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Silhouettes Profiles Robin Nigh

Robin Nigh

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 13, 2017 edition of La Gaceta

By: Tiffany Razzano

As manager of the City of Tampa’s art programs, Robin Nigh has made a name for herself as a leader in the contemporary public art field. She’s been nationally recognized in the field for various programs she’s implemented, including the city’s Photographer Laureate Program and Lights On Tampa. Most recently, she was elected to the Americans for the Arts Public Art Network, which is the only national organization for public art.
A Florida native, Nigh’s father worked for Gulf Oil, so the family moved around the state. One constant in her early years was her love of art. “I was always interested in how things looked and why they looked the way they did,” she said.
By the time she reached high school, her family settled in Lake Worth. She decided to study art history after graduating, and headed to the University of Florida in Gainesville. She was accepted into Penn State University’s art history master’s program after earning her bachelor’s degree.
While there, she won a scholarship to study abroad at Britain’s Oxford University. This was a life-changing experience for the art history student. “That’s where things started to hit me,” she said. “Before, I could never decide what to study because it was all so interesting. But I discovered how cool it was to work with living artists.”
She began thinking more about “how things in the public realm take meaning” and “the integrity … of what people make in their own spaces.”
Nigh added, “It was formative for me and deeply meaningful. There were all these aha moments.”
This changed her entire course. Since Penn State didn’t focus much on contemporary art, she transferred to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and enrolled in the master’s program in art theory and criticism at the school.
She married while studying in Chicago. But after she earned her degree, she and her husband relocated to Florida to raise a family.
They landed in Tallahassee, where Nigh completed postgraduate studies at Florida State University and served as project administrator of FSU’s Art in State Buildings Program from 1994 to 1998.
The program, which was mandated by a Florida statute in the 1970s, acquires artwork for display at new public facilities throughout the state. A percentage of funds is set aside to purchase the artwork, Nigh said. She was charged with facilitating bringing artwork to FSU’s campus.
She enjoyed working under FSU president Sandy D’Alemberte, who was a proponent of the program. “He really understood the value of the arts and brought me up to the president’s office so he could be more engaged and understand the role of the program,” she said.
This role at FSU “was a precursor” to her work with the City of Tampa, she said. In 1999, Nigh was hired by the city as administrator of the Public Art Program.
She learned about the job opening because she happened to be in the right place at the right time, she said. “Talk about meant to be.”
She was delivering something to the dean of her department at FSU when someone handed her the job announcement for Tampa’s Public Art Program. Intrigued, she applied. Her husband, a real estate developer, was also looking for a new job at the time. “We both received job offers [in Tampa] on the same day,” she said.
When Nigh arrived in Tampa, the Public Art Program had just moved into the old Tampa Museum of Art. “As closely as we work hand-in-hand with the Tampa Museum, this position doesn’t really belong there,” she said. “It really needs to be immersed in local government in order to coordinate these programs.”
As the museum made moves to establish itself as an independent museum and embarked on plans to build a new facility, the city established the Department of Arts and Cultural Affairs. So Nigh and the Public Art Program moved out of the museum.
The program involves local artists with various public projects throughout the city. The goal is to do more than merely enhance city-owned spaces, though, stated Nigh, who is now manager of art programs. Its purpose is really to celebrate Tampa’s character and culture. “In many ways, it’s a storytelling role,” she said. “Our role is to listen, to engage and to hopefully make people feel something about some of the [public] spaces they’re in.”
She considers herself “a facilitator or a translator,” bridging the gap between the city and the artists. “Artists have unique needs and requirements, how artists work and function is very different [from city government]. Our role is to facilitate and coordinate and translate all these kinds of things that aren’t necessarily, by their nature, constructed for the government process.”
Two projects she spearheaded – the Photographer Laureate Program and Lights On Tampa – were recognized by Americans for the Arts. In fact, the group named Lights On Tampa one of the 50 most influential art programs in the last 50 years.
Lights On Tampa is a public-private partnership between the city and the Public Art Alliance that focuses on innovative and interactive public art experiences. Since its launch in 2006, the light installation returned in 2009 for Super Bowl XLIII, 2011 at the new Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park, 2012 for the Republican National Convention and 2015 for Gasparilla Arts Month. “These temporary installations were experimental and cutting edge,” Nigh said. “It was exciting to see some of the wow factor in our public spaces.”
The Photographer Laureate Program has also been recognized as one of the first in the field, she said. Inspired by the Burgert Bros. Photographic Collection, which recorded the growth of the Tampa Bay area from the late 1800s to the early 1960s, this program commissions photographers to preserve Tampa’s contemporary history from their perspective. “Nobody was documenting that kind of history, and that was the intent of it,” Nigh explained.
Both projects remain relevant and important to the city’s Public Art Program, she said. They’re being updated and tweaked to meet the city’s current needs and adapt to new technology.
But the department is always working on a number of projects with various artists, she said. Recently, as part of another public-private partnership, the city has released a coloring book called “Color Me West Tampa.” Its counterpart, “Color Me Tampa,” was released years ago under then-Mayor Pam Iorio’s watch. Nigh and her team worked closely with the Mayor’s Hispanic Advisory Council, the Tampa Bay History Center and the city’s archives department.
An ongoing project is the public art being created for the renovation of the 23-acre Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park. “We have some artists doing mosaics and I really think it’s very thoughtful and contextual, things that will work very well with the park and work well with West Tampa,” she said.
Nigh stresses that the projects her team works on “aren’t cookie-cutter kinds of things that you just stick on a plaza.” They work with artists in a variety of mediums and determine unique ways to provide public access to these pieces of art.
The city has even commissioned artists to create animations about a variety of topics, from environmental issues to the Hillsborough River. Though they’re not found in a public space, they can be viewed online and on city television.
The artwork created through the programs her department oversees helps Tampa carve out its own unique identity, especially as neighboring St. Petersburg makes a mark on the international art community with the colorful murals that adorn many privately and publicly owned buildings. “What St. Pete is doing is great, but we don’t need to copy them,” Nigh said. “It’s a very different type of downtown. If we did what they did, it wouldn’t be successful here. At the same time, they don’t have the kind of public art that we have in our spaces.”
Instead, the art that nigh and her team brings to the city’s public spaces meshes well with Tampa’s character and history, she explained. The goal is to improve “quality of life for residents” by tailoring the artwork commissioned to meet not only their needs, but the aesthetics of specific spaces.
She added, “It’s hard to measure why people like being in particular spaces. So I think looking at those reasons and understanding who we’re out there working for is just really critical.”

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