A rare melding of musician, teacher, architect and virtuoso executive, the peripatetic Johann Zietsman was born and raised in South Africa under apartheid, but made himself at home wherever the arts offered him a chance to make things better: In the black townships of his homeland, in the Arizona desert city of Mesa, and in the Canadian oil town of Calgary, where he turned a traditional cultural complex into a focal point for the city’s growing diversity and youthful sophistication.
In every place he’s been, he has lived up to a reputation for bridging racial, ethnic and cultural divides through the arts while running a tight administrative ship. Like many in the field, Zietsman is a strong believer in the transformational power of the arts, but he says they can’t deliver if the business end doesn’t.
Now Zietsman is bringing his skills not to South Beach, but to downtown Miami. He’s taking over as president and CEO of the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, which announced his appointment on Tuesday. Zietsman will replace John Richard, who announced his retirement earlier this year after 10 years at the helm of the Arsht, one of the largest performing arts centers in the hemisphere and a South Florida cultural linchpin.
In hiring Zietsman after an international search, Arsht leaders said they expect more of what Richard brought to the privately run but publicly subsidized center, which has a $40 million yearly budget. Richard was credited with putting the Arsht on a stable footing after its rocky start by expanding programming and the scope and diversity of audiences and performers.
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“We want to keep doing what we’re doing and want to add to it, with more diversity and more community outreach,” said Ira D. Hall, the Arsht board chairman, who also led the CEO search. “We’re looking to expand a positive. We’ve got a very solid base.”
In Zietsman, he said, the Arsht found someone with the requisite commitment to diversity and management and fundraising skills. Zietsman also met a fourth requirement: That the new director be “someone we like,” Hall said.
Zietsman, a sprightly 63 with a penchant for bow ties, said his focus at the Arsht will be to make it an unstuffy, inclusive center of city life, and not just for devotees of its Florida Grand Opera, Miami City Ballet and New World Symphony mainstays, whose audiences he also hopes to expand.
“I will try really hard to make it more open,” he said. “I’m certainly not interested in running a classical sort of place. That’s not what interests me. It’s not holy. It’s supposed to be fun and to make your life better. The exclusive palace for the arts is not what people want anymore.”
Miami-Dade County cultural affairs director Michael Spring, who sat on the search committee that picked Zietsman, said he was “thoroughly impressed” with his experience and “compelling answers” to questions. The selection was ratified by Spring’s boss, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez.
“I am particularly impressed with his track record for making the arts accessible to people of all backgrounds and means and with his ability to balance exciting and diverse programming with fiscally sound operations,” Gimenez said in a statement.
Zietsman will assume the job in February, after Richard’s formal retirement, with a renewable five-year contract. He will be paid a base annual starting salary of $550,000.
The Arsht receives nearly $12 million in public grants and subsidies, according to its publicly available tax returns. Richard’s current compensation is $754,500, the Arsht said.
Zietsman’s appointment comes at a pivotal point for the 12-year-old Arsht, which occupies the center of a neighborhood that’s belatedly but rapidly changing after years of stagnation that the facility was meant to help reverse. At least four residential towers have recently opened or are under construction on surrounding blocks, with others and a new hotel to follow soon, potentially increasing the center’s customer base.
On its southern flank, the Florida Department of Transportation is about to start long-delayed work on the replacement of Interstate 395, a five-year project that could mean some disruptions for the Arsht but will ultimately create a multi-use public space at the center’s front door that will expand its capacity for events and performances.
And on the west, the Miami-Dade County School Board is in negotiations to redevelop several blocks now occupied by its headquarters, a magnet school and broadcast services. That project could also bring the Arsht a long-needed parking garage and more of the urban activity it was meant to foster and thrive on.
Zietsman, who studied architecture at a South African university, said he hopes to better integrate the Arsht’s concert hall and ballet and opera house into the improving neighborhood at sidewalk level, to give it a more welcoming feel.
That can also be done by broadening its palette of performances even more, he said. At the Arts Commons, the large Calgary multi-hall center he has run for the past nine years, there are resident orchestras, an opera and dramatic companies, but also annual celebrations for the city’s Mexican, Chinese and Filipino communities, for instance, Zietsman said. That expanded focus was an impetus for changing the Calgary center’s name from EPCOR Centre for the Performing Arts to Arts Commons, reflecting the idea of a town square where communities come together.
“For those communities, this is their home,” he said. “If you begin to see this as a community space, you can break the ice this way.”
And what pays off in greater diversity and expanded audiences is also good for the bottom line, it turns out. The Calgary center, one of Canada’s largest, went from a projected $900,000 deficit to a surplus under his guidance and now counts on a $1.3 million reserve, the Arsht said in a release.
Zietsman figured out how to do all this under the most exigent circumstances.
Raised in a small town at the center of South Africa, he served a mandatory term in a military whose principal job was to enforce apartheid, a regime he turned against. After experiencing life in an open, integrated society in the United States, where he got a master’s degree in music at Ithaca College in upstate New York (he conducts and plays trumpet and French horn) Zietsman and his South African wife, artist Tharrie Zietsman, returned home in 1982 determined to contribute to change.
He went to work in Cape Town and Durban, teaching, becoming principal of a music school and running a youth orchestra before moving on to manage a community cultural center in a rural black town. He organized two community programs, still in operation today, that serve thousands of at-risk kids. It was while working at the community center in Taung that he became convinced of the power that art can instill in people to reimagine their lives.
Zietsman likes to tell the story of a neighborhood tough who came from an impoverished, dysfunctional family and was the product of inferior racially separate schooling. By getting into drumming at the center, the young man discovered an affinity for mathematics. He got a degree and today is a math teacher, Zietsman said. Through the arts, too, black South Africans were able to change how whites saw them, he said.
“The arts have the power to change hearts and minds,” he said. “I could see how communities could begin to see and understand the other through the arts.”
In 2002, 20 years after his return, with apartheid in the dustbin of history, Zietsman, his wife and two children left South Africa for New York City, where he had been recruited by the International Society for the Performing Arts to serve as CEO. After five years, he went to Mesa, Ariz., as director of its cultural programs and performing arts center, staying on two years there before changing countries again, this time to Canada.
No matter the setting, Zietsman said, the basic ingredients for a good cultural center are the same. To attract and nurture audiences (he prefers to call them “participants”), the art has to be good and the experience of attending, too. At the Arsht, he said, he’s glad we won’t need to tap into his turnaround skills — though he said he plans to focus on expanding the Arsht’s endowment, which now sits at $11.7 million and has not significantly grown in recent years.
At the Arsht, he said, all those basics are in place, including solid support from Miami-Dade.
“They understand it makes Miami a better place. That’s important,” he said, adding later: “So many things already here are really good.”