Arsht Center CEO talks arts, money and neighborhood change

Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts President and CEO M. John Richard is upbeat as he talks about the upcoming arts and cultural season, on Friday, Oct. 4, 2013 at the Arsht Center, 1300 Biscayne Blvd. in downtown Miami.
Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts President and CEO M. John Richard is upbeat as he talks about the upcoming arts and cultural season, on Friday, Oct. 4, 2013 at the Arsht Center, 1300 Biscayne Blvd. in downtown Miami.
MARSHA HALPER / Miami Herald Staff

M. John Richard

• Title: President and CEO, Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts

• Professional history: Spent nearly 20 years at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, where his last position was executive vice president and chief operating officer.

• Personal: Age 60; married to Lynne with two children, Rachel and Aaron.


M. John Richard keeps an interesting coaster in his office at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami.

Larger than your average cup, the patch is actually a scrap from new carpet installed at the Ziff Ballet Opera House after leaks sprung during a storm more than a year ago, forcing workers to evacuate a sold-out showing of The Lion King.

It was, Richard acknowledges, “not my favorite moment” during his tenure as president and CEO of the county-owned arts center, which opened in 2006.

“But it is one of the experiences of my short career here of five years from which I gained a great deal of pride and admiration for the people I work with,” said Richard, who left a nearly 20-year career at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center to take over Miami’s then-fledgling institution in late ’08.

The $473 million center just completed its seventh season and finished the fiscal year with its sixth consecutive balanced budget. For the fiscal year that just ended, the budget was nearly $35 million; the current year’s budget is just over $36 million.

After existing as the sole arts institution in the area for years, the Arsht Center will be joined by the nearby Pérez Art Museum Miami later this year and, in 2015, the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science. Development surrounding the center, at 1300 Biscayne Blvd., is also in the works. Espacio USA, a Spanish developer, is planning a $412 million mixed-use project at 1400 Biscayne Blvd., and Genting Corp. plans to demolish the old Miami Herald building east of the Arsht Center to build a complex including hotels, restaurants, condos and potentially a casino, if it gets state approval.

Whatever happens over the next few years, Richard, 60, should have a front-seat view: The Performing Arts Center Trust board has renewed his contract through the end of 2018. Recently, he sat down with the Miami Herald to talk about programming the Arsht Center’s three venues, fundraising and adapting to changing surroundings.

Q. What was one of the biggest successes of the last year, programming-wise?

Programming-wise, you can look at it from the box office success. We did back-to-back Broadway [shows] breaking box office sales for Mary Poppins, then the next show was Les Misérables. ... But the most recent box office success was the amazing run we had of Slava’s Snow Show this summer, which we’re particularly proud of because we made the aggressive mission-oriented case that Miamians live here 12 months out of the year and we are an arts center that has a second season — and that’s the summer. The Slava’s Snow Show program, over 35,000 people attended, 50 percent were new to file…[which means it was their] first time attending a performance at the center. We projected that we needed 24,000 attendees for the 30 performances and we had over 35,000. It was also a strong financial success, and we’re very proud of the artistic reviews that the company received very early on.

So the big shows did incredibly well at the box office and then we had a sprinkling of really important community engagements that came at us during the course of the year. [Richard singled out the tweetup with Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez and the poetry reading by Richard Blanco, the poet for President Barack Obama’s second inauguration.]

These two events have helped me to articulate and make real the notion that the Arsht Center is Miami’s new town square. So from Mary Poppins to Yoani Sánchez is a wide-swinging organization, and that’s exactly who we should be in this town.

Q. December marks the opening of the new [art] museum, your neighbor. How do you see the opening of that and eventually the science museum as kind of affecting the Arsht Center or changing what you do here?

It’s a magnificent triple. Programmatically, we’re talking about three institutions that have very different programmatic focus. But our lineage as cultural institutions in the same neighborhood as a destination is going to redefine Miami’s downtown. So the opportunity now to partner as three institutions has already begun.

Our first work and effort is about magnifying the importance of neighborhood development in our community, so through the work of the Town Square Neighborhood Development Corporation that we established, we have board members from the Arsht Center, Mike Eidson, a board member from the science center, Dan Bell, co-chairman of the campaign and board member Aaron Podhurst from the Pérez Art Museum on the Town Square board. ... The focus of this group is to be strong community advocates for a master plan that Town Square conducted a year and a half ago, for this location to be pedestrian-friendly, to be connected as an urban core and to be developing resources that the local residents and patrons who are coming to our facilities have as a destination orientation and a place that they want to return to.

We had one opportunity to get this right for the centuries, and that means that the I-395 corridor has to be completed correctly, it means what happens as a signature for that corridor is done correctly, what happens underneath the structure is critical and then the connectivity of future development projects will help to redefine what was once a blighted neighborhood into a world-class destination where people live, where people come and where the arts flourish together.

Q. Because there’s a lot of effort concentrated over there and a lot of momentum [at the new museums], do you find there to be any wariness of donating in other places, like to you?

It’s a very good question and I get where you’re going. Where would New York be in the scheme of cultural offerings as a great city, an international destination city, where would New York be if it didn’t have the arts? Think of how many arts institutions in New York require fundraising success each and every day. That’s what has to happen here. We have to be collaborative in the overarching issue that philanthropy and fundraising is critical to the success of these institutions and we need to be innovative in our fundraising programs and campaigns in gaining annual support for the programs and operations of these buildings, for the creation of reserve funds to do new and innovative work and to make our institutions permanent through endowment and additional reserve funds.

Q. So you don’t feel like you’re all in a race for the same pot or you’re all in competition?

No. I think the arts community has been very encouraging of each other as a city arriving at a moment where culture becomes a centerpiece of a city that is being seen more and more as a global destination, and for many the entry point to America. ...

Q. At some point there will be a big construction project or multiple construction projects going on around you — Genting’s project, Espacio, all of that. Do you know how that’s going to affect what you do here or are you planning for operating next to a lot of construction cranes?

It is a little bit unnerving to be navigating through the development of our neighborhood when it’s showtime and there are construction theaters around us building new facilities. ...Our advocacy is going to be toward the great complements of what’s already here and being sure that the idea and the concepts are all part of the Miami 21 master plan. That has been served well through the creation of the Town Square Neighborhood Development Corporation.

Q. Even just practical things like parking and pedestrians and the Metro and all of that, are you able to plan into the future or is it just not clear what the next six to 12 to 18 months are going to be like?

Yeah, we are. It’s planning for the unforeseen and planning for what we do see at the same time, and we’re deep into the appreciation of the change of the I-395 corridor. We’re very mindful of other development projects that are happening in the neighborhood, in the not-so-near neighborhood. And you take each project as it comes at you, and at the same time we’re advocating for projects that we want to be directly involved in.

Q. When you look at fundraising for this coming year, what are your priorities, and are you doing anything new or different?

We expand the base, and we have to expand the participation from individuals and businesses in our support for annual programs spanning all genres, so many different swim lanes. But part of our work is showing the fruits of success. In the five years I’ve been here, three different financial institutions have found swim lanes at the Arsht Center that they are co-branding with us: the Broadway in Miami series, which is Bank of America; TotalBank is moving its sponsorship into the Flamenco Festival, and Wells Fargo is going to be doing Jazz Roots. There were no banks five years ago.… And I believe we have found the comfort zone where they may be competitors, but with the Arsht Center as co-branding sponsors, there is the ability with the Arsht Center and with the corporate sponsor to distinguish the connectivity and to be marketing successfully without it being competitive.

So on the corporate side we are gaining participation, we’re going to build upon that, it will help us to share with other companies the opportunity to be fully engaged in co-branding sponsorship arrangements.

And with foundations and individuals underwriting performances and underwriting series — so the Knight Foundation, it provides us with a challenge grant for the Masterworks series. And the Masterworks series, we have successfully over the last four years taken over that program genre, raising $600,000 in support of that series from individuals and foundations with sponsoring and underwriting specific concerts. ... That is sort of a prototype of how we are approaching all of our series, with sponsorship underwriting and specific events being underwritten. That carries over into arts education and community engagement as well.

The real effort now is understanding and developing relationships with the over 200,000 households who have at least attended a performance here. And we are looking carefully at the experiences people have and building on the good experiences that have been generated as a result of the quality of our presentations, the programming responses that have occurred....

The most important program, I think, is a legacy program that we’ve introduced and that is a planned giving program, which is called the Weiser Way of Giving. Think of Woody Weiser, [a steadfast supporter of the center who died in 2011]. And it is a planned giving program in which donors and interested parties will be providing for the future of the center through deferred and legacy gifts, that being one of the pathways of creating a more robust endowment from the $10 million we have today . We want to grow an endowment ... over the next five years so that the resources are there to do new innovative programming as a result of the predictable income from a larger endowment.

Q. Where does the endowment stand now?

It’s at $10 million; it generates about $500,000 a year in support of our free programming and community engagement and subsidy to programming for the center.

Q. What’s the five-year goal?

Let me tell you what I think it should be, based on well-known factual research... an arts institution like ours should have two to three times its budget in endowment. So what would that mean for us? The Arsht Center should have somewhere in the neighborhood of $70 to $100 million in endowment as an operating institution, making more stable its operating environment. So the fundraising picture is annual, capital, reserve and endowment. And it is a program of campaign to the different participants of raising funds each and every year and into the future, and all of this is to be over the next three years under the banner of our 10th anniversary season.

Q. Are you thinking you’ll be able to get to $70 million over the next five years?

We’re only one gift away... I think that way. I don’t plan that way. Fundraising is about a series of disappointments and then you win because of several surprises.

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