“So he asked me if I would help him restore and book it. Laura walked in off the street and was our first hire, to help us with the marketing.”
The partnership evolved into the Rhythm Foundation. Their first concert, in August 1988, featured Nascimento. James and Laura married in 1989, and de Onis left for other pursuits in 1992.
In 1993, Laura Quinlan, the Miami Beach native in the original group, became director of Rhythm Foundation. The organization now has a small staff but, typically, “we all do everything,” she says.
One key to the foundation’s longevity has been its adaptability. In the late 1990s, “Miami was full of cool, young, international people working on media, Internet startups and they were not coming to our productions,” Laura Quinlan recalls.
“So we made a concerted effort to change our programming direction and open it up. If you don’t keep your circles open and widening they become smaller and smaller and the organization shrinks to a tiny dedicated core.”
Likewise, the opening of the Carnival (now the Arsht) Performing Arts Center in 2006 “forced us to step up our game … to be seen a valuable partner, a valuable community asset.”
James Quinlan says that the support of Michael Spring, director of the Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs, has been crucial. But from the beginning, ticket sales have accounted for most of the Rhythm Foundation’s budget.
“Grants helped, but each show has to stand on its own,” he says. “Ours was always an ‘earned revenue’ model — much more than most nonprofit presenting organizations. We take a hard look at the bottom line in every show.”
Still, “at a certain level Rhythm Foundation has never made sense as business model,” Laura Quinlan says with a shrug.
“It’s always been artist-driven. It’s always been passion-driven. We are crazy music lovers and our audience is made of crazy music lovers and we feel very strongly about the shows we present. If you know this artist you have to be there, you can’t stay home to watch TV. It’s not an option. That is our bar.”