A Conversation with Kathy Gibson, Art Advisor Extraordinaire
Katherine (Kathy) Gibson, a Florida native, feels a deep-rooted connection to the Sunshine State and the artists who inhabit it.
Born in Miami, she grew up in Lake Wales, has lived in Tampa and currently calls St. Petersburg home. Gibson has worked in various formal, corporate, and government positions, but sometime shortly after the new millennium, she decided to take a professional hiatus and figure out what she really wanted to do with her life.
After a friend suggested it, she began showing regional art in her home and inviting the public to engage with her in the space. This led to her developing an art consulting business called Arthouse3 and more opportunities to be involved with the Florida art world. From 2011 through 2014, Gibson served as the Gallery Director for the Dale Mabry campus of Hillsborough Community College (HCC) and re-branded it as Gallery221@HCC, where she doubled the exhibition space, established a permanent art collection and organized more than 30 exhibitions.
She took the time to chat with Creative Pinellas about her adventures in the local arts community over coffee last week, and gave some insightful answers to my questions. She is the type of person who will take the time to point out when a dog is passing by (so as to share the moment of cuteness), and radiates the creative energy that she is immersed in by talking in streams of passionate and genuine consciousness; the following is our conversation:
SK: Let’s start off simple: what is the 3 in Arthouse3?
Kathy: It represents the people I work with: artists, clients and institutions.
How do you describe what you do?
Well if I say art consultant, that’s not really something people understand, and probably I don’t really know either. Consultant was an easy word to use, but it’s a hard word to understand. When people ask me, I say that, but I’ve started of late to just say ‘I help people find art’ and now I’m using the words ‘Art Advisor.’ Maybe more people are comfortable with the word ‘advisor’ because that sounds financial for some reason…
How did you get into this?
I started doing it just for fun back in the early 2000s; I had a heavy corporate job with a lot of pressure, then left and I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. A friend suggested, ‘Well, why don’t you just have art in your house and invite people in?’ At first, I was really against it but decided to give it a try.
I was really interested in folk art then kind of started supporting more regional artists, and I had a job where I could buy artwork, so I bought some pieces and started having people come into my home. I found that people really liked coming into my home, seeing the artwork in the setting — they could see a crazy piece of artwork near a TV or next to a plant, and see that they too could have that, but if people saw it out on the road or in a gallery or in a studio, maybe they might think that they couldn’t make the connection. I think people liked coming into a home, I think they liked having it be informal, they liked seeing artwork in the home as I was living with it.
So I did a few more things like that and people started asking, ‘Can you come into my home?’ or ‘Can you help me fill this in?,’ and the ‘Can you’s’ started adding up, never enough to be crazy-lucrative, but when you do something you love, you get paid in other ways.
What’s your process for working as an Art Advisor?
Well, each situation is different, and needs to be addressed as such. I really make a point of going to the space, whether it’s a home or a gallery, and I talk with the clients to determine what they want and I start seeing things come together in my mind. Talking with the people and walking in the space helps me to figure out how they can co-exist, how the people can delight in the pieces.
Were people supportive of you for going into the arts, or not so much?
I don’t have a background for this, I kind of made up what I was doing and realized that I didn’t need permission from anyone to do this. My family wasn’t questioning me too much, I think I was just experimenting and I don’t think it was too noticeable that I was floundering. I’m still winging it.
I think I’m just getting clarity as I go. Sometimes I have to do something first before I realize what I’m actually doing, when I can put actions and intentions into words, but I’m not daunted by things being undefined. I find that creative people tend to be a lot more open to trying things because we have to try things in our work to have things be figured out, it doesn’t come to us all packaged up.
How does your background in psychology, not in the arts, influence or affect your work?
I think my background in psychology is always there and influences me all the time, especially working with clients and going into their homes. There’s a lot of observing that happens, which we learned a lot about in my studies, observing choices that they had made, the kind of emotions or attitudes we want the space to evoke, etc.
Are you an artist yourself?
No, but I’ve tried! I’ve had two experiences: the first is that I went out and bought a canvas, hung it on my wall, and I thought I would just get a spark and paint really quickly and create something wonderful. Maybe that’s how some people work but I think it requires more discipline than what I was offering the blank canvas at the time, so after several months I realized the spark wasn’t coming and I took it down. I also tried taking a watercolor class and grew frustrated with the detail and precision it demanded.
I think the kind of artistry I’m most attracted to is assembling things; you have to figure out the order of what’s going to make sense together, and I love that experience. I’m really interested in finding the relationship between the pieces, just like with people, and this relates to my background in psychology. It’s like a dinner party: if you’re setting the table for 12, there are going to be people that can’t sit next to each other and there are people who absolutely have to sit next to each other and there are going to be people who can talk to anybody, you can place them anywhere. I’m fascinated both by how objects relate and how people relate. I try to go below the surface with people and with art, I try to find the deeper, underlying connections that aren’t so obvious but that are so crucial and exciting. There are so many levels with art, there’s always something to explore or to find.
You were the gallery director of Gallery221@HCC from 2011-2014, tell me about that.
That was something I could not have predicted, and I was kind of hesitant about it because it had gone lying dormant for the previous six months, there wasn’t any signage to indicate where the gallery was, etc. It was also inspiring, I thought ‘alright, let’s whip this into shape’ and the Dean who oversaw it gave me the freedom to work how I wanted to work and that’s a great thing for me. I just asked the artists who I wanted to work with, and got to work with them, and it kind of is just that easy when you have a place and the support from the art community.
My dear friend Jose Gelets and I really liked the hospitality of it, we would make coffee and sangria, and just invite people to come in and look at the artwork. Hospitality, making the connections, the artworks and more all helped me realize how much I love curating. Curating, for me, is the soup-to-nuts definition – it’s being able to choose everything: the artist(s), the artworks, the placement, everything. I like the physical work of installing, moving the pieces around, handling them, deciding where they go, etc.
So you left the gallery job in 2014 and went back to focusing on Arthouse3?
Well, sort of…I just don’t think I really know what I want to do. I’m a little bit of a nomad, so I left that job and wondered what I was going to do. I moved back to Lake Wales, where I grew up, and lived in my family’s old lake house for a few months before moving to St. Pete after house-sitting for a friend, so it still feels like a very new place to me but so many things are happening here.
Right now I’m working on a few different projects: I’m working with a designer, nothing art-related, but I’m working with a woman who’s a dear friend to help her rebrand her logo and foundation design and whatnot; I’m also working with a designer to help get a handful of graffiti-type artists to his clients; and I’m usually on-call for working with Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick.
How did you, an Art Advisor, get involved with a law firm?
I started working with the law group Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick in 2008 when they were expanding their practice and wanted to add to their art collection, so I went in and talked with them, made a proposal of sorts, and I’ve been working with them ever since! That year they wanted to acknowledge their collection and they wanted to be very deliberate in their collecting, and expanding into this wing was a great time to do that, so we went after some really wonderful pieces and amassed a mini-collection. There were seven people working with me on the art committee, and we collectively decided to stay with artists from Florida, keep it open to all mediums, and really not have too many limits. We add to it each year, and they are big supporters of the Gasparilla Arts Festival, so we go in each year and now there’s 13 people on the committee and we have more than 80 pieces we’ve collected from over the years. The firm is very supportive of the arts, and they were intentional in having this collection to show that.
How has the art world changed during your time being a part of it, and where do you see it going from here?
I don’t really know what I can say other than I feel and see and experience these layers and this overlap that is getting thicker, and I’m just trying to figure out what all of that means for being a creative person in this environment and figuring out how to stay involved but also how to support myself. I think art organizations are shifting to be more inclusive because they have to for their own survival, but there is still work to be done. It’s more about what makes sense and how to include more people, and how to not lose patrons and supporters of the arts.
St. Pete seems to be a lot more open to and supportive of creative people in general, there are so many creative thinkers here. There does seem to be a lack of buyers, though, which can be felt or experienced in any field (needing financial support) but it seems especially so for the arts community. I just feel like there are things at work that are trying to improve that, and the Skyway exhibition is a great example. That was such an ambitious project and, in my experience, museums normally tend to be kind of territorial but wow! To see the Tampa Museum of Art, the MFA in St. Petersburg, and the Ringling Museum pull off this incredible coordination of efforts in less than a year’s time is wonderful.
I’m not sure how it would come about, but I would really love to start an organization to support artists where it wasn’t really about buying the artwork, though that is the best way to support an artist (to buy their work directly), but I wish I could pay an artist what they are asking for their work, without having to own their work. It’s about the act of paying an artist, to show that they are supported.
What’s your advice for those wanting to pursue the arts? How can we get more involved?
The most important thing is just that: get involved. The biggest way you’ll meet people is to just show up to events and start talking with people. That’s how I’ve made so many connections and friends with artists and organizations, is just going up to the person and talking about the art that’s around us. If I’m going to an event in Tarpon Springs or in Tampa or wherever, I also do my best to make time to see things along the way. I think the most effective way to be in the ‘art world’ is to be in the art!