The Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts marked Dia de los Muertos with a public outdoor event in November as part of a long-range strategy to bring new activity to the complex in downtown Miami.
Nearly 14 years after its rocky opening season, the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts has become, as its backers intended, a bulwark of Miami’s mushrooming cultural ecosystem. But a new study suggests it can, and should, do more to reach beyond its ramparts and connect with Miamians.
The Arsht’s new plan, unveiled Wednesday, maps out a strategy to do just that over the next five years while securing the financial and administrative sustainability of the center, which receives nearly $12 million in annual taxpayer subsidies.
Developed after months of listening sessions, workshops and focus group meetings across Miami-Dade with hundreds of people, including staff, subscribers and some who have never set foot inside the downtown center, the Arshtconnect plan sets out four broad goals.
Those range from physical tweaks to make the imposing twin-hall complex straddling Biscayne Boulevard more welcoming and accessible, to raising millions more in private donations and expanding its range of performance and educational offerings to better reflect Miami-Dade County’s residents and artistic talent.
That doesn’t mean the Arsht will stint on its high artistic aspirations or on the traditional symphony, opera and ballet companies and the Broadway and jazz series that make up its backbone, said Arsht president and CEO Johann Zietsman. But it must supplement those with fresh approaches that resonate with Miami’s culturally and economically diverse, polyglot residents if it is to fulfill its mission of bringing the arts to the broadest range of audiences and participants, he said.
To bring more of Miami’s audiences and artists into the Arsht and diversify its artistic offerings, the plan says the center needs more Miami stories and more Miami artists on stage. To do that, it must expand its collaborations with and commissions of new works by new performers and artists; establish artistic residencies; expand its theater and visual arts programs and add a significant film component, the plan says. It should also produce performances outside its walls in the broader community.
“The arts can and should play a real role in society, and not be just an optional extra,” Zietsman said in an interview. “We’re not just buying and selling shows. We are sharing experiences with people, and so you have to connect to where people are.”
The Arsht board hired Zietsman a year ago in large part because of his extensive experience in broadening the reach and appeal of cultural programs and institutions, both in his native South Africa and in subsequent managerial posts in Arizona and Canada.
The strategic plan Zietsman helped develop for the Arsht is based on surveys and comments gathered during three months of workshops and focus group meetings with donors, staffers, members of the resident companies and regular Arsht attendees, in addition to meetings in libraries and community centers in all 13 Miami-Dade commission districts.
“We asked two basic questions: What do you think about the Arsht today? And, five years from now, what would you like to see?” Zietsman said.
Some of the responses were concerning. Some people knew little about the Arsht or its offerings, and many said they visited rarely, if ever, for reasons ranging from geographic distance and traffic concerns to cost of attendance and parking, Zietsman said.
But there was also encouraging news.
“We got a clear sense from people of being inordinately proud of being Miamians, and very proud that the Arsht exists,” Zietsman said. “The Arsht had a tough start. The team did yeoman’s work to come from that very difficult start to the point where the Arsht is respected even by people who have never been there. No one said the Arsht is irrelevant or shouldn’t have been built.
“Now we have the luxury of a really strong foundation to think a little wider.”
Zietsman says the center is also exploring ways to make attending performances more affordable. Its ticket prices, he said, turn out to be in line with or even lower than at comparable centers. But at shows produced by the Arsht, the center may make unsold tickets available at no cost to community groups or offer tickets to children and seniors at “rock-bottom” prices.
The plan also calls on Arsht administrators and board members to undertake a “major” campaign to expand its relatively meager endowment fund, which stands at $12.1 million, to $50 million. That will be done in phases, Zietsman said, starting with raising endowments of $6 million and $10 million to permanently fund two popular programs — respectively, the summer AileyCamp for kids, and a musical, “Rock Odyssey,” that all public school fifth-graders in the county attend.
Another goal of the plan calls for investing more in training and retention of staff, which currently numbers 111 full-timers.
The center has already begun working on another principal element of the plan, making subtle changes to its exterior and interior spaces to make them more welcoming and “animated,” Zietsman said. A new sound and lighting system at the plaza spaces fronting Biscayne means the Arsht now hosts performers, and musical buskers roaming the inside halls, for two hours before Friday and Saturday shows. That’s to encourage people — even those without a ticket — to hang out, he said.
Zietsman said people should not expect big, dramatic changes in the near future, but discrete improvements and expanding horizons.
“People will begin to see gradual changes. Not a big bang. That is less effective,” he said. “The change is that the Arsht is now much more about the community and the connection to the community.”