Power Philanthropy: Meet Adrienne Arsht

by Editorial

Last January, Arsht gave $30 million to the Center for the Performing Arts in Miami-Dade County, soon renamed the Adrienne Arsht Center. Most recently, she donated $5 million to support musical theater programming at the Kennedy Center, cementing a donor relationship that goes back to 1979. At one point she was chairman of the now-defunct Kennedy Center Productions, and served as national chairwoman of the National Symphony Orchestra Season opening ball in 2008 as well as helping underwrite Center President Michael Kaiser’s recently concluded 50-state tour to bring much-needed morale and business acumen to community arts organizations.

Her formal institutional title now is treasurer of the Kennedy Center board of trustees while being on the “global advisory board” of the Washington National Opera. Mr. Kaiser’s one word description of her is “bubbly”– as well as “passionate, devoted and loyal” – choice words to a patriotic patron’s ears. “This is the year she is re-entering Washington,”he adds.

“It’s really coming home,” she says of her growing role in Kennedy Center activities.

Arsht says she is “being a little selfish and enjoying everything,” those little “things” that include being a supernumerary on stage with high profile Washington legal and political figures. Among those she counts as friends is former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, whom she has known since she was married to the late Myer (“Mike”) Feldman, a White House counsel to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. The two women met in the 1980s, and according to Justice O’Connor, a relationship cemented through Arsht’s mother, the first woman judge in Delaware. “She has a great deal of energy and has used that energy in helpful ways wherever she has lived,” the pre-eminent woman jurist says of her friend.

At home in New York City (where she supports Metropolitan Opera and the American Ballet Theatre and maintains a pied-à-terre near Central Park South), she also has a grand new Washington residence near American University. The Florida address comprises two adjacent homes on an historic site not far from the Vizcaya mansion. “I’m here whenever there is something interesting to do,” she says point blank about a schedule that can take her up and down the coast in a day. “I thrive on it. Nature abhors a vacuum.”

Arsht talks at a fast clip, with references to events tumbling out. And if her stated devotion to the arts is in the classic mode – “I do think arts define a civilization and sustain us.” – her humor is her own and steadfast. “Try to keep me out of trouble,” she says at the interview’s end.

As if this shrewd player doesn’t know how to do that herself. She is clearly enamored of people whose talents were formed in worlds other than her own. Claiming to be “the closest thing to tone deaf,” she says she has “an absolute awe for the human body. I’ve had magical experiences being up close with singers. All my life I have supported artists in whatever way I could because they do something I can’t.”

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