M. John Richard has never hung back from the challenges that shape a life.
Not when a knee injury ended his dreams of playing football at Syracuse University. Not when he was persuaded at age 36 to leave his job as president and chief executive officer of New Jersey’s Children’s Specialized Hospital Foundation to lead a $187 million campaign to build the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark.
And not when he was recruited again, at 55, to leave his home state to become president and CEO of Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts.
The move to Miami at the end of 2008 brought its own set of challenges.
Richard became the third person to head the $472 million, Cesar Pelli-designed center since its opening in fall 2006. After its first season under president and chief executive officer Michael Hardy ended in the red, former Kennedy Center president Lawrence Wilker stepped in on an interim basis and began a turnaround that Richard would be expected to continue. Six weeks after Richard’s arrival, the Concert Association of Florida — one of the Arsht Center’s founding resident companies — folded, creating a major programming issue for the center’s 2,220-seat Knight Concert Hall.
Today? What a difference a decade makes.
Richard, whose leadership will be celebrated at the Arsht Center’s sold-out fundraising gala on Saturday, is planning to retire and regroup at the end of December. When he does, he’ll move on from a thriving arts institution with a $38 million annual budget, a center that has been in the black throughout his tenure.
Philanthropist Adrienne Arsht, founding chairman of the center’s foundation and a board member of both Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center and New York’s Lincoln Center, has had a front-row seat during the Richard era at the center. If she were to review his performance, it would read very much like a rave.
“John came with such interest and enthusiasm. He built the center’s reputation,” says Arsht, whose $30 million donation in 2008 to the then-Carnival Center led to its renaming in her honor. “There are nights when every hall is filled to capacity. Museums and high-rises are as close as they can get. John made the Arsht the center of downtown. … He is steady as he goes. He exercises leadership by doing the right thing. He walks the halls. He participates. He’s there.”
During the Richard era, hundreds of thousands of students — the audiences and artists of tomorrow — have had Arsht Center experiences, seeing free performances of the center-commissioned musicals “Rock Odyssey” and “Kitty Hawk”; attending summer arts camps, including the nationally honored AileyCamp Miami, Camp Broadway and the PATH Hip Hop Summer Academy; taking in the music-spoken word event Piano Slam and City Theatre’s programming for kids; attending their high school graduations (there will be 17 of those this year).
Under Richard, the Arsht has offered a host of diverse arts series and annual events with now familiar names, including the Knight Masterworks Concert Series (to replace the loss of the Concert Association lineup), the Knight Masterworks Dance Series, Broadway in Miami, Theatre Up Close, the Cleveland Orchestra in Miami, Jazz Roots, Live at Knight, City Theatre’s Summer Shorts, the Flamenco Festival, the Hispanic Theatre Festival, Miami Symphony Orchestra, free Gospel Sundays and more.
And three of its founding groups — Florida Grand Opera, Miami City Ballet and the New World Symphony — still showcase their art at the Arsht.
Intent on offering programming that is, as he says, “world-class and community-based,” Richard and his team have presented some of the world’s greatest artists and companies alongside the work of such homegrown arts groups as Zoetic Stage, which launched in the Arsht’s Carnival Studio Theater at the end of 2010 and this year earned more Carbonell Award nominations than any other theater company in South Florida.
What the Arsht’s support has meant to Zoetic, says managing director, cofounder and playwright Michael McKeever, is incalculable.
“John made it a mission to reach out and give a home to smaller regional performing arts groups,” McKeever says. “Not only is he a great advocate for the arts in this region, he’s one of the nicest guys you’ll ever run across. I presented our new season to the production team with John sitting in, and people were so enthusiastic. We’re so grateful.”
Richard initiated an even broader arts outreach after the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti, when the Arsht became a drop-off spot for disaster relief supplies.
Former Miami Herald world editor John Yearwood told Richard that Ayikodans, the acclaimed Haitian dance company led by founder-choreographer Jeanguy Saintus, had lost its studio in the disaster. Richard and others traveled to the Port-au-Prince area to meet Saintus and the company.
The Arsht Center brought Ayikodans to Miami to perform (it has since come back four times), and Richard helped raise funds to rebuild the studio in suburban Pétion-Ville. The Arsht Center, Saintus writes on the company’s website, is Ayikodans’ “home away from home.”
With the Arsht Center becoming the anchor for an evolving arts-entertainment district, Richard played a key role in 2011 in establishing the nonprofit Town Square Neighborhood Development Corporation to oversee and advocate throughout development of the area surrounding the center.
That “Town Square” name is a nod to Richard’s youth in Newton, New Jersey, when running one of the country’s major performing arts centers was among the furthest things from his mind.
Born Morris John Richard in 1952 (he was named “Morris” for his paternal grandfather, “John” for his mother’s dad, but his parents always called him John), Richard remembers his small hometown — with its signature town square — as an idyllic place to grow up. His maternal grandmother lived next door, his paternal grandmother behind his family home, and he felt surrounded by “family, friends, love and business,” specifically his dad’s Richard Plumbing Supply.
Reaching a height of 6’4” as a teen, Richard was a self-described “jock” who played football, basketball and every other sport, with one brief showbiz detour in the chorus of Newton High’s production of “Guys and Dolls.”
His hopes of going to Syracuse were dashed when his knee was injured, but that proved to be a lucky twist of fate in two ways. When his draft number was called, he failed his physical because of his knee.
And at Midland University in Fremont, Nebraska, where he earned a degree in behavioral science and served as student body president, he met an occupational therapy student named Lynne and her identical twin, Lisa. Lynne F. Richard, an assistant professor at Florida International University, has been married to her husband for 40 years. Their grown children, Aaron Richard and Rachel Rebollo, have made them grandparents three times over in the past three years.
Richard’s segue into the world of performing arts began when he was hired as the third employee tasked with turning the New Jersey Performing Arts Center from dream into reality.
“The idea was bigger than anything I ever imagined,” he says. “Building it in the shadows of the arts capital of the world, New York City, captured my imagination. They paid me well every day to learn on the job — about architect selection, land acquisition, building a board. It had to be for everyone. I knew it could be greater than a palace on the hill or a community center.”
Arriving in Miami with 19 years of experience in the field, Richard has exercised a leadership style that mixes high expectations with collaboration and support. Trish Brennan, the center’s vice president for human resources, says Richard will joke that he’s “managing by walking around.” But Suzette Espinosa Fuentes, the Arsht’s vice president of communication, says that’s actually true, noting that Richard deliberately strolls through the warren of Arsht offices each morning on his way in, stopping to talk and connect and question as he passes by.
Diversity in staff, programming and audiences has been a hallmark of Richard’s leadership, Brennan says.
“He’ll go to a performance and notice the tier leaders and the ushers, and he’ll remark on that,” she says. “With him, I’ve had a real partner and collaborator in diversity efforts.”
She adds that Richard is “a complex creature. That’s the secret to his sauce. He’s an amazingly compassionate person, and through his nature, he drives you to be better.”
Nationally prominent retired business executive Ira D. Hall, a member of the Performing Arts Center Trust for five years and its new chair, hails Richard’s commitment to diversity in “people, programming and points of view.” He also notes that the quality and longevity of the center’s diverse senior management team, some of whom predate Richard, are a testament to his leadership.
Among Richard’s key outside collaborators is Miami-Dade Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho. He has been in many an audience as more than 200,000 fifth-graders have attended free performances of “Rock Odyssey” since 2010, and as more than 27,000 seventh-graders traveled to the center last fall to take in “Kitty Hawk,” a Wright Brothers “STEAM” musical — an entertaining, educational piece involving science, technology, engineering, the arts and math.
“If there’s ever a clear indication of what wholistic education should look like, it’s what we’ve done with the Arsht Center,” Carvalho says. “Subjects that are usually taught in silos are brought together in a fun, inviting, rigorous and captivating way. That’s the magic of John Richard. … He so gets this community.”
On Saturday, with the seating area of the Arsht’s Knight Concert Hall covered and transformed into a place for dining, dancing and an up-close view of the stage, the center’s leader will enjoy a rare moment in the spotlight.
With WPLG-Local 10’s Calvin Hughes hosting, Richard, his family and Arsht supporters will be entertained by Ann Hampton Callaway, Niki Haris, Clint Holmes, Ramsey Lewis, Shelly Berg and the Frost School of Music’s Henry Mancini Orchestra. The least expensive ticket was priced at $2,500, but proceeds from the evening will go to the center’s arts education and community engagement programs.
Richard has said that one thing he won’t miss about his job is the day-and-night, daily demands on his time. But the excitement of full houses? That still gets him every time.
“The arrival and departure scene of more than 4,000 people who come to our performances on nights when every theater is full, their energy, the socialization that happens in the live performing arts — I love it,” Richard says.
“My life in the arts was unexpected. I have a grand appreciation for getting to know creative types up close and personal, for being in their company and hearing their passion for what they do. Thinking creatively is so much more possible when you spend time with these people. Seeing the result of their effort, imagination and spirit of creativity come to life is intoxicating.”
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