$30 million gift to spark more support, arts center hopes
By Risa Polansky
A media frenzy — and what turned out to be an impromptu who's who of local government officials and philanthropists — allowed the Carnival Center for the Performing Arts to truly live up to its circus-like moniker in the final moments before its name was changed.
The local government officials at the center of last week's hoopla are pinning hopes on the gift behind the name change — $30 million from banker and philanthropist Adrienne Arsht — causing a domino effect of more private giving to the unstable center, newly christened the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County.
County Mayor Carlos Alvarez said at the announcement event that "part of the equation of the performing arts center has always been public/private partnership. Unfortunately, in the past, the private side hadn't met expectations."
Ms. Arsht's donation, he said, "will put us on the right track."
The county last year pumped $8 million into the nearly half-billion-dollar center to help cover cost overruns.
In approving a $4.1 million infusion in June and including the same additional amount in this year's funding for the center, county commissioners warned it would be the last time they'd bail out the center, calling for action from the private sector.
Commissioner Carlos Gimenez pointed out at the summer meeting that the Washington, DC, John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts sees $70 million in private donations annually. "We're nowhere close to that."
Then-CEO Michael Hardy said the center would raise about $2.2 million in private donations in 2007 and projected $3.5 million in 2008.
Mr. Gimenez called the $30-million surprise last week "a first step. I'm confident the center is going to be turned around.… Private participation was not what it should be. This definitely goes a long way in alleviating my concerns."
Commission Chair Bruno Barreiro agreed. "It definitely shows that there's a big private commitment and it's coming through. I think it also leads the way for even more private support for county facilities," such as planned new art and science museums.
Benefactor Ms. Arsht countered comments about a lack of private support in the past.
"There are so many people who have worked for 17 years, all the private sector," she said. "The private sector drove this and kept believing this was important. If it hadn't been for the private sector, we wouldn't have this."
Commissioner Sally Heyman called the donation a "significant step forward" that "further cements the public/private partnership."
She hopes that, "with its (the center's) success and its growth, more people jump on."
Miami Mayor Manny Diaz, who is spearheading a massive public works plan that includes annual payments of at least 35% of the city's Omni Community Redevelopment Agency tax receipts to the arts center, joined his county counterparts in their praise.
"It is so exciting to continue to see our business community, our philanthropic community, continue to grow and continue to support the center," he said.
In what Mr. Diaz said could ease the minds of skeptics and critics of his intricate and pricey plan for major project spending, "it shows that the private sector is also stepping up."
But city Commissioner Tomás Regalado, a foe of Mr. Diaz and critic of the arts center, disagreed in a phone interview.
He did not attend the announcement event and said he has never been to the center.
"There's only one Adrienne Arsht. There's not going to be people coming out and giving millions of dollars," Mr. Regalado said, pointing to difficulty collecting private contributions in the past. "It doesn't solve the problem. To have one donor doesn't mean you have the whole community rallying behind."
He noted also that Carnival Corp. rescinded half of its $20 million donation after forfeiting the naming rights to the arts complex.
However, Carnival Vice Chairman and Chief Operating Officer Howard Frank pledged: "The money we do get back, we will invest in the community."
Still, Mr. Regalado said, "It's all about perception. The people will see this: one millionaire gave, one millionaire took."
Arts center Trust board chair Ricky Arriola, who has recently spoken against a call by Mr. Regalado to incorporate more City of Miami-appointed members onto the board in light of the city's recent financial commitment to paying off the center's mortgage, joined county officials in optimism that the donation marks a "game-changing event."
He called Ms. Arsht's contribution an "acknowledgement that the private sector" supports the center. "Hopefully this will be a leadership gift, the first of many more to come."
Mr. Regalado sees another form of fallout.
"What I'm afraid is, the more money they have, the more money they think they can spend," he said.
Mr. Arriola said the $30 million — to be paid in installments and fund debt payments, working capital and an endowment — "gives us the capital we need to run the center in a first-tier manner."
Recently appointed interim center head Larry Wilker assured Miamians that "you can relax. We're in great shape, and there are great things to come."
Ms. Arsht hopes her donation creates breathing room for all involved.
"I think it does give everybody a chance to exhale," she said. "I think it gives everyone a chance to focus on the programs and not how to pay for them"