Letter from South Florida

Returning to South Florida after ten years for a brief visit with family and friends, I was stunned by the many positive changes and signs of growth in the arts, and beyond that by the improved quality of life that our old stamping grounds have undergone.

Yes, it can be hot and humid during eight or more months out of the year, but if you visit at the right time, as we did, the climate is just about perfect, as long as you leave all your woolies behind and dig out of the closet some loose fitting cotton and linen.

Driving in Miami is still maniacally frantic, and a few of the drivers are passively careless or just plain rude. Honking to signal “move on, you slowpoke” is common, as is the raised middle finger so rarely seen in other parts of the country. Parking is a challenge everywhere, and more people are now taking advantage of the Metromover that connects the far reaches of Dade County in the South with the lower portions of North Miami and Downtown, a distance that used to take 20 to 25 minutes in normally heavy traffic and that will now take you half that time by rail.

What used to be not so much of a melting pot but more of a side-by-side ethnically separate but mutually tolerant arrangement has of late morphed into a loosely-knit community in which upwardly-mobile Cubans who came to these shores with only the shirt on their backs and oil-rich Venezuelans who arrived in recent times with worthless currency in their pockets have bounced back and up and moved into Coral Gables and Coconut Grove properties they could barely afford years ago.

They and fellow exiles and expats and immigrants from Central and South America are now living next door to WASP and Jewish snowbird transplants from New England and the Midwest, of which those who cannot stand all that rapid-fire Spanish and spicy cuisine aromas wafting from the kitchen next door are moving to Naples and Ft. Myers on the West Coast or up the coast to Broward and Palm Beach counties to retire happily ever after in monolithically unified villages built around golf courses.

But where greater Miami was in its infancy when it came to the arts ten years ago the whole of South Florida from the Keys to Dade County to Broward County to Palm Beach County is now filled with interesting galleries and museums of all kinds, theatres performing everything from Sondheim to Latino playwrights, art cinemas, and music activities for all tastes.

Not-for-profits still have it tough, as so much of South Florida is populated with folks from up north who do all their giving at home, South Florida being just the place where they hang their hats four months out of the year.

Where in Cincinnati we have a number of family and corporate donors who have for years sustained arts organizations large and small, South Floridians continue to give the impression of being at the beginning of the learning curve when it comes to support of the arts. Yes, the New World Symphony and the Perez Miami Art Museum have attracted the large private and foundation donors with deep pockets, but the mid-sized and small arts organizations continue to struggle on a day-by-day basis, most of them unable to build up endowments that would ensure their survival through lean times.

But persevere they do, led by new and long-term visionaries, among them Gables Stage’s Joseph Adler, playwright-director Nilo Cruz – who gave a book presentation at Books and Books while we were there – and Teatro Avante’s Mario Ernesto Sanchez, all of whom have parlayed personal earthly comforts and security for the intangible rewards that making art can bring.

While here in the chilly regions of the Midwest the emphasis in our museums seems to be on collecting and showcasing the treasures of the past, most South Florida museums, born as they were in the last few decades of the 20th century have opted to be primarily presenting institutions, leaving the collecting to individuals, thus bypassing the responsibilities of safely housing huge art collections.

4-pamm_teresita_fernandez_m3a0898-editIn Miami itself, a visit to the architecturally compelling Perez Miami Art Museum with its location by the bay allowed one to see barely a portion of its growing permanent collection and an impressive exhibit of the large-scale works of Miami artist Teresita Fernández.

17-Homenaje-a-Nicolas-de-Cusa-60X50-1994The American Museum of the Cuban Diaspora, housed in an elegantly laid-out facility featured a stunning exhibit of the paintings of Cuban artist Rafael Soriano.

zoetic stage Zoetic Stage’s production of Christopher Demos-Brown “American Son” at Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts was one of the highlights of our visit to Miami. Brought to vivid life by a Miami playwright and a top-notch cast and director, the play and production defined the work of company founders Stuart Melzer, Michael McKeever, and Christopher Demos-Brown as world class.

On the same week we attended a fabulous concert of the New World Symphony, which I have reviewed for Seen and Heard-International.

Miami got to be at one point in its checkered history a punch-line (“Miami where the rules are different”… Death Valley South…) and now, through years of growing pains, the City has developed into an estimable place for the visual, stage and musical arts to grow and prosper.

Rafael de Acha