Miami’s arts leadership continues to evolve as a new generation steps up
These are the people who run Miami’s arts scene.
They helped Art Basel transform Miami Beach. They guided young artists of all backgrounds to reach their goals. They brought ballet to school kids. They mentored the next great composers. They erected new cultural centers. In some cases, they stuck it out for decades — 10, 20, 30, 40 years — to raise Miami’s nascent arts scene into adulthood.
The last couple of years, Miami’s arts community has seen a wave of notable retirements and departures. Jaie Laplante, the Miami Film Festival executive director of 12 years, left the organization last year. Marc Spiegler, who was Art Basel’s global director for 15 years, stepped down. Alberto Ibargüen, who oversaw the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, announced his retirement after 18 years. Michael Tilson Thomas, the internationally acclaimed conductor who co-founded the New World Symphony more than 30 years ago, stepped down as artistic director due to health concerns. After 40 years, Michael Spring, who spent more than half his life running the county cultural affairs department, retires this year, too.
Meanwhile, a new crop of arts leaders has emerged in South Florida. For some, this upcoming arts season is their first.
Stéphane Denève, the acclaimed French conductor who succeeded Tilson Thomas, kicked off his inaugural season as New World Symphony’s artistic director with a sold-out concert last week. Earlier this year, Juan José Escalante was appointed executive director at Miami City Ballet. Marialaura Leslie, previously Miami-Dade’s cultural affairs department deputy director, was appointed as interim director. On Monday, veteran arts leader Tania Castroverde Moskalenko was named interim CEO for the nonprofit Oolite Arts. And a handful of newly hired art museum curators are shaping the future of their institutions.
“I frankly feel terrific,” said Ibargüen, the outgoing Knight Foundation CEO and president. “If you look at the number of places that have new leaders that have already taken over, the number of places that have leaders that are about to take over, compare that to 18, 20, 30 years ago, you get a sense of the growth of Miami.”
Most leaders said the organizations they helped build are in good hands and described the upcoming arts season in the same way: exciting; dynamic; fresh.
“That’s a sign of a healthy environment,” said Franklin Sirmans, the Pérez Art Museum Miami director. “There’s movement and there is the ability for people to develop professionally.”
Here’s how Miami’s newest arts leaders plan to continue to grow into this next season.
‘STUBBORN PEOPLE WHO JUST KEPT AT IT’
The arts organizations that are going through a transitional period at this moment are well prepared, Spring said. Miami cultural groups are able to recruit and train capable successors.
“We’re turning the corner on a generation of leadership in the arts,” Spring said. “What’s very reassuring for me is how energetically we’re seeing that new leadership come into play. What could have, to skeptics, been a moment of jeopardy for the cultural community, I think instead is a moment of strength.”
Ibargüen noted how unusual it is for people to stay in these positions for decades.
“I think there was never an era of longevity. The reason you remember Michael Spring and Michael Tilson Thomas and, frankly, now me is [because] we’re stubborn people who just kept at it and are very lucky,” he said, laughing.
This current moment reflects how young Miami really is. About 40 years ago, Miami got aspirational, said Howard Herring, the New World Symphony president and CEO since 2001.
The ‘80s gave rise to organizations like the symphony, Miami City Ballet and YoungArts. The early 2000s saw the construction of arts infrastructure as the private sector got involved to build Pérez Art Museum Miami, New World Center and the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts. And most recently, Herring said, grassroots arts organizations like Nu Deco Ensemble, Illuminarts and Miami New Drama “emerged with staying power.”
“As one generation finishes and the next generation comes on now, the challenge here is to hold tight to that original concept and cause the energy that comes from that concept to develop and serve the community,” Herring said.
The wave of new leadership is thrilling to Dennis Scholl, who served as CEO and president of Oolite Arts for six years. In May, he announced his retirement as he pursues his own art.
Scholl hopes that the next leader of Oolite will preserve the initiatives that work and implement fresh ideas that make sense for today’s Miami.
“We have, in a way, helped take the community to a certain level, but now It’s time for a new group of leaders to come in and take a different skill set that will be necessary for where the arts community is now,” he said.
A NEW ERA FOR MUSEUMS
New curators are looking to shape the future of Miami’s top museums. The past year has been a whirlwind for Gilbert Vicario, who joined PAMM as its chief curatorlate last year. Vicario, who was a curator at the Phoenix Art Museum for seven years, said Miami’s recent evolution as an arts hub attracted him to the area.
Vicario specializes in Latin American and African diaspora art, which aligns with PAMM’s interests, he said. He recently updated the museum’s permanent collection, which hadn’t changed in three years, for visitors to “have a sense of the values, the interests and identities of the community.”
This season, he’s looking forward to the museum’s major exhibition on Gary Simmons, an American artist who focuses on race and class, and a traveling exhibition he co-curated called “Xican–a.o.x. Body,” featuring Chicano artists. His long-term goal is for PAMM to be a national leader in Latinx art while connecting the local community with art from around the world.
“These are all opportunities to further define what we do in a way that can’t be done anywhere else,” he said. “Museums are both windows and mirrors onto the communities that we serve. Curators need to understand that what they present has to connect with people: who they are, their experiences, their identities and their culture.”
Since she started at the Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami last year, curator Adeze Wilford has been busy getting to know the community and connecting with local artists. Coming from New York, which is more established and rigid in how things get done, Wilford said curating in Miami is more freeing and nimble.
Wilford was drawn to MOCA because of its commitment to showcasing artists at every stage of their careers, she said. Her goal moving forward is to help deserving artists have “their moment in the sun.” Curators like herself shape audiences’ relationships with art and artists’ relationships with institutions. That is a responsibility she takes seriously.
This season, MOCA plans to reflect its community with exhibitions featuring the late Cuban artist Juan Francisco Elso, Jamea Richmond-Edwards’ Afro-futurist works and an outdoor installation by local artist Chris Friday.
“[Curators are] this bridge between the artist and the general public,” Wilford said.
At The Bass in Miami Beach, curator James Voorhies is looking to support artists “whose visions are not bound to a medium or even the site of the museum,” he said. After joining The Bass earlier this year, he immediately began working on upcoming exhibitions. Six new shows will be on view by Dec. 6. Voorhies said he’s especially excited for visitors to see the museum’s show on Nam June Paik, an artist known for his use of technology in performance art, and his time in Miami.
Voorhies said it feels great to be part of Miami’s international arts community, especially considering the support from residents. He felt that support recently when the museum hosted an opening night party for artist Kerry Phillips.
“While I was once told that summer can be quiet, that was certainly not the case,” Voorhies said. “The party was packed with friends and familiar faces — the energy was great!”'
Meanwhile, the Coral Gables Museum’s executive director is looking to revamp the institution and the work it presents.
“I found a museum that was looking to reinvent itself, and the board was very committed to that,” said Elvis Fuentes, who became executive director last year. “They gave me the green light to rethink the museum, refocus on the mission.”
PASSING THE TORCH
As Miami’s reputation attracts professionals from across the country to high-level positions, local nonprofits have simultaneously nurtured the next generation of arts leaders.
Take Camila Gil, the executive director of Armour Dance Theatre, a youth dance nonprofit. She started out at the organization as a child taking dance lessons.
After years of volunteering and working in administration at the nonprofit, Gil, 32, took on the executive director role in 2021. Artistic director Ruth Wiesen, who previously held the executive director role as well, taught Gil to lead with empathy and to focus on solutions, not problems, Gil said. Wiesen’s passion for making ballet accessible to all children, regardless of background, rings true to this day as the organization runs community program sites, which offer after-school and summer camp ballet classes at public elementary schools across the county.
As Armour Dance Theatre celebrates its 75th anniversary this year, Gil said her goal is to expand the nonprofit’s reach with more community program sites.
Diaspora Vibe Cultural Arts Incubator, a nonprofit that supports artists of Caribbean and diverse backgrounds founded by Rosie Gordon-Wallace, has also welcomed a new executive director in recent years. In 2021, DVCAI hired Tanya Desdunes to work alongside Gordon-Wallace.
“As the founder and president, I am actively committed to succession planning,” Gordon-Wallace said in a statement. “My current plan is to work with the Board of Directors to secure permanent artistic space and to launch a successful three-year capital campaign to create economic sustainability to ensure that DVCAI thrives to serve the Miami-Dade Caribbean community for many years in the future. My position as founder will champion and serve the next generation of leaders to steer this organization into a thriving secure future.”
As executive director, Desdunes plans on growing the group’s membership base and expand its reach on social media. The group recently relaunched DVCAI Vibe Collective, the nonprofit’s membership program.
Gordon-Wallace is a “fantastic force” who has been instrumental in developing the careers of both emerging artists and emerging arts leaders, Desdunes said.
Miami’s theater organizations have also seen a shift as new leaders take on their predecessor’s legacy. There’s Area Stage, a nonprofit theater company and conservatory founded by John and Maria Rodaz. This summer, their son Giancarlo Rodaz, a Carbonell award-winning director, took over as artistic director.
Giancarlo Rodaz literally grew up in the theater. Over the years he watched as Area Stage evolved from an underground, daring theater company to a mainstay in Miami’s theater scene that attracts diverse audiences. And his parents remain active in the company, offering advice and critiques Rodaz values.
And then there’s Gablestage, a theater company based in Coral Gables that has undoubtedly gone through a momentous couple of years. Bari Newport was hired as artistic director in 2021, the year after her predecessor, Joseph Adler, died.
Though she couldn’t ask Adler questions or for advice, Newport said, she’s guided by his mission for the company. And in many ways, her years of theater experience prepared her for this moment.
“You’re putting the tracks down as you go,” she said. “What remains the same though is, of course, the mission of the company, which is to confront today’s issues and ideas [to] the multicultural South Florida audience that we serve.”
‘EVERY YEAR FELT LIKE A TRIUMPH’
Some of Miami’s younger organizations are reaching major milestones this season.
Among them is the Institute of Contemporary Art Miami, which is coming up on its 10th anniversary next year. (The museum launched in 2014, it’s Design District building opened in 2017.) Alex Gartenfeld, the museum’s artistic director, has been at the helm since the beginning.
“I’m really proud that we’ve been able to make an impact on what it means to be an artist in Miami, to be a student in Miami, to live and work in Miami and love art,” he said. “What we have to offer has, I think, been able to make a difference, both in terms of the quality of the exhibition making, but also championing Miami artists.”
The 10-year mark is “not the time to sit back,” he said. His goals for the museum include building what he calls a premier permanent collection of contemporary art spanning from the post-war period to the present.
“I couldn’t think of a more fun job,” Gartenfeld said. “It’s a 21st century city, which means that it’s being built now. I’m just so privileged to work on building something from the ground up. That’s something that arts professionals have rare opportunities to do in other communities. Building that history is really an honor.”
Also celebrating 10 years and ushering in new leadership is Illuminarts, a performance arts group that collaborates with museums and art galleries to create unique, site-specific musical performances. Amanda Crider, a trained opera singer with a passion for classical music, founded the organization in 2013 after inspiration struck at a boring, traditional recital in Washington, D.C.
“I thought, ‘If I’m bored and this is my passion, then this is never gonna work in my home community of Miami, where everything moves so fast, everything’s so contemporary,’” Crider said.
After programming nine seasons as Illuminarts’ artistic director, Crider is moving on to a new adventure. Chad Goodman, a conductor and New World Symphony alum, was recommended to Crider by several people, she said. He was the perfect fit to assume the role.
“Starting a new organization is not easy, and every year felt like a triumph,” Crider said. “The fact that we made it to 10 years is so incredibly gratifying. The fact that there is someone here who can take it on and create something of their own now, it feels like a huge accomplishment.”
Joining Illuminarts was serendipitous and surreal, Goodman said. He looks forward to bridging gaps between art forms in an environment meant for everyone to enjoy. The group’s season opens Oct. 20 with a concert at the historic Vizcaya Museum & Gardens.
“What’s so fun is that Illuminarts can really be whatever we want it to be,” he said.
BRIGHT FUTURES FOR ESTABLISHED GROUPS
New World Symphony’s succession plan has been widely discussed and lauded in the arts world since Tilson Thomas announced his departure from the artistic director role. (He remains involved with the institution as artistic director laureate.)
“They hit a home run when they hired Stéphane Denève,” Ibargüen said. “He’s absolutely phenomenal.”
Denève’s plans for New World Symphony’s future are rife with experimentation, both during performances and while connecting with the community, he said. Still, he recognizes his responsibility to sustain Tilson Thomas’ original mission for the symphony and its fellows.
“It is very inspiring to know that there were these people that built a lot of these new institutions. It’s fabulous,” Denève said. “It gives me definitely a sense of responsibility to maintain that but also a sense of purpose to continue to develop it.”
The Rhythm Foundation, the group that organizes performances and events at the Miami Beach Bandshell, deeply knows the importance of a succession plan.
James Quinlan, who co-founded the organization in 1988, returned to the organization four years ago after a leadership transition went awry, jeopardizing the foundation. Business in this industry is fragile, he said, and he implemented a five-year plan to get The Rhythm Foundation back on track. Now that the organization is stable and on an upward trajectory, Quinlan said the board of directors is researching and planning for the upcoming transition.
“Our staff has grown and is there to provide state-of-the-art production for the artists and great experiences for the audience,” he said. “I’m more confident than I could ever have been asked about where we are headed in the future.”
The Black Archives Historic Lyric Theater, Miami’s oldest performing arts venue, is continuing to reinvent itself as it celebrates its 110th anniversary this year.
“In a time in Miami where everything is new, out the box -- new buildings, new organizations, new organization leaders -- it is important to remain grounded in those things that came before us,” said Kamila Pritchett, the Black Archives executive director, who assumed the role last summer after Timothy A. Barber stepped down after 19 years with the organization. “Having an understanding of history allows you to inform how you move into the future.”
While Black Archives is primarily a Black history archival organization, the group also operates the Lyric Theater, a historic venue that Pritchett calls “the crown of Overtown.” Her goal is for the theater to be a celebrated, storied cultural destination like Harlem’s Apollo Theater. That way the rest of the community can reap the benefits, she said.
“When the light shines on the Lyric Theater, we are shining light on everybody around us,” Pritchett said.
WORDS OF ADVICE
Fifteen years ago, Marialaura Leslie was at work at the county cultural affairs department when her boss, Michael Spring, turned to her and said, “You know, someday you could be leading this department.”
“I was like, ‘Are you nuts?” Leslie said, laughing.
Well, the time has come. Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine-Cava appointed Leslie, the county cultural affairs department deputy director, as interim director following Spring’s retirement announcement.
This moment in Miami is special, said Leslie. Cultural organizations have spent the last 40 years focusing on building and developing a world-class arts hub from scratch. The next logical step, she said, is to focus on equity.
Miami is a vast county, and leaders should focus on bringing the arts to as many people as possible, she said.
“Who is not at the table? Who is being left out? Which neighborhoods, populations, cultural heritages are not being served?” Leslie said.
Veteran leaders noted the challenges that Miami’s arts organizations will undoubtedly face; they always lead back to money: housing prices; studio prices; the cost of living; the need for arts education.
“None of the organizations should sit back and say, ‘We’re set,’” Ibargüen said. “The Metropolitan Museum of Art is not set. The MoMA in New York is not set. This is a constant, constant effort of staying relevant, staying accessible to the entire community, using digital media, using the tools that technology has given us and staying relevant to a changing community.”
In the midst of all that, Ibargüen said, arts organizations need to be willing and ready to adapt. Luckily, many local arts leaders have the recipe Ibargüen recommends: vision; tenacity; skill and the courage to share it.
“The one thing that doesn’t work is insisting that things need to stay the way they were,” he said. “Guess what? That’s not going to happen.”
That’s probably the one constant in Miami’s arts, he said. Change.
This article was producedwith 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.