The Art Of Politics: How The Arsht Center Got Ready For The Democratic Presidential Debates

Jun 25, 2019

Miami is at the epicenter of U.S. politics this week. Zoom in closer, and it's the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County. The Democratic presidential debates are there Wednesday and Thursday. 

Ever since the Arsht Center got a call from NBC in March, they've been pushing, pushing, pushing to get ready. Johann Zietsman, Arsht's president and CEO (who'd only been in the job for a month when that call came) tells us about what that took, and what it means for him to host the debates. 

WLRN: You grew up in South Africa and you came here from a performing arts center, the Arts Commons in Calgary, Canada. So I'm wondering what it's like to suddenly be so enmeshed in U.S. politics.

Zietsman: I studied here in Ithaca College [in New York State] in 1980 and 81, and me and my wife were anti-apartheid activists at the time. And so this was Ronald Reagan years, and discovering what freedom looks like and feels like and smells like in real life changed our lives, in the sense that it confirmed that the thing that we felt was wrong in South Africa was really wrong because we could see what the opposite looks like.

Johann Zietsman at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts. He's been president and CEO since February.
Credit PS Photography and Films

And so we were always involved in politics, U.S. politics. We were always watching. Our kids grew up on U.S. magazines, U.S. TV programs, U.S. everything, because we talked about the U.S. as: that's the way it should be kind of thing. And so when we finally immigrated in 2002, it was just like picking up with family that you've just been away from for a while. So I've always been intensely connected to where politics are going and what's happening. And that's what I love about Miami ... it is such a forward-feeling city in terms of living a future that much of this country will still get to. And so I'm fascinated to see it this close, this up close. But did I ever think I would be this involved? No, of course not. This is this is truly amazing.  

How did it come to be that these debates are happening at the Arsht Center?

We got a call [from NBC] a few months ago to say, "Hey, would you like to do this?" And then it's been full speed ahead from that moment.

What was your reaction when that phone call came?

It's just an opportunity you don't pass up, and when that phone call comes, you find every way to say yes. You just do whatever you can to make it work.

Once you said, yes, we want to make this happen, what happened after that?

Obviously they could have still gone somewhere else if we couldn't respond to everything they needed, which is a long list, and the list gets longer as the day goes by, even as we speak. All those moving pieces to make all that come together take so many people.

What are some of the things on that list, especially for a place that is used to putting on performing arts?

It's just an opportunity you don't pass up, and when that phone call comes, you find every way to say yes.

Well, you know it starts with -- "We're gonna do the the debate in the concert hall." Great, so now we need a spin room where we're gonna have all these candidates and 40, 50, 100 media outlets wanting to talk to them afterwards. Okay. That's the opera house stage. Now we need a room for every one of the talent and all their entourage and all of the 20 candidates and their entourage. All of them are VIPs, and they all want to be equal. So where do we put all of that? And then Hardball comes along, and they want their thing. And the Today Show comes, and they want their little space, and Telemundo comes, and they want their thing and their branding and their lighting and their sound. So it's a puzzle that nobody puts together except us. The whole world's eyes are going to be on the Arsht Center. I'm very proud of this.

This is a performing arts center. It gets significant public funding. It's under the umbrella of Miami Dade County. How do these debates connect to the way you want people to think about what the Arsht Center is?

We are a cultural institution, culture meaning all of what human beings do on this on this planet -- bringing communities together and helping people through our presentations to understand the other and develop you know, compassion, tolerance, all those kind of things. And politics is included in that. So this just brings it all together.