Robyne Robinson is a Twin Cities icon and a force to be reckoned with. She came to Minneapolis in 1990 for a job at then-independent KMSP (now Fox 9), becoming Minnesota’s first Black prime-time news anchor. Since leaving the network 20 years later, she has pursued her passion for the arts, curating at her award-winning contemporary art gallery, founding her jewelry line, Rox, and most recently bringing art to the MSP Airport as its art director. Today, she splits her time between Minneapolis and Carlsbad, California, spearheading arts efforts in both communities with her consulting firm, fiveXfive. We chatted with Robinson about her favorite moments from her storied career, her friendship with Prince and why she thinks art is vital in our lives now more than ever.
Why is art so vital right now?
I’d challenge that question by saying art is always a vital part of our lives. It has increased importance now more than ever before because it’s one of the few ways we still actually communicate with one another. The Internet, despite its ability to rapidly disseminate information, has actually limited our ability to communicate. We’ve stopped talking to each other and have started pontificating to anyone who will agree with our exact beliefs. Art is open to the viewer’s interpretation, but it communicates a message. I believe a lot of what is being created now is relevant to what we’re experiencing, and many people are gravitating toward it because they can relate to the messages artists are delivering. Art evokes a response from people.
For several years, you helped beautify the MSP Airport. Why was that important to you?
It is beautification, but more importantly I feel the work I did at MSP helped to lay the foundation of Minnesota’s history and legacy. The airport is a landmark and the gateway to the state’s art community and to the region. The arts are a record of who we are and an example of the richness of Minnesota’s culture. I wanted to brand our identity through the arts at the airport, so that everyone, workers and visitors alike, could spend 10 minutes walking through MSP taking in film, music, dance or visual arts — and in that length of time learn something new about Minnesota and share it. I truly hate the term “flyover,” because Minnesota is anything but that. We are truly the most brilliant flame in the star of the North.
Looking back on your ever-evolving career, what are some of your favorite moments?
I’m lucky to have many favorite moments in my career. I’ve met heads of state, gang leaders, Hall of Fame athletes and Hollywood superstars. Not all of them were favorites because they were happy moments but sometimes intense moments.
Here are a few: sitting in legendary broadcaster (and America’s first Black network news anchor) Max Robinson’s office and listening to his stories. Riding on the USS Coral Sea. Interviewing then-Governor Bill Clinton before he ran for president. Covering Naval homecomings at Atlantic Fleet Headquarters in Norfolk, Virginia. Working with singer Erykah Badu in Dallas before she became a star. Covering a Klan rally in Cumming, Georgia. Having drinks with John Waters in his bar in Baltimore. Doing an interview with Jimmy Jam on a roller coaster at Valleyfair. Having funk master George Clinton massage my feet during a TV interview. Tracking down a gay serial killer. Being mistaken for Halle Berry at the Spirit Awards in Los Angeles. Having my art gallery, flatland, featured in ArtNews and Juxtapoz, two bibles of the art world. Having my Rox Jewelry line on the runway at New York Fashion Week. Lizzo shooting a TV pilot in my living room. Running for lieutenant governor. Getting MSP airport named one of the 12 most beautiful terminals in the world by travel writers. Being inducted into the Minnesota Broadcasting Hall of Fame. And of course, any and all things Prince.
Speaking of Prince, you scored coveted interviews with the iconic musician and the two of you grew to be friends. Can you talk more about that?
I’m always cautious about talking about Prince because those memories are really special. He didn’t like media, but I think he knew he could trust me because numerous people who worked for him trusted me. It was when I did a feature on Mayte that he began to personally trust me. He also knew I didn’t sugar coat anything; I said exactly what I thought to him when many people just told him what he wanted to hear. He did some amazingly sensitive and lovely things, some maddening things, and some things that were just out and out funny.
There will never be another Prince. He was genius that we could touch in our lifetime. A true son of Minnesota. His musical legacy will touch generations to come. I’m forever grateful for the impact he made on me. I wouldn’t have had as successful of a career if it weren’t for him. He was incredibly generous to me, and for that, I’m thankful.
What was it like for you to witness George Floyd’s killing and the ensuing uprising in your former hometown?
Well, it wasn’t surprising. Minneapolis Police have had a contentious relationship with communities of color for the 30 years I lived there. When the Justice Department investigates the MPD three times for fatal shootings of unarmed people of color, you’ve got a problem that seemingly went unabated. What was surprising was the level of fury resulting from a perfect storm of circumstances: fed-up quarantined people boxed in with no jobs, an unforeseeable future, and an 8:46 video that let the world witness what a quarter of the Minneapolis population already knew.
I’m still not convinced much of the damage done was by people in the Twin Cities. I was stuck in California because of the coronavirus outbreak and watched it all unfold. I threw up twice. I was heartbroken. But then the reporter kicked in, and I started reacting to messages and pictures of Minnesotans coming together and cleaning up and painting art and messages of hope on boarded-up storefronts. People were asking what was to happen to all this artwork. It was also remarkably 50 years after the Detroit uprisings and the creation of the Black Arts Movement.
So I convened a Zoom discussion on the protest murals, the Black Arts Movement, commodification and appropriation of Black art, and more. More than 700 people registered, and 450 people from Los Angeles to New York City attended, including the Smithsonian. Since then, the video has become required viewing for Minnesota Historical Society staff and University of St. Thomas classroom curriculum. That Zoom conference has spawned many new projects for fiveXfive consulting. So I didn’t just sit and watch from California. I wanted to be involved. I wanted to aid conversations and solutions and ideas. I’ll always want to be a part of Minnesota.
How do you think a pandemic and civil unrest will affect the art that’s being created now and in the future?
The pandemic will change how art is presented in the future. Small galleries may become extinct, but performance art will evolve in new ways that focus solely on creative problem solving for public spaces. There are people who like the new online genre of visual art exhibitions because, as one woman put it, the raw, experimental presentations reminded her of New York City in the eighties.
The protests will speed up a more intentional reaction by major art institutions to showcase BIPOC artists and art administrators — more decision makers, new departments focused on contemporary African art and American artists of color, and the like. But most importantly, the institutions will be held to working in and with the communities they are embedded in, which are usually low-income communities and communities of color. In our current climate, right here in the Twin Cities, the art and the decisions made in the art community will effect global change. That’s remarkable, isn’t it?
Where do you draw inspiration from for your jewelry line, Rox?
I began making jewelry as a kid because of my very creative mother, who was part teacher, part psychologist and part economist. She couldn’t afford many of the things our private school demanded, like party gifts for everyone in my class. She always wanted us to fit in, even though we weren’t rich. So we’d make art as gifts for friends. I liked making jewelry. So as an adult, I made gifts for friends and occasionally carried it in my art gallery.
It was when I was in Greece and a woman bought the bracelet off my wrist in a cafe that I started making jewelry professionally. Greece was the inspiration. I started going to museums dedicated to jewelry design and studying gemstone properties, rhythms and patterns, history, and culture, and discovered I gravitated toward designs and materials from the Mediterranean, Central Asia, the U.S. Southwest and various countries in North, West and East Africa. I met a woman from South Africa, and we started working with a nonprofit group of Ndebele women in Soshanguve who made beautiful beaded and dyed gift bags for me. I loved living in Greece; it was mind-expanding. I feel the same way about the Southwest. There’s something very different in the air and the sky that makes you create and expand your consciousness.
What projects are you currently working on that you’re most excited about?
I want to do for Carlsbad what I was able to establish in Minnesota: expanding the idea of what public art can be. We have a rare opportunity right now to throw out old paradigms and create new ways of collaborating in art, presenting art and making art happen, in spite of the circumstances. Letting people see the value of art in their environment. Creating a buzz for new projects, new possibilities for artists. In short, making Carlsbad an arts incubator: having artists come to Carlsbad to test new material before bringing it to a national or global audience. I can’t think of better artists to participate in this incubator than Minnesota artists. Making a pipeline for Minnesotans to come to Southern California, and vice versa. Minnesota is the place where they staged the Lion King before it went to Broadway, so the template can have many applications in many places.
In Carlsbad, I’m just starting work on a 43-acre veterans memorial park. The public art vision aligns with that of parks for a very environmental approach to the design, where people can go for reflection, inspiration and meditation. The memorial in today’s world honors all people affected by war — the veteran, the activist, the victim — without clunky or possibly offensive monuments. It should be a productive, sustainable use of the land. I would love to have an artist with architectural and environmental sensibilities on the project, like Maya Lin.
In Minneapolis, I’m starting a project to work with local artists, art and STEM students, city leaders, and businesses to create murals on many of the basketball courts in neighborhoods that need park revitalization. It’s part of the NPP20 plan to bring equity to community parks. The first target is Phelps Park, the community park nearest to the epicenter of the George Floyd killing. Minneapolis parks are consistently ranked No. 1 by the Trust for Public Land, and they’d like to keep that ranking, so this is a project they are encouraging with support from local businesses.
And a fiveXfive consulting project that took 2+ years to complete was recently unveiled at the MSP airport: the Valet Lounge, which was a concept of creating the illusion of walking into the Boundary Waters or Gooseberry Falls. It pulls the focus of the beautiful murals by Carey Dean from deep with the restroom hallway out into the lounge lobby. I’m very proud to have collaborated with Carey, the MSP airport and Alliiance architects on this project.