Philanthropic 50: Adrienne Arsht: Building Resilience A Million Dollars at a Time

by Editorial

Adrienne Arsht takes a new direction in philanthropic giving.

Adrienne Arsht doesn’t do things by half. In 2013, she gave The Atlantic Council $5 million to start the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center when no other Washington think-tank had specialists focusing on Hemispheric affairs. Three years later, she convinced the Atlantic Council, via another offer of $5 million, that the time was right to launch a Center for Resilience focusing on the development of skills to endure hardship in our increasingly nervous planet. The innovative idea caught the attention of the Rockefeller Foundation, the prestigious New York-based institution. Arsht contributed an additional $25 million, upon which the foundation then gave $30 million to create the Adrienne Arsht- Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center. Arsht is now executive vice chair of the Atlantic Council. She confessed that the question of why some people had the ability to bounce back from adversity, but others not, had haunted her ever since her younger sister, a foreign service officer, had ended her life, largely as a result of the trauma of being detained and questioned by the Soviet K.G.B. in Moscow during the Cold War.

The performing arts are another of Arsht’s philanthropic priorities—ballet and musical theater at the Kennedy Center in particular. In March 2020, the National Gallery of Art will open an Edgar Degas exhibition called “Degas and the Dance,” for which she has provided the lead underwriting.

Washington Life: How did you come up with the concept for the Center for Resilience?

Adrienne Arsht: I think I’m known for that: I’m known for how I live my life. I don’t know that anybody’s actually used the word “resilient” in describing me, but I seem to, well, move on. The military has done a lot of analysis on resilience, but not the think tanks. So I proposed it to (Atlantic Council CEO) Fred Kempe.

WL: How did the Rockefeller Foundation become involved in the project?

AA: They wanted to diversify what the Foundation had done in the field. [The arrangement] happened in the dining room of the Four Seasons [Hotel in Washington], where everything else does happen. I was at one table and Fred was at another with [Rockefeller Foundation director] Raj Shah. I went over to say hello to Fred. They were talking about resilience, and before you know it I had pulled up a chair and they were saying, ‘OK, give us a proposal.’ We were the only game in town, nobody else had really thought about it. We began to talk and work together, and that’s the way it evolved. Now we’re catching our breath to sensibly use their funds and mine.

WL: The Center was already set up, wasn’t it?

AA: It was set up two years ago. I gave $5 million … but this happened and I said, ‘I’ll match Rockefeller in my giving.’ It was totally evolutionary, I don’t think there was any planning.

WL: You never did set up a philanthropic foundation, did you?

AA: Having a foundation is a legal entity that has so many considerations, there’s no reason to. You have to give away five percent (I do). I’ve already given away half of my money and there will be a foundation on my death, with trustees.

WL: What are your thoughts about how philanthropy is handled in the United States?

AA: Spectacularly well. We’re the only country that encourages, recognizes and values philanthropy.

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In most other countries the government funds the arts. Take the Kirov State Ballet—everything in Russia is funded: it’s the same in Latin America and Europe. England funds the arts. I don’t think that the tax deduction is a factor; nor do I think that people who have gained their money in ways that subsequently may be called questionable should be accused of laundering their image.

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Contributing to humanity through all the arts and sciences where gifts are given, I really think that that’s a human value that we all have. It’s not about money, it’s about how you contribute to society.

WL: What other work has the Resilience Center undertaken so far?

AA: We’ve done some studies about migrants and refugees, looking at the cities where they end up. Immigrants and refugees are resilient. But then we look at Colombia: more than a million Venezuelans have fled across the border, and they are the ones who have many needs, and how is Colombia dealing with that influx?

WL: Do you ever think of slowing down?

AA: When I received the distinguished service award from the Council a few weeks ago—they’d only given it once before [to Henry Kissinger]—and Alonzo Mourning gave me the award, he quoted Mohammed Ali, who said ‘You have to pay rent for your time on earth.’ And in my remarks I said, all of us in the room are born into a very high rent district, and in our time here on earth we pay that rent. To answer your question, I still have more rent to pay.

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