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Michael Spring has sprung: Longtime director of county cultural department to retire

Michael Spring, director of Miami-Dade’s Cultural Affairs department.
The Miami Herald
Michael Spring, director of Miami-Dade’s Cultural Affairs department.

Michael Spring planted the seeds for the county to blossom into the arts hub it is today.

As the director of the Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs for over 30 years and a county official for 40, Spring has been one of the few consistent figures in an ever changing metro area. He’s spearheaded the establishment of community cultural centers across the county. He helped keep arts organizations afloat during the 2008 economic crisis and again during the pandemic. And he secured funding for Miami’s flagship downtown arts institutions. It is more than safe to say that he has seen it all.

Now is the perfect time to retire.

Spring, who has worked for the county for more than half his lifetime, will step down at the end of September, he told the Herald. Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava will appoint Marialaura Leslie, the department’s current deputy director, as interim director.

“It’s time,” Spring said. “It’s always great to leave when everything is in great shape.”

The department will be left in capable hands, Spring said. Department staff and leadership are great, the mayor and county commission are supportive of the arts, the department’s budget has increased by over $7 million and Miami’s arts organizations made it out of Covid, he said. Spring is especially confident in Leslie, “who really could be a department director anywhere in the country.”

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“I want to express my deep gratitude to Director Spring for his more than four decades of service to Miami-Dade County, during which time he and his team have created and supported an outstanding cultural arts community ─ renowned and unrivaled for its diversity, vitality and innovation,” the mayor said in a memorandum on Friday.

Spring, 71, was born in Brooklyn, New York. He and his family moved to South Florida when he was in the fourth grade, and he graduated as one of five valedictorians at Miami Edison High School in 1970. He attended the University of Miami and New York University’s study abroad program, which landed him in scenic Venice, Italy.

His career with the county started in 1983. Time Magazine had just published an article about Miami called “Paradise Lost,” he recalled. The early ‘80s were a troubled time in Miami, given the shaky economy, recent race riot and prominent drug trade.

Miami wanted to be a great place. Art was the key.

“What does it take to be a great city, a great metropolitan area?” Spring said. “We had part of the answer. You can’t name a great metropolitan area that doesn’t have an incredible arts community, right?”

Then-Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez (right) and Michael Spring, director of the county Department of Cultural Affairs, with a rendering of a revamped Coconut Grove Playhouse in 2019 after meeting with Miami Mayor Francis Suarez.
Pedro Portal
The Miami Herald
Then-Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez (right) and Michael Spring, director of the county Department of Cultural Affairs, with a rendering of a revamped Coconut Grove Playhouse in 2019 after meeting with Miami Mayor Francis Suarez.

The department began to plead its case. In order to attract and retain businesses, tourists and residents, the county needed to prioritize investing in the arts.

Spring, who was promoted from deputy director to director in 1990, has a tried and true playbook on how to advocate for arts funding despite “nonbelievers” who say that the arts are too frivolous to spend taxpayer money on. Data shows that children, especially those who are at risk, live better lives when they grow up with access to the arts. The arts teach young people problem solving skills and teamwork. A vibrant arts scene creates jobs and stimulates the local economy.

His advocacy worked. Throughout the course of his career, the department secured more than $1 billion in funding for cultural infrastructure, which lead to the construction of the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts. When Spring started as deputy director, there were about 100 arts organizations in Miami-Dade. Today, he said, there are about 1,000.

Spring’s colleagues credit Miami-Dade’s transformation with his leadership and dedication.

“You have to love what you do in order to stick it out for that long,” said Brian May, the Chairman of the Miami-Dade County Cultural Affairs Council. “Michael certainly loved every minute of it, and that shows in what was accomplished.”

May lauded Spring as the architect of Miami-Dade’s cultural ecosystem, from its grant programs to Art in Public Places to the construction of several cultural facilities across the country. Given his accomplishments over four decades, May said he figured Spring’s retirement would happen at some point.

“Since I took over chairing the council, always in the back of my mind was, ‘Jesus, is he ever gonna retire? Is he ever gonna take a break?’” May said. “I think he feels like the department and the county are in really good condition.”

Michael Spring, head of cultural affairs for Miami-Dade County.
Miami Herald file photo/2007
Michael Spring, head of cultural affairs for Miami-Dade County.

Jorge Pérez, the art collector, arts patron and real estate mogul who has worked alongside Spring for decades, said Miami was “pretty much a cultural wasteland” when Spring started. Not anymore.

While he is happy for Spring to enjoy his retirement, he is also sad for the county. “I think we’re losing one of our great, great assets,” Pérez said. “He is the best, with a capital B.”

“Not only is he great at promoting culture, he’s also great at understanding the economics of culture,” he added. “He’s not just [someone] that talks about culture in philosophical terms. He’s deeply aware of the money that is needed, the fundraising that is needed, to make art an important part of our everyday lives.”

Here are just some of many highlights in Spring’s career.

Spring is especially proud to have helped establish and manage cultural facilities in underserved areas of the county, especially those that are far from the large institutions in downtown Miami.

There’s the Dennis C. Moss Cultural Arts Center in Cutler Bay, which has become “a real hub for cultural activities in the south part of the county,” he said. And the Sandrell Rivers Theater on Northwest 7th Avenue, which is part of a mixed-used development site. And there’s the newly opened Westchester Cultural Arts Center at the entrance of Tropical Park. And the African Heritage Cultural Arts Center in Liberty City, where Tarell Alvin McCraney, who wrote the Academy-award winning film “Moonlight,” got his start.

In 1988, the Metro-Dade Cultural Affairs Council helped the South Florida Art Center, now known as Oolite Arts, purchase its Lincoln Road location for $684,000 with a $100,000 loan, according to Herald archives. Spring, who was the deputy director at the time, told the Herald, “They need the proper facilities for their art form to flourish.”

In 2004, Spring and his department made sure funding for arts projects was included in the $3 billion Building Better Communities Bond Program. A portion of that money went toward the construction of the Pérez Art Museum Miami and the Phillip & Patricia Frost Museum of Science.

Spring thanked the cultural affairs department team for making it all possible.

“I could keep going on and on, but we helped not only encourage artists to live, work and create new work here and supported the evolution of cultural organizations, but we built this cultural landscape that didn’t exist,” he said.

Michael Spring, director of Miami-Dade County’s Department of Cultural Affairs.
The Miami Herald
Michael Spring, director of Miami-Dade County’s Department of Cultural Affairs.

Rosie Gordon-Wallace, the founder of local arts nonprofit Diaspora Vibe Cultural Arts Incubator, said she could take up the whole afternoon discussing the impact Spring has had.

“He is the epitome of a leader who surrounds himself with excellence, listens to their advice and is available,” she said. “When Michael says he has an open-door policy, he has lived it in a very bureaucratic way.”

She recalled one dire moment in 2002. Her nonprofit had been hosting its arts programming at Bakehouse Art Complex, but had to leave the space. Gordon-Wallace was at a loss. Her organization did not have the funds to afford a new location. She went to Spring’s office, wringing her hands and feeling discouraged. She could’ve given up right then and there, she said.

Spring made sure that didn’t happen, and reminded her that she does important work. She left his office feeling determined. Shortly after, she said, she was connected with real estate developer Craig Robins and secured a spot in the Design District. “The transition was so easy. I know I went to Micheal with a bleeding heart and a cup of tears, and I ended up in Craig’s favor,” she said.

Gordon-Wallace said she is happy for the next chapter in Spring’s life.

“I send him off with an abundance of wishes,” she said.

Spring had been thinking about retirement for a few years, but when the pandemic hit, his department went into crisis mode, he said. Now that the county is out of the woods, he’s ready to do everything he didn’t have time to do while working as director.

He plans to read the books on his list, watch the films he’s been putting off, travel to places like his beloved Venice and spend more time with his wife Regina, who retired from her role at Florida International University just before the pandemic.

She’s been having fun this whole time, he said. Now it’s his turn.

“Actually, it feels great,” Spring said. “I look back and say, ‘I made a difference. I made a difference in this place.’”

This story was produced with financial support from The Pérez Family Foundation, in partnership with Journalism Funding Partners, as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The Miami Herald maintains full editorial control of this work.

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