Miami’s vibrant arts scene was born of passion and hard work. Here are just a handful of the heroes — often toiling behind the scenes — who make us the city we are.
Producing Artistic Director, GableStage
For 23 years, Joseph Adler has run one of the region’s best theater companies, GableStage, as producing artistic director. The founder of the Florida Shakespeare Company has grabbed the theater spotlight with often-provocative plays, premieres and interpretations of Broadway and Off-Broadway Florida shows. In doing so, he has tirelessly utilized local talents — actors, designers, playwrights — and promoted theater in general in south Florida.
There’s a reason he is known as the “godfather” of local theater, says theater critic Christine Dolen. “He has had an enormous influence on countless South Florida actors, often launching their careers … . he has also showcased the work of such homegrown playwrights as Marco Ramirez and Tarell Alvin McCraney.” Adler visits other productions more than any other director, she says, getting to know the actors and writers, and he frequently helps promote dramatic productions produced by other companies. But overall, “Joe is basically fearless in the plays he presents, even when he knows they’re likely to be controversial or even offensive. He wants people to think, feel, argue.’’
Adler says he’s gratified “of the fact that we have grown over the last two decades — while never compromising when it comes to producing provocative and often controversial material.” When audiences leave one of his productions, “I hope they think GableStage has consistently produced worthwhile productions — because consistent quality is definitely the hallmark of an important theater.”
— ANNE TSCHIDA
HANNAH BAUMGARTEN & DIEGO SALTERINI
Co-founders, Dance NOW!
As Hannah Baumgarten looks back in this 20th anniversary year of Dance NOW! Miami, she remembers how a group of dancers practically begged her and co-founder Diego Salterini to start a company in this young dance city. They have obliged those dancers and many others throughout the years as a ground-breaking, multi-genre performance group working with artists, designers and videographers to stage productions in museums, gardens and other atypical surrounds.
Along the way, Dance NOW! has presented original choreography from Baumgarten and Salterini, spotlighted new talent in its annual Daniel Lewis Miami Dance Sampler and performed classics of the modern dance world. This year the company will honor feminist-trailblazer Isadora Duncan and present a 20-year retrospective.
Dance NOW! has become “an example of a successful artistic project with a professional company, excellent dancers and a repertoire of original choreographies due to its clear objectives, consistent outreach efforts and an artistic direction,” says longtime dance critic Orlando Taquechel.
Baumgarten is proud of the cross-genre roads the company, now in residence at the Little Haiti Cultural Center, has forged with so many different types of institutions, while “remaining stable for 20 years. The two of us have made a creative company … with permanence.”
— ANNE TSCHIDA
Executive Director, Miami Light Project
Nearly a decade after Caren Rabbino created Miami Light Project dedicated to experimental performance, Beth Boone took over as executive director. In the two decades since, Miami Light Project has become what she terms a “nimble and mighty” force for artists, community and collaboration.
In her first decade, Boone focused on developing new work by Miami-based artists while maintaining opportunities for artists around the world. This past 10 years, Light Project has taken on a permanent space — Miami Light Box at Wynwood’s Goldman Warehouse — as both an artists’ laboratory and a space for intimate performance and gatherings by ongoing partners — including Arts for Learning, Nu Deco Ensemble and Mr. Pauer — and others.
The space is owned by Wynwood pioneer Goldman Properties, now run by Jessica Goldman Srebnick, who calls Boone “a thoughtful and passionate leader ... who is deeply devoted to bringing arts to her community. Even in the most challenging times, when funding sources were spare for the arts in general, her commitment to continue excellence at the Light Box was her singular focus.”
Like most arts leadership positions, Boone’s job involves the grit of day-to-day operations and fundraising. The payoff: “I love being around artists and talking to them. They are uniquely born to reflect on the world ... there’s a poetic interpretation on life itself. “
— JANE WOOLDRIDGE
Actor, director, collaborator
In a city where artists often struggle to get their voices heard, Teo Castellanos hasn’t only succeeded in Miami — he has blown up.
Much of his work has appeared in the spotlight. The Puerto Rico native has acted in more than 20 film and TV shows (including “Sunlight Jr.,” opposite Matt Dillon, and “Empire,” with John Leguizamo). On stage, he has acted in or written more than 20 productions — many of them one-man shows — in conjunction with local arts groups (Miami Light Project, Gables Stage, the African Heritage Culture Arts Center). His shows have toured throughout the U.S., South America, China and Europe.
And while he has racked up many awards and honors along the way — from the NEA, the Knight Foundation and the Sundance Institute, among others — he frequently devotes time to endeavors less likely to become household names.
For instance, The Combat Hippies, a devised theater company comprised of Puerto Rican men who are military veterans, where Castellanos is artistic director. His most recent work, “AMAL,” is a spoken word/theater piece, written in collaboration with The Combat Hippies, about Puerto Rico’s long history with the U.S. military and how veterans deal with colonialism and post-traumatic stress.
“Teo is an incredible artist, creating works that chronicle the Afro-Latinidad experience in Miami by using forms that were born out of need-based and essential theater,” said Oscar-winning playwright/actor Tarell Alvin McCraney (“Moonlight”), who was mentored by Castellanos as a teenager. “What folks don’t know is that his legacy is also in his students and/or children. There are at least five Miami artists making a name for themselves on an international level, and they have — we have — Teo, his teachings, his love and his vision to thank for that.”
Says Castellanos, “The recipe for success in Miami is to be entrenched in your community and help to cultivate and train young talents. It is also about defining your own definition of success, which is different for everyone. To me, it’s doing what I love while providing for my family. Miami allows you to forge your own path. I’m from Puerto Rico, but I love the 305.”
— RENE RODRIGUEZ
LOU ANNE COLODNY
Artist and instigator
Lou Anne Colodny has had her finger on the pulse of artistic Miami since the 1960s. Then, as a member of the Society of the Arts, she acted as a liaison between the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the city of North Miami. That collaboration resulted in the 1981 creation of an art center named the Center for Contemporary Art in 1981, with Colodny as director. Some 15 years later, she led its transition to the Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami.
Colodny then decided to concentrate on her own art career, showing in local museums and galleries. In 2011, she moved into a ground floor studio space next to the alternative gallery Bridge Red, run by artists Robert Thiele and his daughter Kristen Thiele. There, she had “a flashback to my first instincts after leaving MoCA — to be an artist and to support other artists.” She opened Under the Bridge art space to showcase the work of artists who had been overlooked or under recognized.
Says Kristen Thiele, “Lou Anne is such a big piece of the fabric of Miami and the art community here … She has dedicated much of her working space to exhibiting artists from South Florida,” says Kristen Thiele. “This created needed opportunities for artists from our area to exhibit locally. Her shows at Under the Bridge often dialogue well with the shows that we have upstairs at Bridge Red Studios.”
Colodny says both Bridge galleries are filling a much needed gap in the city’s art history. Together, the two spaces have been “creating bridges between the new and established artists in Miami since the onslaught of Art Basel,“ says Colodny. “If one believed the new story created about Miami’s history, there was practically no art scene in Miami before the fairs….Of course this was not the case.”
— ANNE TSCHIDA
Since 1983, Marshall Davis has led the African Heritage Cultural Arts Center in Liberty City, one of the most proficient incubators of young talent in Miami, with little fanfare.
That all changed when the made-in-Miami film “Moonlight,” with a screenplay by AHCAC alum and guest instructor Tarrell Alvin McCraney, won the Best Picture Oscar in 2017.
Throughout it all, Davis and the center he leads have been stalwart, outside-the-limelight players in the county’s African American community, providing hundreds of minority and mostly disadvantaged kids over the years with a rigorous, conservatory-like experience in after-school and summer programs that spans the full spectrum of artistic expression. It is part of Miami-Dade’s cultural affairs department.
The center owes its comprehensive curriculum, which allows students to range across both the visual and performing arts as well as technical aspects like lighting and set construction, to Davis’ own experience as a budding adolescent artist in Miami from an underprivileged background. His own exposure to the arts came when he entered college.
When he was hired to direct the fledgling cultural center, which had been founded in 1975, Davis was determined to provide his charges with the training he missed at a young age. The center gives kids ages 5 to 16 a chance to sample dance, from ballet to hip-hop, to learn an instrument, or to draw, sculpt or paint to their hearts’ content. The center lately has expanded its offerings to the cinematic arts.
The training they get at the center has led some alums to Juilliard, Hollywood and Broadway. Robert Battle, artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, is another notable alumnus. For many others, it has been a ladder to college.
“A lot of them go back and perform better academically. They go back as better readers. They go back as better math students,” Davis said. “A lot of them come back with better confidence.”
As great as the accolades and the attention that “Moonlight” brought the program have been, Davis said that’s not necessarily what makes him the proudest about his time at the center.
“Transforming lives — that’s the best thing I’ve done here,” he said.
— ANDRES VIGLUCCI
Jazz radio host
Since 2010, Tracy Fields has spent her weeknight wee hours sharing her love for jazz with South Florida public radio audiences as host of WLRN’s Evenin’ Jazz.
When previous host Len Pace retired, public uproar against a plan to substitute a syndicated show prevailed, and The Real Tracy Fields took the mic.
Her love of the music stems from childhood, when father turned her on to Count Basie and Joe Williams. Her early radio hosting gigs came during college breaks in her hometown of Greensboro, N.C.
Evenin’ Jazz spotlights both local and national talent, with interviews interspersed. Among her many fans is Kimberly Chmura of KCC Productions, which presents jazz concerts and artists in South Florida.“One of the principal values of a live local jazz radio program is to inform the community about artists that will be appearing in South Florida venues. … Tracy Fields is a critically important voice for this.”
“People need and want not only to hear the music, but to hear about the music and what’s happening with it here,” Fields says. “We have a tremendous amount of talent and a growing number of venues; I love connecting listeners and musicians.”
— ANNE TSCHIDA
Chamber music presenter
As a presenter, Kreeger has drawn some of the greatest chamber ensembles and instrumentalists to a region once considered a bit of a backwater. Kreeger, a lawyer, is known for his encyclopedic knowledge of the music and the musicians that he has shared with Miami, and his love for the art form.
That love affair began in his hometown of New York City, where he was classical music director of the college radio station at Columbia University. Later, at Miami radio stations, he would meet Arthur Fiedler and Isaac Stern, among others, while also producing 50-plus classical recordings. But it’s as president of Friends of Chamber Music that Kreeger has touched the broadest audience, featuring famed soloists including Nikolai Lugansky, Stephen Hough and Roberto Diaz, and internationally acclaimed trios and quartets Kalichstein Laredo Robinson Trio, Guarneri String and Borodins.
Concerts are held across the country, at the University of Miami and FIU, the Colony Theater and various churches and temples.
“We have been fortunate to have many of the world’s greatest chamber ensembles and instrumentalists agree to perform for us,” says Kreeger. But he believes the Friends of Chamber Music plays a larger educational role, not only for concertgoers but also for the lucky local students who sometimes are able to study with them as well.
— ANNE TSCHIDA
Sandy Lighterman was running her own film and television production company when the growing demands of being a single mom led her to join the Miami-Dade County Film & Entertainment Office in 2008. Since then, she has become one of the most effective supporters of Florida’s film industry, instrumental in elevating the city’s national profile. (One bit of proof: Slamdance Miami’s inaugural film festival will be held here next May.)
But much of her work is behind the scenes. After the state’s film and entertainment tax incentive program ended in 2016, she spearheaded a new 2017 program with the county to lure filmmakers with cash grants for eligible productions. Projects that spend $1 million or more are eligible for a $100,000 grant upon completion, provided 70 percent of the content is filmed in Miami-Dade; local vendors and residents must also benefit. Small products may qualify for $50,000.
So far, two TV shows — the Nickelodeon sci-fi drama “I Am Frankie” and the Italian series “Club 57” — have signed up. An independent comedy called “iMordecai,” starring Judd Hirsch and Carol Kane, has already applied to shoot here.
In June, Lighterman also began a two-year term as vice-president of Film Florida, nonprofit advocates for film and TV production around the state.
“Sandy is a major champion of Florida filmmaking, on a local and global scale, and has gone out of her way to support my projects,” said Kenny Riches, writer-director of made-in-Miami movies including “A Name Without a Place,” which opens here Sept. 20. “She’s been fighting the good fight to get the film incentive back too. It hasn’t been an easy road.”
Said Lighterman: “This in an industry that has been here since the early 1900s. Someone’s got to fight for it. We have too many interesting stories to tell by local creators here. They have a voice that needs to be heard.”
— RENE RODRIGUEZ
KATHRYN & DAN MIKESELL
If you found yourself poking about artist’s studios last spring on the county’s first Artists Open day, you have Kathryn and Dan Mikesell to thank.
Since 2008, the Mikesells have hosted artists from around the world — 36 per year — at the couple’s Fountainhead Residence in Morningside. “The interaction between artists from different parts of the world with the local scene creates a very special synergy, which sometimes ends in collaborations that by no means enriches [only] the local scene,” says international curator Tami Katz-Freiman. She has selected two Israeli artists every year for the residency since 2013.
Dozens of other local artists have worked in studios at the Mikesell’s Fountainhead Studios in Little River. Late last year, they launched MEET, a monthly dinner for South Florida artists designed to foster collaborations. This fall, they will kickstart Artist to Artist, where artists will share their experiences building careers through brand collaborations, product design and partnerships with real estate developers.
While the couple focuses primarily on visual arts, they’ve also been involved with the New World Symphony, Guitars Over Guns and environmental efforts. “After co-founding an open-water swim group, Dolphins and Rainbows, [I] realized the extent of the pollution and litter in Biscayne Bay and the ocean,” says Kathryn. Six days a week, you’ll see her coming out of the bay with a bag of trash after a swim and picking up trash along the way.
— ANNE TSCHIDA
Karen Peterson she has literally changed the way we see dance, both locally and abroad.
Thirty years ago she created one of the first mixed-ability dance troupes here in Miami, when she developed performances for dancers with and without disabilities as an artistic product — not as a therapeutic or social tool. Since then, she has employed hundreds of dancers, teachers, designers for productions, touring the dances globally.
Her company, Karen Peterson & Dancers, has touched both arts audiences, through annual seasons of new work by guest dancers and choreographers, and thousands of teens with disabilities through school residency programs. Peterson’s efforts have “had a ripple effect across the world,” says Adriana Perez, projects administrator of Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs, bringing mixed-ability dance to virgin territory, such as Eastern Europe, and launching a global conversation. Later this month, she’ll present the Second Forward Motion Dance Festival and Conference, convening dancers from London to California for workshops and performances under the umbrella of “disabled dance artistry.”
“Inclusive dance has been my focus of experimentation, creation and collaboration for 30 years,” says Peterson. “We have provided Miami a vision that has inspired the disability and dance communities. [And] by introducing open contact improvisational workshops to the dance community at my studio I have allowed dancers of all abilities to train, create and perform together as equal participants in the studio and on stage.”
— ANNE TSCHIDA
LESLEY GOLDWASSER & JONATHAN PLUTZIK
Owners of The Betsy
When Jonathan Plutzik and Lesley Goldwasser first came to Miami Beach, they had no local ties. No childhood vacation memories, no grandparents who had retired here. The New York couple simply fell in love with the place. They ended up buying the Betsy, a colonial-style, 1940s-era hotel on Ocean Drive, out of bankruptcy in 2005.
They had never owned or run a lodging. But with their son Zachary and ever-present golden retrievers, they’ve created an inviting boutique hotel justly lauded by travel press worldwide. Far more than a hotel, The Betsy has become a magnet for minds that value philanthropy, arts, culture and education. Most nights it hosts live music — classical, or perhaps opera or jazz — or a talk by one of the 850 writers in residence they’ve welcomed over the years (Plutzik’s father was the poet Hyam Plutzik). Always, visitors are surrounded by evocative photography by both established and emerging artists. (Last year’s Art Basel exhibition featured Ethiopian Aida Muluneh; this year they’re hanging works by the late Andy Sweet.)
Though Plutzik and Goldwasser retain their day jobs in finance — he’s chair of Fannie Mae — their involvement goes beyond mere programming. “You need to actively engage,” says Jonathan. That means opening a conference room for a meeting, hosting a fundraiser, supporting this summer’s Classical Music Festival for conservatory students and, for a decade now, the O Miami Poetry Festival. “For small orgs, these kinds of support are transformative,” says O Miami founder P. Scott Cunnhingham.
For Plutzik and Goldwasser, as he puts it, “it’s an extention of who we are.”
— JANE WOOLDRIDGE
CHANA BUDGAZAD SHELDON
The Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami is proof that that the right leadership at the right time can create miracles.
Just a few years ago, MOCA was caught in an unhappy spiral: a failed expansion effort; loss of its longtime director; a bitter divorce from former board members. A subsequent director was ousted amid allegations of sexual harassment.
And then came Chana Budgazad Sheldon. Just a year after joining as director in January 2018, she and her team produced “AFRICOBRA,” a groundbreaking exhibition that reminded the arts universe of this powerful black arts collective. The show was such a wow that last spring, it was chosen for the prestigious Venice Biennale.
But it’s not just that milestone that has put MOCA back on solid ground. Sheldon — best known as a past director of Locust Projects — has worked closely with the museum’s city-owners, recruited a steady new board, increased youth programs and continued showcasing highly regarded works that resonate both with its neighbors and the cultural community.
Urged by his daughter, who worked previously with Sheldon, Bill Lehman Jr., joined as president of the museum’s board. The museum building is named for his mother. “Chana has done an amazing job. That’s the main reason why MOCA has been so successful.”
Sheldon’s passion: Creating both artistic quality and community connections. “Art and the way it connects with individuals on different levels creates opportunity.”
— JANE WOOLDRIDGE
Gallerist and curator
Spinello Projects is no ordinary gallery. Founded in 2005, this contemporary art program functions as a creative space and a platform for nomadic, site-specific and curatorial projects – an ecosystem of sorts, providing resources and opportunities for artists to work in and out of the “white cube.”
Founder / curator Anthony Spinello has also developed a talent for spotting and fostering emerging stars.
“Anthony has been a driving force for the arts in Miami for several years….he has an extremely refined instinct for talent, a tireless dedication to ‘his’ artists and a special ability to nurture their careers, and [the] willingness to take risks, make mistakes and learn from them,” according to Ombretta Agro, international curator and environmental activist. “However in 2019 his shining light has been his affiliation with the two Miami-based artists who have exhibited at the Whitney Biennial.”
This year, two of Spinello’s artists were invited to participate in the prestigeous Whitney Biennial – the first time in a decade for Miami artists, says Spinello. “I think the invitation suggests that the curators believed that their work contributed to a larger common narrative” – in other words, that Miami is at the forefront.
In the end, the artists, Eddie Arroyo and Agustina Woodgate, withdrew their works in protest against a Whitney Museum board member who headed a weapons-making company. The boycott ultimately success; the member resigned.
— ANNE TSCHIDA
JOSE VALDES-FAULI & SHED BOREN
Jose Valdes-Fauli, a retired banker and longtime art collector, has sat on the boards of The Bass, Frost-FIU Museum of Art and Art in Public Places. Shed Boren, a university instructor in social work, has devoted his professional life to social services.
Together, they look for ways to mix artistic expression with social causes.
Boren also served as executive producer of the acclaimed documentary “The Day it Snowed in Miami.” Recently, the couple donated 29 works by the late Purvis Young to FIU’s College of Public Heath and Social Work, giving broader attention to the Miami artist who at times was homeless.
Currently, the couple is investing their efforts in the relatively new Coral Gables Museum (opened in 2010). Valdes-Fauli has been instrumental in creating several recent exhibits, including last year’s Art Week highlight of 10 Cuban artists from the Hudson River Valley, N.J., and an upcoming show that will feature contemporary Venezuelan art. Boren helped produce a current exhibit, “The Art of Compassion,” with powerful photographs and stories from formerly incarcerated women in Florida prisons.
The two “complement the museum wonderfully,” says John Allen, the museum’s executive director. He credits Boren with adding meaning to the exhibits, and Valdes-Fauli for putting the museum on the Art Basel itinerary. “They have been outstanding contributors.”
“We thought we could add new dimensions, bring a new perspective” to art in Miami, says Valdes-Fauli. At the Gables museum, “we want the exhibits to fully reflect the diversity of all the communities.”
— ANNE TSCHIDA
A decade before Twitter was founded, a trio of Miami theater enthusiasts launched a Miami experience for culture fiends short on attention. Summer Shorts, soon to celebrate its 25th season, delves into love, serendipty, family and social issues 10 minutes at a time.
City Theatre remains one of the area’s oldest companies, led by one of the original co-founders, Susan Westfall. Over the years, the company has added Winter Shorts (held, naturally, in winter); City Shorts to tour community venues and She Shorts, featuring works by women; and supported a variety of playwriting initiatives.
Its efforts to commission and develop new work have given employment and opportunities for many regional artists. But Summer Shorts remains the star, says Teresa Eyring, executive director of the national Theater Communications Guild. “It’s extremely well-produced, creating broad accessibility to quality theatrical offerings for both veteran theatergoers and those experiencing theatre for the first time. Susi Westfall’s stellar leadership in creating and nurturing this program is a gift to the Miami community.”
A playwright herself, the Miami native started her career at the Coconut Grove Playhouse, and helped found the Theatre League of South Florida. “I’m very proud of how many more playwrights there are in South Florida now, and the success of their work,” says Westfall. “I appreciate that City Theatre has learned from failure and success, and that we continue to explore new challenges.”
— ANNE TSCHIDA
MITCHELL WOLFSON JR.
Mitchell “Micky” Wolfson Jr., heir to a television and movie-theater fortune, spent much of his inheritance amassing more than 150,000 art and design objects that elucidate American and European life and history in the early modern age. Then he gave just about all of it away.
And the people of Miami are very much the richer for it. The erudite raconteur and bon vivant is founder of the , a singular museum, library and research center in Miami Beach that houses the bulk of his hard-to-categorize, encyclopedic collection. More recently, he founded the museum in the inveterate collector’s adopted home of Genoa, Italy.
In October, Wolfson will mark his 80th birthday and the formal debut of the long-in-gestation Genoa museum, housed in a renovated school.
Here in Miami, the celebrations include a city-sponsored public block party and a moveable French feast. The dinner will benefit the Wolfsonian, which will honor its namesake with “A Universe of Things,” an exhibition focused on his life of collecting.
It’s all the more impressive that Wolfson began putting the collection together and bringing it to the Beach when the city and Miami were a cultural desert. His purchase of the historic Art Deco Washington Storage building, which he renovated and expanded in 1982, marks Wolfson as one of true instigators of the city’s transformation into an international center for art and culture.
Wolfson likens himself in those early days to Daniel Boone, the last great American frontiersman, enjoying the freedom to create something new.
“It was the last of the traditional frontier communities. It belongs to the old world order,” Wolfson said, referring to the Beach.”
“It’s just an analogy of the whole American evolution. I was lucky because, for at least two generations, we really had fun. There was everything and anything to do. We had fun because it was the wild west. “
— ANDRES VIGLUCCI
RAY ELLEN & ALLAN YARKIN
Ray Ellen and Allan Yarkin both studied art history in college. Though neither pursued art as a career — she became a lawyer, he a financial adviser — they naturally gravitated toward museums and galleries and began collecting art.
When collectors Irma and Norma Braman decided to back the creation of the Institute of Contemporary Art - Miami, Ray Ellen signed on as co-founder. Five years later, the couple remain devoted to the museum, contributing funds for its Design District building and contributing to acquisitions. Most recently, they have donated 18 works by 13 artists, most of them locals including Tomm El Saieh, Mark Handforth, Loriel Beltran and Bhaki Baxter.
She credits ICA Artistic Director Alex Gartenfeld for introducing the couple to local talents. “When we met Alex, it was a turning point....he is just a brilliant young man. I’m so impressed by his sensitivity and generosity...I consider him like a son.”
The admiration is mutual.
“Ray Ellen and Allan are profoundly important leaders of the ICA. She’s an incredible advocate for arts, education and the role this museum plays in the community on a day-to-day basis. She has been generous in so many ways.”
She and Irma Braman continue to serve as the museum’s co-chairs. “She’s incredible, the hardest-working person. Between Irma, Alex, the board, and the staff, it’s been such a great experience... We all motivate each other.”
— JANE WOOLDRIDGE