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SEPTEMBER 22, 2014

In South Florida, Women Rule Arts World

THE MIAMI HERALD

For all the progress women have made in shattering glass ceilings, barriers to top leadership jobs, career progress and equal pay still exist in plenty of fields.

CDOLEN@MIAMIHERALD.COM

09/20/2014 7:26 PM | Updated 09/20/2014 9:11 PM

But in South Florida’s arts-and-culture community, it’s a different story. For women with vision and the drive to lead, that story is one of opportunity, challenges and creative fulfillment.

On the eve of the 2014-2015 season, a look at the range of visual arts organizations, dance companies, theaters, performance presenters, music groups and opera companies turns up what may be to some a surprising fact: Here, women rule.

Look at a sampling of 148 of the more than 350 arts and culture groups funded through Miami-Dade County’s Department of Cultural Affairs, and you’ll find 91 are led by women. In Broward, of 50 groups receiving grants from the county’s Cultural Division, 28 are headed by women. In Palm Beach, of 73 arts and culture organizations belonging to the county’s Cultural Council, 50 are run by women.

The groups range from startups with modest means to huge organizations with budgets in the millions. Miami City Ballet, the Florida Grand Opera, the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts and several major museums — the Bass, the NSU Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale, the Frost, the Norton — are all woman-led.

Many women are running organizations they created. Some of the region’s power players ascended into their jobs; as Judith Mitchell, chief executive officer of the Kravis Center, observes, “I’m a product of promotion from within. I believe in it.” Still others were hired away from cultural groups in different cities.

Ask some of them why women dominate the arts scene here, and they share a variety of theories. Joann María Yarrow, artistic director of the Spanish-language Teatro Prometeo and conservatory at Miami Dade College’s Wolfson campus, has an evocative one.

“It goes back to the idea that Miami is a young city. Older cities have [entrenched] male leadership, and it’s about women breaking through that,” Yarrow says. “In Miami, women are in the forefront. And if you were going to give Miami a gender, you’d have it say it’s a woman.”

The paths these women have taken into leadership are as varied as they are.

Beth Boone, executive and artistic director of Miami Light Project since 1998, began as an actress in New York. She co-founded an Off-Broadway theater company, took a job with the AT&T Foundation, worked at Florida Grand Opera and was interim director of cultural affairs for Miami Dade College’s Wolfson campus, hired and mentored by Olga Garay-English. With each position, Boone acquired the skills, knowledge and vision she brings to her current job.

“It all gave me a really great foundation,” she says. “I found my voice relatively quickly at Miami Light Project.”

Stephanie Ansin is a second-generation arts entrepreneur. Her mother Toby co-founded Miami City Ballet, and 10 years ago Ansin launched the PlayGround Theatre, now the Miami Theater Center, in Miami Shores. A bit of wisdom in A Director Prepares by avant-garde artist Anne Bogart, who was Ansin’s professor at Columbia University, has always stuck with her.

“She said, ‘Waiting is the enemy of art.’ We couldn’t be waiting to be hired. It’s on your shoulders to create opportunities,” says Ansin, whose theater has employed hundreds of artists over the past decade.

Barbara Stein, a hands-on leader throughout her life, first tried theater by starting a community drama group at her temple. In 1988, she and her husband jumped at the chance to take over a twin movie theater in Kendall and transform it into the professional Actors’ Playhouse. Stein’s longtime colleagues, artistic director David Arisco and children’s theater director Earl Maulding, grew the theater right along with her. And by 1995, the company relocated to Coral Gables’ Miracle Theatre, with Stein spearheading an $8million makeover of the city-owned facility.

“I learned very quickly how to write grant applications, how not to have too large a staff, how to go to foundations and creatively connect with people,” says Stein, the executive producing director of a company that has a $3.8million budget this season. “I feel very knowledgeable and savvy now.”

Susan T. Danis, who became general director of the Florida Grand Opera two years ago, is a relative rarity in her world. Of the 34 American opera companies with budgets of $3 million to over $10million, only seven are led by women. Danis’ route to the heights of her profession was indirect: Trained as a drama therapist, she worked in New York for 10 years, then earned a master’s degree in business administration in Paris. Relocating to San Francisco, she worked with Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, later becoming executive director of a new dance company.

“Then I met someone and decided to follow him to upstate New York. I had no job. But I found out the Lake George Opera [now Opera Saratoga] needed a managing director and thought, ‘I could do that.’ … I was there for eight years and grew in my affinity for opera,” Danis says. “I took a very broken company with a $400,000 budget and $450,000 in debt, and when I left we had eliminated the debt, grew the budget by 35 percent and had a $3million endowment.”

Danis repeated her magic during a dozen years as executive director of the Sarasota Opera, more than doubling its budget to more than $8million, leading a $47million capital campaign and the $20million renovation of the company’s historic home, deepening her reputation as a turnaround specialist.

“I’m not very good with failure,” she says.

Asked what makes a leader, Danis cites the late clergyman Vance Havner: “A leader is a person with a magnet in his heart and a compass in his head.”

Or, in South Florida arts and culture, her heart and her head.

Truth be told, most of these women have gravitated toward leadership since they were kids. Dale Andree, the dancer-choreographer and teacher whose latest venture is serving as director of the National Water Dance, says, “I was always the one organizing productions and choreographing them.”

“It’s not so much that one wakes up and says, ‘Oh, I’m going to be an arts leader.’ Challenges come up, you face them and say, ‘OK, now I’m taking over this project,’” Yarrow says. “My husband says I’m the one who likes to drive the truck.”

For any leader, challenges come with the territory. So do hard decisions, balancing work and life, and forging a path that inspires others to follow.

“There are always roadblocks,” says Bonnie Clearwater, who left North Miami’s Museum of Contemporary Art to become director and chief curator of the NSU Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale. “You find a way around them.”

Lourdes Lopez, a Cuba-born, Miami-raised former New York City Ballet principal dancer, became artistic director of Miami City Ballet two years ago. She’s the only woman artistic director among the country’s nine largest ballet companies, but taking on such a high-profile leadership role didn’t daunt her.

“I’ve never said no, unless it’s something I didn’t want to do,” says Lopez, who co-founded the dance company Morphoses before coming back to Miami. “Dancers know how to learn very, very well. This feels organic to me. Nothing feels alien.”

Like her leader-colleagues, Lopez has worked hard to achieve work-life balance. She was still dancing when her older daughter Adriel was born, and being a working mother in a demanding profession taught her a lesson: “I realized that wherever I was, I needed to be there 100 percent.”

When she got the Miami City Ballet offer, her younger daughter Calliste was in sixth grade, and her husband George Skouras was a successful New York-based investment banker.

“It meant moving my entire family. … I wondered, ‘Am I that selfish?’” she says. “It’s been a wonderful surprise. They’ve both slid into life here and enjoy it at a level I hadn’t expected.”

Yarrow, on the other hand, isn’t certain real balance is achievable.

“Women who are leaders try to be leaders in every way. They’re trying to be supermom as well as superboss. It’s impossible,” she says, adding that her playwright-husband Brad Beckman makes all the difference. “Brad is an amazing dad and an amazing cook. I don’t lift a frying pan in this house.”

Silvia Karman Cubiñá, executive director of the Bass Museum of Art on Miami Beach, has just become an empty nester with two sons in college. Finding balance, she thinks, is never easy.

“Women make sacrifices at every level more than men do. The challenge is in finding nontraditional ways of doing things,” she says.

Andree, for example, stepped back from her career to raise and home school her daughter, who is now a dancer in New York. Boone, married to Cuban musician Yrak Saenz Orta, brought their son to work with her, particularly in the early years before Orta was able to join them in Miami. Mitchell’s two children were already in college when she became the first and only Kravis CEO. Danis has remained single.

“If I’d had kids, I wouldn’t have wanted them to be raised by a nanny. The years just went by way faster than I thought they would,” she says. “My career is where I put my focus. I don’t know that on a cognitive level I made that choice. I’m not sure you can have it all.”

The women leaders are enthusiastic about the region’s rapid arts-and-culture evolution. As Yarrow notes, “From 10 years ago until now, it’s like we’re on a bullet train. There’s always a new museum, a new event. It’s wonderful being part of this wave.”

On the plus side, the women cite a long list of arts assets, including Art Basel Miami Beach and the growth of the visual arts scene, crucial financial support from funders such as Knight Arts Challenge grants and the Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs, growing museum attendance, a hunger for arts education, and artists who see South Florida as a place to live and make work.

“The strongest thing I see here is an openness, a curiosity. I’ve found few barriers to any ideas I’ve had. Miami isn’t crusty,” Lopez says.

But, as leaders do, they dream of more.

“We’re missing post-university professional training,” says Boone from her office at the sleek Light Box at Goldman Warehouse in Wynwood. “My big goal is to develop an institute for contemporary performance inside these four walls. I want to up the ante.”

Danis, focused on the opera’s 75th anniversary in 2016 and on wiping out a daunting $19.4million in debt, thinks that the arts community should be larger, given the population.

“I’m befuddled. We need more chamber music, a modern dance company, a LORT [regional] theater. There aren’t enough 700- to 900-seat venues, if you’re doing something more risky,” she says.

Cubiñá says, “We live in a community where everything is yet to be invented or started or done. What would help us is the arts being more top of mind.”

Clearwater, who aims to position her Broward County museum as a bridge “in a continuous art coast,” believes that support is key to continued cultural growth. Money is a big part of that, of course, but backing arts and culture isn’t just a matter of dollars.

“We have incredible professionals, great staffs and supporters. Everyone has to realize if they enjoy [the museum], if they don’t want it to go away, they have to support it,” she says. “That can mean donating — or being an audience.”