Rhythm Foundation marks 25 years of building cross-cultural audiences through music

South Florida is as much an idea as it is a place, and few events express that idea as consistently as Big Night in Little Haiti.

As a live music performance unfolds on the third Friday night of each month, the plaza at the Little Haiti Cultural Center is a blur of colors and skin shadings, hipsters and families, hip-hoppers and old-guard survivors. Make your way through the packed yard and bits of conversation come at you in a jumble of languages and accents.

The event is a collaboration between the cultural center and the Rhythm Foundation, a nonprofit arts presenter that’s about to launch its 25th season. And while the foundation has presented bigger shows and better-known names, few events embody its mission, and its success, better than Big Night.

“I just came back from a booking conference, and I see a lot of … packages created for someone to check some ‘diversity’ box,” says Laura Quinlan, director of the Rhythm Foundation, in a recent conversation at its Miami Beach office.

“When I fill out a grant application and they ask the diversity question I always have problems with it because it is so inherent to what we do. Our mission is to build cross-cultural audiences through music — and we have seen it develop.”

The Rhythm Foundation has presented major World Music figures such as Indian sitar master Ravi Shankar, African pop singers Baaba Maal and Youssou N’Dour, Argentine folk singer Mercedes Sosa, Spanish flamenco/hip-hop group Ojos de Brujo, Haitian band Boukman Eksperyans, flamenco guitarist Paco DeLucia, reggae star Jimmy Cliff and Brazilian singer-songwriters Caetano Veloso, Milton Nascimento and Gilberto Gil, who returns Sunday to help celebrate the anniversary (see box).

“There is a lot of music that we got to hear, thanks to the foundation,” says Maria del Valle, executive director of the Art Center/South Florida and a former director of the Centro Cultural Español, where she collaborated with the Rhythm Foundation on several projects.” They have worked with a clear focus and great tenacity, season after season, and that eventually pays off.”

There is no mystery to the organization’s success, Quinlan says.

“When we’ve had a successful show it’s been because we have worn out our feet on the pavement,” she says. “Now marketing to niche audiences is so much easier than when we started, but we still have to get out there, into the communities. In a city like Miami there is no substitute for grassroots promotion, for knowing people and for knowing the communicators.”

In fact, says James Quinlan, her husband and the co-founder and board chairman of the Rhythm Foundation, “There’s a great deal of suspicion when someone comes to work with your culture … so partnering and collaborating has been key for us to get stakeholders in the community to believe in what we are doing and believe in it as much as we do, embrace it and make it theirs.”

As successful as this approach has been, the programming and growth of the Rhythm Foundation has reflected the economic, social and cultural changes in South Florida.

A native of Detroit, James Quinlan moved here from New York in 1987. He was responding to a call from his friend Paco de Onis, a concert promoter who had fallen in love with the opportunities in Miami Beach in general and the Cameo Theater in particular, then “a nonfunctioning, basically abandoned, movie theater.

“So he asked me if I would help him restore and book it. Laura walked in off the street and was our first hire, to help us with the marketing.”

The partnership evolved into the Rhythm Foundation. Their first concert, in August 1988, featured Nascimento. James and Laura married in 1989, and de Onis left for other pursuits in 1992.

In 1993, Laura Quinlan, the Miami Beach native in the original group, became director of Rhythm Foundation. The organization now has a small staff but, typically, “we all do everything,” she says.

One key to the foundation’s longevity has been its adaptability. In the late 1990s, “Miami was full of cool, young, international people working on media, Internet startups and they were not coming to our productions,” Laura Quinlan recalls.

“So we made a concerted effort to change our programming direction and open it up. If you don’t keep your circles open and widening they become smaller and smaller and the organization shrinks to a tiny dedicated core.”

Likewise, the opening of the Carnival (now the Arsht) Performing Arts Center in 2006 “forced us to step up our game … to be seen a valuable partner, a valuable community asset.”

James Quinlan says that the support of Michael Spring, director of the Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs, has been crucial. But from the beginning, ticket sales have accounted for most of the Rhythm Foundation’s budget.

“Grants helped, but each show has to stand on its own,” he says. “Ours was always an ‘earned revenue’ model — much more than most nonprofit presenting organizations. We take a hard look at the bottom line in every show.”

Still, “at a certain level Rhythm Foundation has never made sense as business model,” Laura Quinlan says with a shrug.

“It’s always been artist-driven. It’s always been passion-driven. We are crazy music lovers and our audience is made of crazy music lovers and we feel very strongly about the shows we present. If you know this artist you have to be there, you can’t stay home to watch TV. It’s not an option. That is our bar.”