professor Kevin Dean.
A giant canvas piece by Michael Wyshock
A giant canvas piece by Michael Wyshock

Fittingly, Alfstad’s setbacks with the Ice House didn’t slow him down. In October, with the winter art season entering full swing, Alfsad was in his production office space on Fifth Street in the Rosemary District. He decided to take a Sunday stroll and noticed just a few doors down the street was the former home of a design firm. It had more office and gallery space than his current residence. He knew he found a new albeit fittingly smaller space to break the gallery mold.

“We want to be a little iconoclastic,” says Alfstad. “I just feel the gallery market isn’t quite right for galleries or artists, who aren’t making nearly enough money, and I’m trying to make a new model for galleries that works a little bit better.”

Alfstad is on a personal odyssey to reinvent the concept of the art gallery — no longer just a place for artists to display their work. In the gallery's short six-month mini-season, Alfstad has presented radically different shows of sculpture, paintings, short films and mixed-media exhibits from local, regional and internationally renowned artists. Oftentimes the shows include custom prints created by artists specifically for the show. His gallery is not only a haven for the art community but a space for artists to create onsite works. 

“We started off a little behind because of moving into the new space in October,” says Alfstad, “but now after two years of running behind, we’ve had fun and have had good shows. I want to the get the website right. I want to start exploring art fairs and, most of all, make a gallery that’s working for the artists really well.”

Alfstad’s office wall is lined with a calendar for the entirety of next year. It’s filled with multi-colored neon lines and various notations all indicating future shows and artists he’s programming. The playbook for Alfstad’s artistic future.

“It’s not about what I have to say but what I have to learn,” says Alfstad. “I always loved learning, and you should learn something every day. If you don’t, you’re dying a little a bit each day. I’ve never passed myself off as an art expert. I’ve never tried to be the smartest guy in the room. I’ve just never been afraid to ask questions. I enjoy learning. I enjoy pressing. I have a whole lot to learn here about Sarasota, art, fairs and pressing. We have a lot to learn.”


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