Season of the Arts

Arts Pioneers: Profiles of South Florida’s cultural groundbreakers

NEW BEGINNING : Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the New World Symphony’s premiere concert on Feb. 4, 1988.
NEW BEGINNING : Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the New World Symphony’s premiere concert on Feb. 4, 1988. Miami Herald file

South Florida’s current rich cultural scene is largely rooted in the ’80s, a decade during which many of the city’s key arts institutions and events were launched, transforming what was largely derided as a cultural wasteland into a city with all the elements of an artistically vibrant community.

This extraordinary burst of civic and creative energy was all the more remarkable in that it followed a series of disasters: the violent “Cocaine Cowboy” drug cartel struggles in the ’70s, the Mariel boatlift and the 1980 Liberty City riots, which famously led Time magazine to dub Miami “Paradise Lost.” Instead, a small group of artistic and civic visionaries, backed by political and business leaders who saw (or were persuaded to see) the arts as a lifeline for their beleaguered city, started the enterprises that would turn Miami into a thriving artistic center. Here are the stories of those ventures’ beginnings, and of the transformation of South Florida.

TIGERTAIL PRODUCTIONS, 1980

A member of Fusion Dance Company, Miami’s pioneering modern dance troupe, Mary Luft launched Tigertail Productions (named for the Coconut Grove street where she lived) between 1979 and 1980 primarily to present her own nascent dance company. But almost immediately she also started Composers in Performance, an avant-garde music series. Luft also involved herself in the national contemporary music and dance scene, studying and performing in New York, evaluating dance applicants to the National Endowment for the Arts, which took her around the country to visit dance artists. As a result, she had a wide-ranging sense of cutting edge performing arts that guided her presentations in Miami, opening the way for the avant-garde here.

Luft and Tigertail were often ahead of their time, especially in the ’80s. But she inspired others and gave opportunities to fledgling artists and presenters. She presented a series combining composers and visual artists, site-specific pieces at venues like a Coral Gables gymnasium, multi-media and performance art. She gave a platform to important South Florida choreographers such as Demetrius Klein. Among the people who worked for her were Janine Gross, a co-founder of the Miami Light Project; Gustavo Matamoros, founder of the Subtropics Music Festival; and even, briefly, Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs director Michael Spring in his pre-administrator days as an artist (she hired him to do an arts day at the elementary school her two children attended). She brought artists who had only come to Miami to visit aging parents, who then discovered they loved the city. (Legendary video artist Nam June Paik even got an apartment in Miami Beach.) In 1988, under the aegis of the culturally ambitious Eduardo Padrón and Miami Dade College’s Wolfson Campus, she and then-partner Joseph Celli produced New Music America Miami, a citywide, 10-day festival of avant-garde music and performance that put the city on a national map.

“Miami was absolutely wide open,” Luft says now. “It had that spirit of anything was possible.” That so much did become possible here owes much to her.

MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART, 1981

North Miami’s MOCA (Museum of Contemporary Art) began in 1981 as a one-room gallery in a drab, city-owned former water department building, with the ambitious name of the North Miami Museum and Art Center. It had a threadbare budget of $55,000 a year. Led by Lou Anne Colodny (a wife of a former North Miami mayor who was initially the chair of the center’s board, and later its director), the center was an effort by North Miami leaders to bring culture to the northern part of the county. Though physically small, the center was conceptually mighty; the first area museum to present performance art, on-site collaborations, and environmental and sound artists. One Herald writer called it “the little museum that could.” As such, it was a crucial early haven for contemporary art, artists and ideas in Miami, and for the kind of concept-driven work and movements that have become such an important part of the art world.

The museum became the Center of Contemporary Art (COCA) by the end of the ’80s. Led by Bonnie Clearwater, who became chief curator in 1993 with Colodny remaining as executive director, COCA opened its current building in 1996. Clearwater extended the center’s adventurous mission, building a collection of top contemporary artists, and staging major shows with the likes of Roy Lichtenstein and Frank Stella, and on photography and Mexican modernism. She made MOCA a must-stop venue during Art Basel, and for a time its reputation in the art world surpassed that of any other Miami museum or collection. The center’s board and art collection went through a controversial breakup last year, and though MOCA continues, its future and direction, under new director Babacar M’Bow, are unclear.

YOUNGARTS, 1981

Ted and Lin Arison launched YoungArts in 1981 in part to say thanks to the city where Ted Arison’s Carnival Cruise Lines had become successful. Arison, who as a child studied piano and dreamed of being a concert pianist, not only loved the arts, he knew their value in fostering discipline and creativity. His $5 million gift to create what was initially called the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts was enormously larger than any previous single donation to the arts, and galvanized cultural philanthropy in Miami.

The NFAA held its first Arts Week, its trademark program of workshops for talented teenage artists from around the country, in January 1982 — just two months after Time magazine’s infamous cover story proclaimed Miami a “Paradise Lost” rife with violence, drugs, refugees and riots. Yet hundreds, then thousands of high school students would apply to the NFAA, which Arison created with the U.S. Department of Education and was the only way to become a Presidential Scholar in the Arts. Finalists took home positive tales and images of the city. Over the years, many aspiring young South Florida artists, from the New World School of the Arts and elsewhere, have found opportunities through the NFAA. The program has drawn famous names to teach, from Mikhail Baryshnikov to Placido Domingo, while its graduates include the likes of Viola Davis and Terrence Blanchard, giving an immeasurable boost to Miami’s cultural image.

Since moving to the former Bacardi Building near downtown Miami in 2012, YoungArts has expanded to offer live performances, salon discussions and artist residencies, further enriching Miami’s cultural fabric. More programs are slated once a promised major expansion of its campus, to be designed by Frank Gehry, is completed.

SOUTH FLORIDA ART CENTER, 1983

Where most people in the early ’80s saw South Beach as a dangerous, decaying place, ceramic artist Ellie Schneiderman (back then they called her a “potter”) saw a perfect place for artists: full of cheap empty spaces in a quirky Art Deco wonderland, with the ocean nearby and cheap bars to lubricate creativity. She launched the South Florida Art Center on the western end of a desolate Lincoln Road in late 1983 with a $62,000 grant from the city of Miami Beach, negotiating dirt-cheap rents ($3 to $5 a square foot) and 10-year leases from desperate landlords. Approximately 60 artists quickly filled some 20 storefront studios and a cooperative gallery, sometimes paying as little as $50 a month in rent — plus an end-of-the-year gift of artwork to Schneiderman, the mother figure presiding over them all.

The Art Center made the area synonymous with artists, and it was crucial to the revitalization of South Beach and Lincoln Road, creating an atmosphere of creativity and hip youthfulness that lured other kinds of creative talent, entrepreneurs and nightlife and eventually brought about SoBe’s boom in the ’90s and 2000s. Arts philanthropist Toby Ansin spotted the former Bonwit Teller that became Miami City Ballet’s first home while visiting an artist studio on Lincoln Road. Schneiderman was prescient enough to purchase three buildings in the late ’80s, turning them into centers for long-term artist residencies.

As so often happens with gentrification, the Art Center was a victim of the revitalization it pioneered, with most studios and galleries turned into chain stores by the mid-2000s. Yet the Art Center was also able to capitalize on those changes, selling its flagship building, at 800-810 Lincoln Rd., to a developer for $88 million last year. The center continues in another building, 938 Lincoln Rd., and the sale proceeds will eventually enable it to open a new center elsewhere.

CENTER FOR THE FINE ARTS (PÉREZ ART MUSEUM MIAMI), 1984

The Center for the Fine Arts, which would become the Miami Art Museum and then the Pérez Art Museum Miami, was part of a massive $24 million county-owned project meant to inject life and culture into Miami’s dangerous and moribund downtown. The money came from a $553 million bond passed in 1972 called the Decade of Progress, aimed at beefing up Miami’s cultural offerings. The CFA’s launch was tangled in bureaucratic controversy, with a last-minute delay of its original 1983 opening to renovate its smoke evacuation system that took more than a year and cost more than $16 million. Designed by Philip Johnson, the center was part of a massive cultural plaza on Flagler Street, which also included the main branch of the Miami-Dade Public Library and the South Florida Historical Museum.

The concept and design of both the CFA and the plaza would turn out to be problematic. The center, meant to house traveling shows in an era of blockbuster art exhibits such as the King Tut show at New York’s Metropolitan Museum, did not start building its own collection until 1996, when it became the Miami Art Museum. (Its opening show, in January 1984, had 203 objects from 60 museums, ranging from Egyptian and Roman artifacts to works by Jackson Pollock and Duane Hanson.) The plaza’s sheer size and placement above and away from Flagler Street would isolate the center and discourage visitors. So would its lack of seating and shade, lost to budget cuts.

But initially the CFA and the plaza were very popular, an emblem of public will in a cultural cause. And the CFA, which would eventually become the Pérez Art Museum Miami, another massive public arts project, was a crucial part of the foundation of Miami’s visual arts scene.

MIAMI INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL, 1984

In 1983 Miami seemed like the last place in the world for a festival of foreign and art house films. But Nat Chediak, who had built a loyal audience (and a 10,000-name mailing list) after a decade showing the likes of Wim Wenders, Jean Renoir and Fernando Trueba at his Cinematheque theater in Coral Gables, was confident he could do it. Perhaps a globe-trotting childhood, courtesy of his father, a Cuban of Lebanese descent who fled the revolution to became a diplomat for Lebanon so that his son graduated high school in war-torn Beirut, fostered Chediak’s tolerance for risk. His early supporters included famed boxing coach Ferdie Pacheco, revered 80-something environmental activist Marjory Stoneman Douglas (who enjoyed going out for late night post-movie chats at a nearby iHOP with Chediak and the “boys”) and Maurice Ferré, Miami’s first Hispanic mayor, who engineered a then-lavish $25,000 grant.

Chediak and partner Stephen Bowles, a University of Miami film professor, launched the Miami Film Festival on Feb. 3, 1984, with 1,500 people packing downtown’s Gusman Center for the Performing Arts for a little-known film called Crackers. Screenings at smaller theaters sold out, and celebrity guests that year included actors Kirk Douglas and Liv Ullmann, director John Sayles and authors Alain Robbe-Grillet and Guillermo Cabrera Infante. It was a celebration of artistry and intellect the likes of which Miami had never seen before.

The festival was a cultural pioneer in other ways. Its board put Latinos on an equal footing with Anglo leaders, and its international programming drew a mix of audiences highly unusual at the time. Chediak remembers one Saturday where the Gusman filled with Brazilians, then Argentines and finally hundreds of Chinese. And its glamour (early parties at Vizcaya were legendary) was alluring in Miami and beyond. Chediak left in 2001, and the festival, which has been presented by Miami Dade College since 2003, is a different kind of event, with more films at more venues. But its success, and the interest it created in film, were crucial in building the foundation for Miami’s current vibrant independent filmmaking and cinema scene.

MIAMI BOOK FAIR INTERNATIONAL, 1984

Another landmark event launched in 1984 was the Miami Book Fair. Like Chediak, co-founder Mitchell Kaplan, who had seen crowds flock to his fledgling Coral Gables store Books & Books for readings by Isaac Baschevis Singer and Russell Banks, believed Miami had a depth that belied its shallow reputation. He found a kindred spirit in Eduardo Padrón, then vice president of Miami Dade College’s Wolfson Campus, a book lover who had seen a literary fair in Barcelona and wanted an event that would bring people to his campus in then-desolate downtown Miami.

The inaugural fair, in November 1984, astonished even its organizers by drawing 25,000 people. James Batten, president of then-Miami Herald parent company Knight Ridder, who had laughed at Padrón’s idea, asked if the fair would bring Garrison Keillor. They did — along with James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Mario Vargas Llosa, Isabel Allende, Joseph Heller, Saul Bellow, Maya Angelou, Anne Rice and many, many more in those early years. Skeptical publishers were instantly won over. By the mid-’90s the Miami Book Fair was the largest event of its kind in the country, and its groundbreaking combination of author events and popular street fair became a template for similar literary celebrations around the country.

In South Florida, the Book Fair helped foster a community of writers, from crime novelists like Les Standiford and James Hall to humorist Dave Barry. Writing and literature programs, from FIU to the University of Miami to Miami Arts Charter to MDC’s own Florida Center for the Literary Arts, have flourished. And Miami has welcomed a second generation of literary pioneers, like Scott Cunningham of the O Miami Poetry Festival and Amanda Keeley of Exile Books.

MIAMI CITY BALLET, 1985

Toby Ansin, mother of three and wife of billionaire media and real estate mogul Ed Ansin, had loved ballet since she was a little girl. But she never dreamed of starting a company until former New York City Ballet star Edward Villella came to her South Miami home in May 1985. That visit (engineered by David Eden, head of a Miami dance organization who had invited Villella to speak), and Villella’s ambitious and passionately expressed ideas, set Ansin on a seemingly quixotic campaign to start a troupe in Miami. For Villella, who had been seeking a new direction after a hip injury cut short his stellar dancing career in 1975, Miami would prove to be an unlikely but ideal launching pad for the second stage of his artistic life, a place without competition or tradition where he could create a ballet troupe according to his own vision.

Miami City Ballet opened at Gusman Center for the Performing Arts in October 1986 to an audience that was thunderstruck to have a ballet troupe of its own. Villella’s inspired interpretation of the choreographic legacy and style he had learned from his mentor, choreographer George Balanchine; his ability to pass those ideas on to his dancers; his shrewd, methodical construction of a top-notch repertory; and his eye for individual talent would make Miami City Ballet one of the top troupes in the country. MCB has performed to acclaim at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., New York, Paris and numerous other cities. From the beginning, its quality and achievement changed outsiders’ image of Miami and gave the city a new sense of its own possibilities.

The troupe endured conflicts for much of its history, as Villella’s impassioned ambition led to clashes with board members and donors, leading to his ouster in 2012. But MCB continues under Lourdes Lopez, with new achievements, such as last season’s Justin Peck premiere Heatscape and an innovative production of Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream next spring.

INTERNATIONAL HISPANIC THEATER FESTIVAL, 1986

Mario Ernesto Sanchez’s International Hispanic Theater Festival has been key to making Miami’s artistic scene richly connected to the culture of Latin America. Its launch in 1986 was marked by controversy, when plans to present a one-act play by Dolores Prida, a Cuban-American advocate of dialogue between the United States and Cuba, were derailed by exile protests. But the festival has thrived, presenting a bountiful selection of theater (as well as dance and performance) from across Latin America each year. It has put Miami on the artistic map of the Southern Hemisphere and asserted the power of theater in Latin America, as well as the value of Latin culture and the Spanish language, in a city that was not always friendly to such things.

Sanchez has also made a point of reaching out to broaden his audiences — translating performances with English supertitles, producing children’s theater and workshops.

NEW WORLD SCHOOL OF THE ARTS, 1987

The education and civic leaders who came together to create the New World School of the Arts would use the hit movie Fame (based on New York’s LaGuardia High School of Performing Arts, the model for New World) as a selling point. The tactic didn’t always work with uncomprehending politicians. “They’d say, ‘Why do we need kids dancing on car roofs?’” remembers Seth Gordon, a key player in the campaign to create a hybrid high school and college conservatory, under the aegis of Miami-Dade County Public Schools, Miami Dade College and FIU (since replaced by the University of Florida).

But New World (the name, like that of the New World Symphony, was inspired by Knight Ridder Chairman Alvah Chapman’s plan to brand Miami as a “New World Center”) would turn out to be crucial to Miami’s nascent cultural scene. It opened a new path to the city’s young actors, dancers, musicians, singers and visual artists, so that they no longer had to leave to be artists. New World graduates have gone on to Broadway stardom, Hollywood and top museums. More importantly for their hometown, many have started dance companies, theater troupes, experimental art centers and film festivals here. Choreographer Rosie Herrera and the leaders of the Borscht Film Festival are just two of many examples.

The school was also key to bringing Miami’s downtown back to life. When New World opened in 1987, students took class in storefronts around Wolfson Campus. (Early high school graduate Robert Battle, the artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, took dance class in a former jewelry store and changed in its vault.) The current main building on Northeast Second Street opened in 1990, and a second building for music came later. As they have since the beginning, New World’s students fill downtown, and the city around them, with energy and creativity.

NEW WORLD SYMPHONY, 1988

The New World Symphony was originally envisioned as part of YoungArts. But the foundation’s leaders quickly realized their idea for a training orchestra to ease young musicians from conservatory to career ought to be its own endeavor. Early YoungArts director Grant Beglarian, the former dean of performing arts at the University of Southern California, lured one of his star graduates, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, to lead the ensemble. And Ted Arison once again stepped up, paying not only to launch New World Symphony but to gut and renovate the Lincoln Theater, an Art Deco cinema on Lincoln Road, into a state-of-the-art concert hall. The New World Symphony played its first concert there in February 1988.

Tilson Thomas’ artistry and adventurous vision — he is a steadfast supporter of new music — has consistently lured top composers, musicians and conductors to work with NWS, building Miami’s reputation as a center for classical music. Its graduates have taken that reputation with them to orchestras around the United States and the world. The ensemble’s quality, together with the vibrant energy of its young performers, has done much to expand audiences for classical music in Miami.

The New World Center, the symphony’s futuristic, Frank Gehry-designed home in Miami Beach, opened in 2011 and has established the NWS as a pioneer in finding new ways to engage people in classical music and new multi-media forms in which to present that music. They include popular programs like the free outdoor Wallcast concerts; the PULSE series, which turns the concert hall into a nightclub mixing electronic dance and classical music; and commissioning new pieces that blend visual elements with music.

THE RHYTHM FOUNDATION, 1988

Miami would not be such a welcoming place for music from around the world without the Rhythm Foundation, which began presenting world music at South Beach’s Cameo Theater in 1988 with stars of reggae, Africa and Brazil — Burning Spear, Jimmy Cliff, King Sunny Ade and Milton Nascimento, to name a few. Founders James Quinlan, who had worked in avant-garde music in upstate New York and was the agent who introduced acts like Ade and Fela to North America, joined with Paco de Onis, producer of a Caribbean music festival in Cartagena, Colombia.

The Rhythm Foundation would not only be the first to present a host of global artists in Miami, it was a key part of revitalizing the early South Beach. Back when the area consisted mostly of dilapidated buildings and elderly residents, Quinlan and de Onis renovated the Cameo, which became a center for artists and creative nightlife, for poetry nights (playwright Teo Castellanos was an early performer) and dance party promoters (Disco Inferno was one popular party). The Rhythm Foundation was the first to present Cuban trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, in 1990, and co-presented (with Miami Dade College) the great Cuban-jazz bandleader Mario Bauza in 1991. They put on an ambitious Caribbean festival that was one of the first events at a renovated Bayfront Park, with Jimmy Buffett, Tabou Combo and Eddie Palmieri. De Onis was replaced by Quinlan’s wife, Laura Quinlan, who would take the lead in bringing great world music artists and new styles of music to Miami, from Brazilian singer Marisa Monte to flamenco-jazz singer Buika to the ethnic-electronic fusions that have been so popular with a new generation of Latin American and millennial music lovers. They have popularized artists from places like Brazil or Haiti to a wide audience. The group’s shows are always notable for their joyous mix of people, a template for what Miami, at its best, can be.

MIAMI LIGHT PROJECT, 1989

The Miami Light Project, created by Janine Gross (who had worked for Mary Luft at Tigertail) and Caren Rabbino, launched its first season in December 1989. Initially they were focused on modern dance — their first concert was by Randy Warshaw, who had grown up in Miami and gone on to dance with New York’s experimental dance legend Trisha Brown. Early on Miami Light was known for introducing famous avant-garde names — Laurie Anderson, Brown, The Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company — to Miami.

Since executive director Beth Boone took over in 1998, Miami Light’s most significant contribution has been the way it has fostered Miami artists — through its annual Here & Now Festival, which offers commissions to new performing artists, and through larger projects with artists they have developed. Those include Teo Castellanos, Rudi Goblen and Rosie Herrera, all of whom received a crucial boost from Miami Light. The group has increased those efforts at their current Wynwood space, The Light Box at Goldman Warehouse, with studio and gallery spaces for artists. Miami Light has also played a major part in building cultural bridges to Cuba, presenting Cuban artists and musicians here since the late ’90s, hosting them in long-term residencies in Miami, and taking Miami artists to the island. Those efforts have positioned them to be key cultural players in a new, more open era of U.S.-Cuba relations.

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