Shaping the local art scene: Sarah Howard of USF CAM in Tampa4th of 5 in a series about local curators

Artists play a key role in shaping communities and our choices about where we choose to live, work, play, and stay. But do we fully appreciate the role of the curators, the designers working behind the scenes to display artwork in local museums? Here is the fourth of five stories about local curators who demonstrate remarkable thoughtfulness, energy, and vision in how we view and react to what we see.
4th in a 5-part series.

There’s something about the University of South Florida that inspires community and socially engaged projects. Just as USF alumni Amanda Poss -- who was featured earlier in this series -- is pushing efforts to create a radically inclusive cross-campus exhibition schedule at Hillsborough Community College, Sarah Howard aims to do the same, but right at her alma mater of USF.
“I think art has many purposes, especially after seeing what we’ve been going through with COVID. It’s beyond just a form of expression; it’s a powerful form to communicate tough ideas by tapping into emotional ways of experiencing the world. It also brings people together to create shared experiences and memories. Public space and art are signifiers of where we are, it shows our values as a society, and documents and reflects our contemporary culture,” says Howard, Curator of Public Art and Social Practice at USF Contemporary Art Museum.
Like Poss, Howard is interested in expanding the museum beyond the gallery walls by working in the community. One of the first projects that Howard worked on that was very community-activated was Pedro Reyes’ Amendment to the Amendment/(Under)stand Your Ground, where guns had been disassembled and reassembled into musical instruments. As part of the 2014 museum exhibition, there was a public participatory project where partakers were asked to consider a revision or amend the 2nd Amendment that sparked conversations about gun control.
The Amendment to the Amendment exhibition led Howard to her most favorite and ambitious curatorial endeavor from 2016: The Music Box project. Instead of just being a solo-artist creation, The Music Box: Tampa Bay was a collaborative artwork brought together with the help of an NEA grant to bring New Orleans Airlift (an artist-driven nonprofit whose goal is to produce innovative and exciting community artworks), national, and local artists (like Janine Awai, Devon Brady, Michael LeMieux, and Tory Tepp[SH1] ) in to Tampa to work together. This project combines the musical with the architectural in an artist-made environment in nature to spark wonder and awe in visitors.
Little “houses” were built on different sites, each embedded with construction that allowed for parts of it to be played like moveable floorboards that were amplified for sound, or windows and doors that resonate when moved. Once finished, these musical structures created a performance space accessible for experimental, open play not only for artists and musicians to perform, but also for the public.
“The Music Box Project was really eye-opening for us about how an institution like the CAM could go outside of their building and do something that brought many aspects of the community, whether artists or community members, together to produce something that everyone could interact with,” says Gianna Redina-Gobioff of the Gobioff Foundation, whose mission is to support the arts in Tampa. 
Gianna noted that this project was also a landmark for her and her husband Neil Gobioff in their grant-giving as well, bringing them down the path of creative placemaking and funding for projects that were more likely to get that community involvement, particularly with their Treasure Tampa (T²) Grant.
“With Sarah, she’s always going to conferences and learning more about the potential for breaking the boundaries and doing projects that garner community involvement and get people thinking about current social issues. I just really love how she is always evolving with her work, and always on top of what issues are at the heart of the community,” Gobioff says. “That ongoing professional development is in her soul, you can tell she is passionate about it.”
Another big project Howard took on is expanding USF CAM’s Public Art Program by developing their free Public Art Walking Tours to allow for the USF public art collection to be more accessible and engage the broader community. A detailed map was developed as a nice give-away to be left at hotels and other venues to highlight and elevate part of their permanent collection.
“Accessibility is at forefront of my thinking. I’m also interested in environmental issues, especially as climate crisis feels more and more important every day,” Howard explains. “I look at my role as providing artists a platform, but I think my [curation] style is to prompt a sense of discovery in viewers.”
As Howard continues to advocate for local artists and bring in inspiring works for the community that are in line with environmental and social justice issues, she hopes to elevate Tampa’s art scene even more by contributing to USFCAM’s ambitions to develop [SH2] a contemporary art triennial exhibition similar to the Prospect New Orleans model, partnering with other regional institutions to showcase works focused on the Gulf south that would be located in different sites all around the community.
“Being a female and an activist gives Sarah the strength and determination to do things that are outside of the box and impact the community,” Gobioff says. “Not only does she have a passion for equity and social justice, Sarah is also creating experiences that are deeper and beyond traditional art experiences of looking at art.”
To find out more about projects Sarah Howard has been involved with, see the links and videos below: To read about the other curators in this series, follow these links:
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Read more articles by Caitlin Albritton.

Caitlin Albritton is a freelance writer based in Tampa with a BFA from Savannah College of Art and Design and a MFA from Maryland Institute College of Art. When she's not looking at art throughout town, she can be found making it. You can keep up with her visual art on Instagram @caitlinalbritton or on her website. Visit her recent line of inlay “wearable paintings.”