In Profile

Sam Alfstad

BY Sarah Schmerler, July 2, 2017

Alfstad& Contemporary is not your typical white box gallery – though it does have bright walls awash in Florida sunshine. Housed in a building that, 90 years ago, was the Ace Theater (the first movie theater open to black customers in Sarasota), it boasts three exhibition areas, a loft area, and a fully equipped printmaking studio manned by a master printer. All this accommodates the vision of former Madison Avenue advertising and marketing executive Sam Alfstad, who translated his considerable life experience into art dealing four years ago with a goal of innovating upon the old gallery model. “The first thing we moved into the space was a 44-inch Epson printer,” says Alfstad, “because having a studio makes our space not just another place to hang pictures, but an area where artists can congregate and talk and where ideas become real. And then emerging collectors, who can’t spend $5,000 on an artwork, can afford to take home a little piece of what they feel drawn to. When I retired I just knew there had to be a better way to mediate between art and the public. I also didn’t want to just kick back and relax. That would be a road to insanity.”

Alfstad, 71, was the eldest of three siblings in Wichita, Kansas, where his father and mother opened the storied Trig Ballroom – legends like Duke Ellington, the Dorsey Brothers, and Guy Lombardo would regularly perform when they came through town. The family moved to Boulder, Colorado, when he was 12, and he later attended the University of Colorado, Boulder, where he weathered the Vietnam War years working his way through school as a waiter. In his sophomore year he traded some belongings for an old Pentax camera and got hooked on the medium, working during the summers in California on movie production and assisting architectural photographer Herbert Bruce Cross.

In 1970, Alfstad graduated and started working in New York City in what would be his career for the next three decades: advertising. He began in the mail room at Will Graham in the Chrysler Building and eventually started his own firm with partner Peter Blank, the Alfstad Blank Group.  Just before the Internet boom hit, Alfstad put all of his efforts into a new project – eMarketer, which aggregated data across numerous platforms for corporate consumption. Alfstad, who had by this time traveled to fine art museums around the world and yet understood the cultural potential of small towns, was ready for his next chapter – fostering the careers of contemporary artists and photographers. He saw in Sarasota’s burgeoning Rosemary District the perfect place to begin. He opened a space, first as the IceHouse on 10th Street and later at his current location, favoring artists who embrace experimentation. His artists include Rob Tarbell, who makes large-scale portraits on paper out of smoke soot; Marsha Kazarinov-Owett, whose photographs are inspired by Action painting; and Sarasota-based Andrea Dasha Reich, who uses silicones and resins to create airy, malleable forms. “It would have been impossible to have created these works a short time ago,” says Alfstad. “Art is going to look very different in 25 years than it does now.”