ARTS

YoungArts founder Lin Arison’s New Life

 

The force behind Miami’s latest cultural coup has always shunned the spotlight. But for the moment, she’s happy to be there

hsampson@MiamiHerald.com

Lin Arison is happy.

She’s taking a visitor on a tour of her home library, accompanied by her little dog Fred, pointing out her favorite movies, describing a party she’ll host there for the young artists she adores and simply looking forward — to everything.

The next day, she would attend the rehearsal for the 25th season opening concert of the New World Symphony, which she and her late husband Ted co-founded in 1987 with conductor Michael Tilson Thomas. On Oct. 15, she will accept the arts education award from Americans for the Arts, a national advocacy group.

Then there is the brand new great-granddaughter to meet in Israel, the book she’s working on (her fourth) and the recently announced expansion of the National YoungArts Foundation — another organization she started with Ted — to the Bacardi Tower and Museum complex on Biscayne Boulevard.

She pauses as a thought strikes her: “Do you realize what a good life I’ve made for myself?”

Possibly no one is more surprised by this than Lin Arison herself, who said she crashed after her husband’s death in 1999 and “stayed crashed for a couple of years.”

“There was so much love between Ted and Lin,” said Miami auto dealer Norman Braman, a longtime friend of the couple. “When Ted died, it was devastating. She came out of that. No one expected her to; no one expected Lin Arison to build a life for herself.”

Except, said Braman, “I think maybe Ted did.”

Today, said Arison, 75, she believes she is carrying out the wishes of her husband — founder of Carnival Cruise Lines — while still living a full life.

“I finally am doing my own things; I’m making my own decisions,” she said. “Ted is with me. I know I’m doing the right thing.”

In the years after her husband’s death, the famously spotlight-averse Arison avoided Miami. This is where they had built a life before moving in 1990 to Israel, where Ted was born, and being here without him was too painful.

She took a trip to France in 2000 with her granddaughter Sarah, and then several more over the next few years. What she found on those trips turned into a book, Travels with Van Gogh and the Impressionists: Discovering the Connections, and also made her miss the students in YoungArts, who she said reminded her of the artists she was writing about.

“ ‘I feel strong enough now,’ ” she told herself. “ ‘I’m going to go back to Miami and reconnect with my artists.’ That was the beginning of my blind groping to figure out what I wanted to become.”

So she returned to Miami, where every year YoungArts brings about 150 youths who show artistic promise and pairs them with masters in their field.

Founded 31 years ago as the National Foundation for Advancement of the Arts, the organization announced earlier this week that it was buying the Bacardi property to use as its national headquarters.

The $10 million to buy the site came from the organization’s endowment, which Arison boosted in 2010 after selling two pieces of art — a Claude Monet waterlily painting and a portrait by Amedeo Modigliani, Jeanne Hebuterne Wearing a Hat — for $39 million at auction. She sold them anonymously (as usual), but The New York Times identified her as the seller.

“I decided that Monet and Modigliani would be very happy to pay it forward and to help young artists,” she said.

That belief extends to YoungArts mentors such as Edward Albee, Wynton Marsalis, Bobby McFerrin, Robert Redford, Julian Schnabel and many more. On Arison’s wish list: choreographer Julie Taymor and actress Tilda Swinton.

Architect Frank Gehry, who came to know Arison when he designed the New World Center in Miami Beach and has mentored students through YoungArts, will create a master plan for the campus that will include year-round programming.

“She has a dream and a mission and some resources to back it up — and put the three of those things together and it’s a force of nature,” Gehry said.

At a ceremony announcing the plan on Wednesday, Lin Arison stood in front of a bank of cameras — never her favorite place — and immediately shifted the focus.

“Ted is a source of everything that goes on,” she said. “I think it’s really important because he’s watching us, and so I’m telling everybody: It’s really him.”

She expects she’ll also deflect the spotlight later this month, when dancer and choreographer Mikhail Baryshnikov presents her with the arts education award from Americans for the Arts at a ceremony whose honorees include Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, artist James Rosenquist; baritone Brian Stokes Mitchell and singer and actor Josh Groban.

“Lin is a wonderful, fabulous person on so many fronts, but she’s not somebody who seeks the limelight at all,” said Robert L. Lynch, president and CEO of Americans for the Arts. “We needed to, um, coax her into understanding how important she is and deserving of this award.”

So she plans to take the opportunity to spread the word about the new teachers guide to go with episodes from the HBO program YoungArts MasterClass, which is being used in public schools in Miami, New York and Los Angeles. The goal is to get it in schools nationwide.

Publicity for her passions is fine. But Arison would be happier in the background.

“I think this is the first time in all of the years I’ve known her that I’m talking about her,” said Tilson Thomas, the New World Symphony’s artistic director. “Generally what Lin says is, ‘Oh no, don’t say anything about me, don’t mention me.’ ”

Although the Arisons have donated tens of millions of dollars to the organizations they founded (and more, anonymously, to other groups), their name does not grace any buildings in a city where naming rights are sold to art museums, science centers and performing arts institutions.

“It’s not the glorification of her name or Ted’s name,” Braman said. “That’s not the way Ted was and it’s not the way she is.”

Arison said her husband never allowed his name to be splashed around, and set that example for the rest of the family.

“I don’t like people who use money for self-esteem or to have people look at them,” she said. “So I would rather do the work. I basically do the work and don’t talk about the money.”

She’s not involved in the business interests that made her husband a wealthy man; his net worth was valued at $5.6 billion by Forbes before he died. His son from a previous marriage, Micky Arison, is chairman and CEO of Carnival Corp. and owner of the Miami Heat, which Ted Arison helped start.

One corner of her office contains old Carnival mementos, including the neck of the champagne bottle she used to christen the company’s first ship.

“They don’t need me,” she said of Carnival. “And I have other things in my head.”

Like enjoying the fact that Miami is finally no longer the cultural wasteland she first encountered when she moved here in 1957 after growing up in New York, naively asking where the city’s Metropolitan Museum was.

Tilson Thomas remembers walking down Lincoln Road with Arison in early conversations about forming New World Symphony.

“Hard to imagine, but it was a boarded-up and scary place to be,” he said. “She would say, ‘Look, we’re going to be on this street and this street will be reborn through the arts.’ ”

It’s the young artists who are her greatest inspiration, and the feeling goes both ways.

“I feel like she’s a kind of godmother of mine,” said singer and actor Kenyon Adams, who went through the YoungArts program in 1997 but saw her just Wednesday when he performed at the event announcing the new building.

Now living in Brooklyn, Adams, 33, said he ran into Arison at a YoungArts event in 2010 and invited her to his feature film debut at the Tribeca Film Festival. She showed up, stayed for the discussion after the film and met his wife.

“It just meant everything to me,” Adams said in a phone interview. “It really, for me, made me feel like this is part of my family.”

Adams is one of the “kids” Arison has invited to a party that she’s calling “hang out and browse” next month in the apartment-turned-library in the Bal Harbour building where she lives. There will be music, and instructions that visitors should help themselves to the books and DVDs from shelves that are stocked with 10 or more copies of her favorites.

She smiles thinking about it, and all the gatherings that will follow: “The kids are going to love it.”

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