Adrienne Arsht goes her own way. In philanthropy, as in business, she chooses causes based on what intrigues and captivates her.
Ms. Arsht was born in Wilmington, Delaware. Her father was a lawyer. Her mother was the fifth women to become a member of the Delaware bar and later, the first female judge in the state. Ms. Arsht graduated from Mount Holyoke College and Villanova Law School and became the 11th woman to join the Delaware bar. In 1969 she went to New York City and worked in the legal department of Trans World Airlines. Then, in 1980, she moved to Washington and married Mike Feldman, a Kennedy administration member whose interests included law, real estate, radio stations, and banking.
In the 1980s, she and her husband bought TotalBank, a small community bank in Miami. In 1996, he wanted to sell it; she didn’t. Ms. Arsht moved to Miami to oversee the bank. Soon she was leading a dramatic turnaround. By 2007, she had grown it from 4 branches to 14, with assets of $1.4 billion. Several months after Mr. Feldman’s death in 2007, she sold the bank for a reported $300 million and was named chairman emerita of TotalBank.
In 2008, she gave $30 million to Miami’s then-floundering performing arts complex, putting the center on firm financial footing. It is now called the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County. She is treasurer and a trustee of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington and founding chairman of the Adrienne Arsht Center Foundation. She is also a board member of numerous organizations, including the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, the Metropolitan Opera, the University of Miami, the Atlantic Council, Amigos for Kids, and the Washington National Opera Council. She is president of the Vice President’s Residence Foundation and a member of the Fine Arts Committee of the U.S. Department of State, the Blair House Restoration Fund, and the Council on Foreign Relations. She takes an interest in public affairs and supports programs serving Hispanics in Wilmington.
Philanthropy spoke with Ms. Arsht in Washington, D.C., where she now lives.
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PHILANTHROPY: Many of your signature gifts have been to large performing arts complexes. Why have you chosen those as a focus of your philanthropy?
MS. ARSHT: There are so many exciting concepts that can be brought to fruition within a center. A performing arts complex offers an extraordinary value to a city. It brings art to everyone of every generation and every interest.
PHILANTHROPY: Can you tell me more about the Arsht Center’s value to Miami?
MS. ARSHT: The money was raised and the center was opened, but it was disastrously managed. They weren’t presenting the programs that people wanted to see. It was about to go bankrupt and have to shut down. With my contribution and new management, it then was able to be what it was supposed to be: a great performing arts center.
PHILANTHROPY: When you made your gift, did you insist on changes to the management?
MS. ARSHT: They had already agreed to that being done. That is what made me feel confident. They brought in an interim person and eventually hired John Richard, the man who’s there now.
PHILANTHROPY: And the programs are well-attended and popular?
MS. ARSHT: Oh, very much so. It’s really become the town square. It’s the center of activity for people planning where they live. The apartments in the neighborhood are selling out quickly. Other businesses have bought land in the vicinity. Hotels are coming up in the neighborhood. It revitalized downtown Miami.
PHILANTHROPY: What else captivates you about the arts?
MS. ARSHT: I love musical theater. I made a $5 million gift to the Kennedy Center to fund the Adrienne Arsht Musical Theater Series. Some of it is Broadway shows that travel, and some are shows that we create. It’s a form of music that I think is a significant part of our heritage, and I want to make sure that it is preserved for generations to come. Musical theater is a unique part of America’s cultural patrimony—it really doesn’t exist anywhere else. Such artists include Rodgers and Hammerstein, Cole Porter, Lorenz Hart, Lerner and Loewe, Stephen Sondheim—that’s an American musical art form.
PHILANTHROPY: What are the respective roles of the commercial sector and the philanthropic sector in making musical theater possible?
MS. ARSHT: When it’s on Broadway, it’s commercial; the funders are called investors, and they are looking to make a profit. Some shows become major hits, such as Mary Poppins, Annie, Wicked, and The Lion King. They tour to nonprofit performing arts centers throughout America. It is these shows, which are at the Kennedy Center for two weeks, that need to be subsidized.
It’s one thing for a Broadway show to run for a year, so its investment is recouped. But if it’s just going to be shown for two weeks, the running costs are greater, and so what it charges the Kennedy Center to perform there is more than the Kennedy Center takes in in the way of box office. So it needs to be subsidized, and that’s what the Adrienne Arsht Musical Theater Fund does.
PHILANTHROPY: What are some of the big challenges to arts-related philanthropy today?
MS. ARSHT: I’m not somebody who wrings my hands and thinks the end is near, and that there are no more audiences, and they’re all getting gray. We’ve been saying that for generations. And lo and behold, the next generation comes along, and then you see the performers: Gustavo Dudamel—I think he’s 31—this great Venezuelan conductor with the L.A. Philharmonic; Pablo Heras-Casado, the Spanish principal conductor of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s in New York, is 34. There is 33-year-old Andris Nelson conducting at Tanglewood—and being considered to become a new conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Musicians and artists come along, and their colleagues come and see them or hear them. I’m not particularly worried. It’s always a struggle to raise the money, but that’s not going to get better or worse.
PHILANTHROPY: What do you think about the increased popularity of crowd-funding websites for visual and performing arts projects? I’m specifically thinking of Kickstarter, where people can get together with relatively small amounts of money to back a project and then that project gets executed.
MS. ARSHT: I think it’s fascinating. It’s wonderful. It reminds me of an old Russian fairy tale that I was brought up on, “Stone Soup,” in which if everybody just puts in one thing—somebody puts in a carrot, somebody puts in a few lettuce leaves, somebody puts in a turnip. Everybody puts in a small amount and it becomes substantial. When it comes to crowd-funding, I don’t care whether it’s so-called great art, whether it goes on and it’s sustained and wins Grammys, Emmys, Oscars—it’s supporting an artist.
PHILANTHROPY: What’s the value-added for a philanthropist like you in supporting a performing arts center, instead of just supporting several different arts companies and institutions that might use the center?
A performing arts center has the luxury, the ability—and the responsibility—to bring new things for their audiences. They can only do that if they have the financial basis. If everybody just supported the art form, the performance, or performer that they like, then there’s no money for the entities that are coming along but don’t have a fan base. At a well-run arts center, with plenty of well-known and popular programs—Aida or Tosca at the Metropolitan Opera, say—there’s enough money to also be innovative, to do something that you can’t get individual funding for, say, traditional Chinese dance.
PHILANTHROPY: You give in Miami, New York, and Washington. How does your giving break down by city?
MS. ARSHT: Since I sold TotalBank and started focusing on philanthropy, my $30 million to the Adrienne Arsht Center is the largest gift in one city. I probably give more in New York than in D.C., if only because there are more institutions that I’m involved in there.
PHILANTHROPY: Had you ever lived in Miami before acquiring TotalBank?
MS. ARSHT: No.
PHILANTHROPY: So what was it like settling down there and getting to know the philanthropic, business, and cultural communities?
MS. ARSHT: I became involved in the Hispanic community—the bank had been started by Cuban Americans and Spaniards, and the majority of the clients were Hispanic. The president and I were the only Anglos; everybody else was Hispanic. It was exhilarating. People would say, “So why are you in Miami? What it’s like?” And I would say, “Miami is the future today.” I became totally involved in the Hispanic community and its fabric. The members of the community embraced me as one of their own.
PHILANTHROPY: So are you looking forward to Tom Wolfe’s new novel about Miami? He describes Miami as “the city where America’s future has arrived first.”
MS. ARSHT: Yes! Back to Blood. I’ve pre-ordered it. I remember when he was down in Miami doing the research for it.
PHILANTHROPY: You’re a woman in the world of philanthropy, with money you’ve earned yourself. What’s it like to be engaged in philanthropy like that, and what are some of the challenges?
MS. ARSHT: Relatively speaking, there are not many women who have made large sums of money and are giving it away. There are so few women among the equity players in Silicon Valley—Facebook, Groupon, et cetera. Almost every new billionaire is a male.
So one of the reasons that I am willing to be outspoken, and have things named after me, is hopefully to set an example for other women that they can do this, and in some ways to show men that women can give too.
PHILANTHROPY: Does philanthropy miss out on anything by not having more female philanthropists who have been wealth creators?
MS. ARSHT: [Laughing] Well, they are certainly missing out on money. Men and women do view money entirely differently, however. Men use money to gain access and power. The way I see it, they give, and their names are on things, and the amount of their gift is a way of keeping score with other men. It’s a sign of masculinity and power and status.
Most women are not interested in those things. We would often prefer to be anonymous. They don’t give that much because all women, at whatever level of wealth, are afraid of being bag ladies. They have this genetic instinct to nurture and protect the home. If you discreetly asked a billionaire’s wife is she is afraid of being poor, she would say “Yes.” And her husband would say, “But I’ve taken care of you! You have all the money you want in your bank account.”
PHILANTHROPY: Does this affect your philanthropic decisions?
MS. ARSHT: Well, I’m not a billionaire, so I don’t qualify for Bill Gates’ “billionaire boys’ club,” but I will give away all my money. I’m just going to try not to do it before I die, because I don’t know when I’m going to die and that could get dicey.
PHILANTHROPY: Life expectancy does keep going up.
MS. ARSHT: Oh, yes. I intend to be at the cutting-edge on that one. So whatever money I have when I die, it will go the Adrienne Arsht Foundation, and there will be trustees who will give it away. I’ve told them, “Just give it away as fast as you can. There are no limits on what you can do. It doesn’t have to go on forever. Years from now there do not have to be gifts from the Adrienne Arsht Foundation.”
PHILANTHROPY: In terms of figuring out what to do now, do you employ philanthropic advisers? How do you find projects that captivate you?
MS. ARSHT: There is nobody advising me on philanthropy. I’ll meet somebody fascinating, or I’ll cut out an article and ask my assistant to go find out about this or get the literature on it. In Delaware, I have the Arsht-Cannon Fund, which was created by my parents. It is the largest such fund in Delaware and gives away about $700,000 annually. The Arsht-Cannon Fund supports programs for the Hispanic community. There, I have somebody who oversees those grants.
PHILANTHROPY: Does your giving extend much beyond the arts?
MS. ARSHT: The arts are certainly a substantial majority, but there’s nothing I’ve turned down because it’s not the arts. At the University of Miami, I’ve given $6 million to fund major ethics programs, a lab in the Eye Institute, and a chair in pediatric studies. I gave $100,000 for the film Boatlift, made to mark the 10th anniversary of 9/11. It’s about the boatlift in which more people were taken off the tip of Manhattan after the attacks than were rescued at Dunkirk in the Second World War. Tom Hanks narrated it. It is so compelling and a part of 9/11 that most people were not aware of. Somebody came to me about that. I thought it was worthwhile, and I did it. Recently, I gave $1 million to the Brent Scowcroft Center at the Atlantic Council to fund a Women in International Defense program.
My support of the arts isn’t to the exclusion of anything—but it is where I’m most captivated.