Interview with Adrienne Arsht

The much-discouraged $30 million grant that changed a city, the case for naming gifts, art and resilience.

When Adrienne Arsht made a $30 million gift and put her name on Miami’s ailing performing-arts center, everyone around her told her it was a mistake to embrace the sick project. But her gift, and the energy she added to the center, not only turned around its fortunes, but boosted the whole surrounding neighborhood.

Daughter of the first female judge in Delaware, Arsht became a lawyer, moved to D.C., and began hosting an ecumenical mix of guests at her home salons. In 1996 she relocated to Miami to run TotalBank. She expanded it from four to 14 locations and quadrupled its assets to $1.4 billion. Its sale in 2007 was the occasion for her gift to the performing-arts center.

The arts have always been a central focus of her philanthropy: $5 million for musical theater at the Kennedy Center. $11 million to renovate Lincoln Center. Board membership at many cultural organizations as well as the Atlantic Council, where her recent focus has been on resilience—a theme closely connected to her giving in the arts, and her own biography.

Philanthropy: You are a major supporter of the arts. Why is this your passion?

Arsht: I have always said that the arts, visual and performing, define civilization. I cannot imagine a world without the arts. When giving to the arts, you are preserving the essence of civilization for now and for hundreds of years to come. It is thrilling to know that a gift to the arts will be shared by people in a future we can’t even imagine.

At the Kennedy Center I made a $5 million gift to create the Adrienne Arsht Theater series. Some of it is Broadway shows that travel, and some are shows that we create. Musical theater is a unique part of America’s cultural heritage. Such artists include Rodgers and Hammerstein, Cole Porter, Lerner and Loewe, Stephen Sondheim—that’s an American musical art form. Philanthropic funding is and always will be needed to make these cultural treasures more accessible to Americans across the country.

My support often takes the form of gifts to large performing-arts complexes because a center can bring together so many exciting concepts in one location. A performing-arts complex offers an extraordinary value to a city. It brings art to people of every generation and every interest. In Miami, the Arsht Center has played a key role in the resurgence and transformation of the immediate area, the city, and beyond.

The arts cross everything. At the Kennedy Center, I have sat  with members of the Cabinet such as Wilber Ross, Alex Acosta, and Ben Carson. My dear friends the late Justice Antonin Scalia and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg both loved the opera and would attend together, it was a shared passion. One is not totally defined by one’s philosophy on the bench. When I was on the board of the Metropolitan Opera in New York I arranged for them to go to dinner and attend the opera together. Music was something that brought us all closer. When people on different sides get together, conversations occur and they are strangers no longer.

Philanthropy: What else can the arts teach us?

Arsht: Resilience. Artists are almost by definition resilient. They have a saying, “The show must go on.” I spend a lot of time talking to artists, and I like to ask, “Tell me times when the show had to go on.” There was Baryshnikov, who smashed his foot during a performance, and yet continued partnering the ballerina until the act ended. Jean-Yves Thibaudet, the great French pianist, was performing when the piano started to move across the stage! The stagehands had forgotten to lock the wheels. I’ve found that all great artists have a story, whether it was a prop that wasn’t there for them, somebody forgetting their line, somebody entering wrong, fighting through injury or illness. 

Philanthropy: What’s your own “the show must go on” story?

Arsht: It wasn’t quite “a show must go on” moment, but in 2007 I sold TotalBank. I was unemployed, alone, and preparing to leave Miami. I felt that since I had made the money in Miami, I should first do something for Miami. The beleaguered new performing-arts center was about to go bankrupt. My gift of $30 million was perceived as stupid and nobody believed in either the performing arts or the neighborhood the center was located in. But I didn’t listen to those opinions; I called the chairman of the center’s foundation and made my offer.

I intended it to be a naming-rights gift, but it was a county-owned building, and changing the name was a legal morass. Two hours before the ceremony my lawyer called and told me that the county couldn’t change the name, so he resigned as my lawyer. I walked into the press conference anyway and handed over my $30 million check. Later somebody found a way to make the name what it is now—the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts.

Philanthropy: Why were the naming rights important to you?

Arsht: Putting your name on something lets the world know what matters to you. By making a naming gift you take a stand, you show other people what you support. When I get a solicitation from any charity, I always look up the board members. You want to see who believes in this organization, and when you see it’s somebody you respect, someone whose core values you share, that tells you something about that organization.

In this case, my gift told the community, “Take a second look.” The performing-arts center was considered a white elephant at the time. It had been a financial sinkhole for years. But when I went ahead, the energy in the organization changed. We hired new management and turned the center around.

At the time, land for the Arsht Center was in an underdeveloped section of the city. It’s hard to imagine now, but institutions like Lincoln Center, the Metropolitan Museum, and the Kennedy Center were also built in places that nobody else wanted. The Arsht Center ultimately changed the city. All the surrounding land is now high-value. It’s the center of activity for people. The apartments in the neighborhood are renting out quickly. Other businesses have bought land in the vicinity. Hotels are coming up in the neighborhood. It revitalized downtown Miami. In the ten years since my involvement, the center has generated more than $2 billion in local economic impact. 

Philanthropy: You founded two other centers that bear your name, both at the Atlantic Council. Tell us about them.

Arsht: TotalBank was founded by Cuban Americans and Spaniards, and the majority of the clients were Hispanic. My experience in working in the Hispanic community made me become increasingly interested in our neighbors to the south. It’s a very under-reported part of the world. When I moved back to D.C. after selling TotalBank it became immediately clear to me that there was a need to find a way to integrate the interests of Latin America with Europe and the United States to shape the global future and create a broad community of common values. So I gave $10 million five years ago to establish the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center at the Atlantic Council. This Center is dedicated to forging an effective Latin America-U.S.-Europe partnership of common values and shared interests. 

Then the Adrienne Arsht Center for Resilience, which I founded in 2016, studies resilience in many areas: financial systems, infrastructure, the human body against disease, emotional and psychological resilience, disaster recovery, military training, immigrant and refugee survival.

A large part of resilience is preparing in advance for future challenges. Remember Y2K? In the financial world, the fear was that the computers would not kick into 2000. So the banks had to back up every system, and hold large amounts of cash on hand. It took us months to prepare. We all worked through Christmas vacation that year and were breathlessly watching the news on December 31 as the first time zones ticked over. On New Year’s Eve nothing bad happened. And a year later, when the World Trade Center Towers went down on 9/11 in the heart of the financial world, one of the reasons there was no financial chaos was because of the extensive backup systems created for Y2K.

There were many ways resilience was called upon that day. When the towers were hit, most people fled north. But others fled south, where of course they reached the edge of Manhattan—water. About half a million people were stuck. The Coast Guard put out the word for every available boat, and a spontaneous armada of small boats came and took people off the island. It was one of the largest maritime evacuations ever, even more people than from Dunkirk. In 2011, I financed a short documentary film called Boatlift, narrated by Tom Hanks, describing those events.

Eight years after 9/11, when the U.S. Airways flight piloted by Captain Chesley Sullenberger went down in the Hudson River, rescue boats arrived within minutes—partly because of experience gained on that day.

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Adrienne Arsht's maverick gift to Miami's bankrupt performing-arts center turned around the neighborhood and generated $2 billion in local economic impact.

Miami offers many lessons in resilience. Hurricane Andrew flattened it in 1992. Then the city changed the building codes and they built to a new standard. So when Hurricane Irma hit in 2017, they were prepared. The Center for Resilience also focuses on readiness and preparation for communities for pandemics or power failures. 

Philanthropy: Can resilience be instilled in people?

Arsht: Individual resilience to some degree is genetic, but it can also be encouraged. You can learn from watching others, and decide, “I’m not going to give up either.” A large part of my interest in resilience was inspired by my sister Alison. She was two years younger than I, and in 1969 at the age of 25 she was in the Soviet Union as a foreign-service officer and was arrested by the KGB. She came back shattered. Today we might recognize it as PTSD, but then there was less knowledge of how to help. She committed suicide when she was 29.

Philanthropy: I’ve read that a love of classical music is something you shared with her. Does it evoke her for you now?

Arsht: Absolutely. My family loved classical music. To me, listening to music was one of the most pleasing experiences, really a way to ultimate happiness. Growing up there was always music in the house. My mother played the piano. I took piano and ballet lessons. Every Saturday we would listen on the radio to the Texaco broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera with Milton Cross. It very much defined my family life.

For a number of years after my sister died I stopped listening to music, because it would always take me to unanswerable thoughts, wondering what could have been so painful to her that life was unbearable. I eventually moved beyond that. And now there’s music in my life all the time. Grief is something that you carry with you for life, but you find a way to deal with it. I find that Chopin is the music that gives me the most peace. 

So many songs and poems are about heartbreak. They tell you you’re not alone. Liza Minnelli once commented that there’s a song for every emotion she has. Whatever she is feeling, somebody has written a song about it, and they got through it, so she can get through it.

I once saw Tosca performed in the opera house at the Bastille. I almost couldn’t get through it. Just thinking about what had gone on at the Bastille, and then to watch as Tosca hears her lover screaming from being tortured. I am not a person with physical courage. I would not be able to be a spy. Don’t tell me anything that I can’t reveal.

I think again about my sister. I often wonder if I would have survived her experience differently. I am a fighter and she wasn’t—for whatever reason I always had more inner reserves, stronger emotional resilience. But the physical courage—that I don’t have.

I’ve always wondered if I would have had the courage to hide a Jew during the Holocaust. Forget the fact that I am a Jew—in that situation what would I have done? I was in Salzburg and saw the amphitheater where the von Trapp family performed the night they fled. I met many people who told me stories of their grandparents sheltering Jews or being sheltered as they fled. One woman lived in a barn with the cows through a winter.

When I want to summon courage to do the right thing, I think of my mother. She was brave. Joan of Arc was her heroine. She always had a copy of the Constitution with her.

After she died I asked Sandra Day O’Connor, who is like a sister to me and a close family friend, to sign my mother’s copy of the Constitution. And then I began asking all the Justices to sign it. Now I have what I’m sure is the only copy of the Constitution with those signatures. I showed it to President Obama, and before I knew it he grabbed it and said, “I need to sign it.” I tried to stop him, saying, “We have three branches of government. This is for the judicial. We’ll get you something else.” But he had already signed it!

I decided to get all the living Presidents to sign it, and I have now done that. When I sent it off to get the two Bushes to sign it, it accidentally got signed by Jeb too. I know Jeb well, he was my governor in Florida.

Now I keep my mother’s Constitution in a safe place. But I still carry a copy of the Constitution with me, just not that one. And I buy copies by the box and give them away as gifts. Wynton Marsalis keeps one in his trumpet case.

Philanthropy: Your mother broke some glass ceilings in her day. She was the fifth woman admitted to the bar in Delaware and the first female judge in the state. A generation later, you became only the eleventh woman admitted to the bar in Delaware and faced many of the same obstacles as she had. What was your strategy?

Arsht: You just find a way around. I often think of living as being like a little stream at the top of a hill or a mountain. As you go down, you find rocks or boulders in the way. You don’t stop, you just find a way around.

I worked at Trans World Airlines in a department where they’d never hired a woman before, and the men would go to lunch every day without me. They did the same thing at conferences when they all went off to play golf. I didn’t want to be left out—this is where the leaders of my industry were. So I put on a tennis outfit and showed up to drive the golf cart. I just found a way to be where they were.

When I moved to Miami I took on a mentoring role for other professional women, and created what became known as the Rana Society (Spanish for frog). I told them, “You have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your prince. I’m not talking about your personal life. I’m saying that you can’t take ‘no’ personally in business. If you’ve made nine sales calls, and you got ‘no,’ on the tenth you’ll get a ‘yes.’ You can’t give up. Men do not take a ‘no’ in business personally. You can’t either.” I had frog pins made and gave them to every woman as a reminder to get out there and keep trying. 

Philanthropy: You make all your own philanthropic decisions, and don’t have any foundation staff, correct? How do you decide which organization or cause to support?

Arsht: That’s right. I aim for gifts that can be “game changers.” I often will decide to support something if nobody else seems to want to do it.

On my death, a foundation will be created, and I have asked a few friends to oversee the donations. I have said to them, “Give based on my spirit and the things I care about,” but they can use their judgment based on the current needs at that time.

As in so many things, my mother is my model. My parents left their estate to the Arsht Cannon Fund in Delaware. Their only stipulation was that its grants must be used in Delaware. At first that mandate was difficult for me, because I don’t live in Delaware anymore. I didn’t know the needs, and I really struggled.

Ultimately, I decided to focus on the Hispanic population in Delaware. My parents’ fund now supports literacy programs, bilingual services, and mentorship organizations. I did that because I was familiar with the Hispanic community from my time living in Florida, and because the immigrant experience was part of my parents’ story.

My grandparents fled Russia and the Ukraine. I think about the loneliness they faced, the loss, the economic issues, language barriers, the prejudices, the risks they took, their entrepreneurialism, their grit. Remembering them, it’s nice to be able to help new arrivals. That is the American story, and it makes me really feel blessed.

Our time on earth is a gift. The rent we pay for that is how we give back to make the world a better place. I learned that from my parents.