Bob Kirschbaum was always more of a sports person.
Growing up on a farm in southwest Iowa he dreamed of making it to the professional ranks of Major League Baseball.
And while he did eventually earn an athletic scholarship to Morningside College in Sioux City where he became captain of the baseball team, the big league dream wasn’t meant to be.
Kirschbaum would go on instead to pursue a career in education after earning his degree in elementary education followed by a master’s degree in educational administration from Drake University in Des Moines.
His postings as an administrator over the course of 32 years would take him to districts including, but not limited to, Lawton-Bronson, Logan-Magnolia, Sheldon and Spencer.
Sports remained central as he also coached several sports like track, basketball and baseball in addition to his administrative duties.
It was during this time that Kirschbaum’s appreciation for the arts truly grew.
“You know, when I first went to Morningside they were strong in theater and arts, but I didn’t really attend those events,” Kirschbaum said. “Fortunately I’m an overachiever and I married up and my wife was much more well-rounded than I was. And when I started coaching I thought I should really support my athletes in their other events. Well, it turned out my best athletes were also in band, theater and swing choir and so when we started raising our family we made sure all of our kids were well-rounded in all sorts of activities. I really believe the arts are so important for a community.”
Kirschbaum wouldn’t become directly involved in the arts for a little while yet.
After more than three decades in education, he took a position with the American Red Cross, working out of Sioux City and then Dubuque for a total of nine years.
A speaking engagement in Okoboji toward the end of those years ultimately led to his current position at the helm of the Pearson Lakes Art Center.
“I happened to be invited to speak to a Kiwanis group at Arrowwood and mentioned during the talk that I was looking to get back to the area full-time,” Kirschbaum said.
A couple board members just so happened to be in the audience that day and approached Kirschbaum about the possibility of filling a vacancy at the facility.
One month later he was the art center’s new executive director, a position he’s enjoyed for the past six years.
“After talking with the board I felt my skill set and the needs of the art center really worked well together and I was excited to take the position. It’s truly been a blessing. I have always loved working with people. During my career in education I also coached and even in my role as principal felt that I was still a coach and the staff was my team,” Kirschbaum said. “It was the same way with the Red Cross and coming here I felt the same kind of opportunity. I work with a staff that is just outstanding.”
He credited his upbringing for his approach to any professional position he’s held.
“My parents ran a small business in a small town and it was always about supporting the community and working together and that’s kind of the philosophy I’ve brought to all the positions I’ve had — that it takes everyone working together,” Kirschbaum said. “I see that no differently here in Okoboji.”
During his tenure so far there have been numerous changes, improvements and renovations both at the art center and in the Iowa Great Lakes as a whole.
The sound and video system in the art center’s Lauridsen Performing Arts Theater have been recently overhauled and the acoustics continue to undergo improvements.
On the lower level major renovations will unveil a new teaching kitchen that will allow for an exponentially larger variety of culinary arts classes and is expected to be completed by Memorial Day weekend.
“It’s really an exciting time to be part of the Pearson Lakes Art Center and it’s really a pleasure to be part of the leadership in the Lakes area. I really enjoy working with all the other directors and we really try to work together for the good of the community,” Kirschbaum said. “I think if somebody were to drop out of the sky, land here and ask if this was heaven, we’d say no, this is Okoboj. It’s just such a positive place to be.”
That positivity comes not only from a fantastic staff and great community, but also a wonderfully supportive board and generous benefactors.
“One of our big goals to begin with is to make this the most welcoming place in the community. That’s why we have Kindermusik here and work with other organizations to host events here. Once we get people in the door we know they will want to come back,” Kirschbaum said. “And none of this would be possible without a lot of generous people — our donors and supporters make this place possible.”
It’s a place Kirschbaum considers the cultural hub of northwest Iowa and he’s committed to the responsibility of keeping that legacy going and improving upon it.
“It’s invigorating and energizing knowing you’re working with people trying to do the best for the community. We have a very supportive, fantastic Board of Directors and they all want to make improvements,” Kirschbaum said. “You’ve got to have a reason to get up every day and I can’t think of a better place to be.”
Perhaps that’s the reason retirement isn’t a question the 70-year-old has seriously pondered yet.
“At this point in time I have no desire to retire,” Kirschbaum said. “I love coming to work every day. I love the job and people I work with and I get to be involved with all the great entertainment, the great artists and all the people that visit here.”
That includes people from all those school districts along his career path to the art center.
“Someone from Dunlap, or Sheldon, or somewhere will stop and say, Hey Mr. K! Remember me? So many positive memories and I wouldn’t have the opportunity to run into those people again if I weren’t here in Okoboji,” Kirschbaum said.
They’ll certainly keep coming back as the art center continues to book a full slate of performing arts entertainment, a diverse and well-rounded calendar of art exhibits, an expansive variety of educational opportunities for all ages and improvements big and small throughout the facility.
Changes and improvements to the hands-on ArtSmart room will continue to improve that asset, while the exterior will get attention as well with plans to expand the trail system, install pollinator-friendly plants and perhaps add more sculptures.
“Down the road we just want to make everything better,” Kirschbaum said. “We want to help beautify the area for our visitors and our local residents to take advantage of 12 months a year.”
He’s also sure there are plenty of folks out there like him who he hopes come to see all the benefits the arts have to offer.
“There are a lot of ‘Bobs’ out there and we offer a lot of opportunities for adults and it’s just a great place to bring your kids to. We have the all-school show coming up and these kids will be bringing their families, parents and grandparents to see their artwork displayed right next to world class art and that’s why I believe the art center helps the community be more well-rounded,” Kirschbaum said. “It brings more depth and breadth to the community.
He refers back to his sports roots when describing his passion and effectiveness in promoting the arts.
“People ask me how I can promote the arts with my background and I say the best managers in baseball weren’t the stars of the team. They had to work hard just to be a bench player,” Kirschbaum said. “Well, here, my background isn’t in art, but nobody believes in art more and in it’s importance to being a well-rounded person and community, so it’s really easy for me to go out and promote.”
And he does so with a strong team of family, friends, staff, donors and board members striving for the same goals.
“I’ve been blessed. When I was a coach I had great kids and as a principal and at the Red Cross, I always worked with great people. My family has always been fantastic and supportive,” Kirschbaum said. “It’s the same here. I’ve just been truly blessed and I’m very appreciative of the opportunities here in Okoboji.”