People who work in the arts have always talked about Miami’s youth as a defining factor. Our arts groups are young, our audiences still learning to love theaters and museums, our donors still learning how to give. Our cultural immaturity is both an excuse for our shortcomings and a reason to cheer when we accomplish anything.
But we’re not quite so young anymore — more confident (if brash) young adult than eager adolescent. The New World School of the Arts, the New World Symphony and world-music presenter Rhythm Foundation all turn 25 this year, while Miami City Ballet celebrated a quarter century in 2011. The Art Center/South Florida on Lincoln Road opened in 1984, the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts launched in 1981, and, of course, Florida Grand Opera traces its roots to the 1940s.
The three most important local presenters of contemporary work, Tigertail Productions, a veteran at 32, the Miami Light Project, 24, and Miami Dade College’s MDC Live Arts, 22, have become cultural pillars. Even Locust Projects, the adventurous nonprofit gallery that pioneered the Wynwood visual arts scene, is turning 15.
These groups and others have provided a base for the cultural boom spurred by Art Basel Miami Beach, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Miami-Dade Cultural Affairs Council. That growth has been a major boost for the community — a study by Americans for the Arts found that the economic impact of arts and culture in Miami-Dade topped $1 billion in 2010, surpassed only by New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Philadelphia.
But the past decade has seen losses, too, from the Florida Philharmonic and Ballet Gamonet to the Coconut Grove Playhouse. And continuing economic uncertainty keeps arts groups locked in a wearying struggle for survival.
As Miami teeters between aspiration and achievement, it seems a good time to ask what the city needs to become the world-class cultural center it aspires to be.
Funding is always an issue, but the people we spoke to yearned for more intangible things: more leadership, business involvement, awareness of an already wide range of arts offerings, more focus on artistic substance and less on scene-driven excitement. And more bike paths and bus lines.
While the Miami-Dade Cultural Affairs Council has maintained funding and political support in an era of government cutbacks, few major corporations call Miami home, and so lack the hometown allegiance that leads to image-building donations.
“Cities where corporations are established or have the largest footprint are most engaged in cultural philanthropy,” says Thom Collins, director of the Miami Art Museum. And, he says, those that are here don’t match their financial investment with a cultural one. “Increasingly we have big banks, big developers, who see this community as the future, and they tend to be less engaged than they should be.”
That engagement doesn’t have to be financial, says Joseph Adler, producing artistic director of GableStage, who wishes companies would encourage employees to serve on boards or provide in-kind accounting, marketing or legal services. “We need more corporations to step up in any way,” Adler says. “It’s not just about money, it’s about the guidance and counsel they can provide.”
Others wish for an essential but elusive quality – enthusiasm.
“It hasn’t hit that groundswell of popular support,” says Kathryn Garcia, director of MDC Live Arts.
People often don’t realize how much art Miami has to offer, says Locust Projects director Chana Bugazad Sheldon, whose gallery presents artist and curator talks in addition to exhibits.
“It’s really about people embracing what we have here, more people coming out and taking advantage of what Miami has to offer,” Sheldon says. “Our budget has expanded so we can expand our programming, and we want people to take advantage of it.”
Some think a crucial factor in creating that popular groundswell is an alternative to Miami’s traffic and parking woes.
“Public transportation please!” says Hannah Baumgarten, co-director of modern dance troupe Dance Now! at the Little Haiti Cultural Center. “We’re starting to be a metropolitan city, but a lot of what happens is still in these far-reaching points.”
Baumgarten dreams of light rail lines from Midtown and the Adrienne Arsht Center to Miami Beach, trolleys on Northeast Second Avenue and transportation to bring suburban dwellers to cultural hubs.
Laura Quinlan, director of the Rhythm Foundation, wants more and safer bike paths. “If you work all day and drive home in traffic, you don’t really feel like going back out,” she says.
Jenni Person, executive director of the alt-Jewish cultural center Next@19th thinks a focus on festivals and trendy events has encouraged a view of art as a social-drinking opportunity rather than an essential, soul-nourishing experience.
“Substance is what’s missing,” Person says. “It’s been about creating the scene and being part of a scene.”
Writer and director Paul Tei, a co-founder of Mad Cat Theater who now lives in Los Angeles, wishes Miami theaters did more original work.
“We need our own identity,” Tei says. “What everyone in Miami has to do is break the mold. A lot of theater patrons think we should do whatever New York is doing.”
A critical missing piece, say Person, Collins and others, is more and better media coverage.
“There is relatively little serious, thoughtful arts journalism here,” says Collins, who adds that social media and online forums don’t fill the need. “That’s a problem. It could lead the uninitiated to think only the most visible things, like Art Basel, are happening.”
Miami’s cultural growth has been most visible in a building boom that includes downtown’s Arsht Center for the Performing Arts and the Miami Art Museum, slated to open in late 2013; the New World Center in Miami Beach and neighborhood facilities such as the Little Haiti Cultural Center and the South Miami-Dade and Aventura cultural arts centers.
Now the community needs more groups to fill those buildings. A first-rate regional theater company, for example, would not only draw audiences, but employ actors, directors, playwrights and lighting designers, keeping ambitious young theater grads from New World, UM and FIU from leaving.
“Other world-class cities have these institutions,” says Andrew Yeomanson, the musician known as DJ Le Spam. “We’re never going to be London. But you draw talent to your city when you have great institutions producing great work. For musicians, once you get to a certain level … you say, ‘I’ve done everything I can here, I’m going to New York or L.A.’ ”
Artists starting their careers also need studios where they can hone their craft, says choreographer Rosie Herrera.
“The biggest thing for me in Miami is a lack of focus on continued training,” Herrera says. Few places, for example, offer the daily technique classes dancers require. “Once people stop training they can become stifled and limited,” she says. “It’s a part of developing … not just physically, but spiritually and creatively.”
As far as we’ve come, we still have a ways to go, says Eric Fliss, general manager of the South Miami Dade Cultural Arts Center, who has worked in the arts here since 1985.
“Miami has been redefining itself for the past 20 years, from retirement to blighted to a hip city to a city now where people live, work and play,” Fliss says. “It takes some time to realize the depth.”
That Miami culture is still growing should not be discouraging, says Michael Spring, director of the county’s Department of Cultural Affairs, who admits to being “pathologically optimistic.”
“You can describe Miami as buoyantly on the rise, or you can look at all the things we don’t have because we’re still on the rise,” Spring says. “We haven’t arrived yet.”
Whatever that destination turns out to be, we take another step toward it this season.