Contributing Courage with Adrienne Arsht

Adrienne Arsht is putting her money where her mouth is to promote artistic, business, and civic growth in Miami and beyond

Photo by Daniel Schwartz

Adrienne Arsht has a simple mantra: everyone is born with the ability to give and make a difference. It’s a lesson she learned early from her parents, who were strong believers that philanthropy is more than just helping others; it is about changing the world.

“My mother was the person with the most courage,” says Arsht. “From her influence, I carry a quote from Edmund Burke with me at all times: ‘All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good people do nothing.’ It is the most important lesson I have learned along with the sense of responsibility she left me.”

Arsht’s well-appointed dining room, where she hosts guests for local dinner parties.
Photography by Carlos Hidalgo

About to go belly-up in 2008, the Performing Arts Center of Miami found itself in a place not unlike Burke’s quote: Even in the face of bankruptcy, there were a lot of good people doing nothing. The concept had been a dream 34 years in the making, but—in a crisis of faith for the Miami community—it was dying.

The home of Adrienne Arsht in Miami, whose charitable contributions enhance culture in the Magic City.

Then, in what could have been a riveting cinematic scene, Arsht arrived and made the dream come true with her $30 million contribution. “Adrienne saved us,” says Aileen M. Ugalde, vice president and general counsel for the University of Miami, where Arsht is a trustee emerita. “Perhaps I am biased, but of the innumerable institutions and communities where she has left her mark, I think the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County will be her most enduring legacy.”

Then again, Arsht is known for supporting causes that others leave behind. In this case, Arsht believed that a performing arts center in Miami would become a national landmark. Today, the stunning Cesar Pelli-designed center has not only changed the city’s landscape, but has put Miami center stage around the world. “I still get a kick out of seeing my name on the trash bins and the metro stop,” Arsht jokes. “I cannot imagine a world without the arts. When giving, you are preserving the essence of civilization for now and hundreds of years to come. Art is part of who we are and helps define us.”

Starting Out

Fearlessly independent, occasionally intimidating, and not afraid to stand up for what she believes, Arsht says she plays ping pong to help exercise what she calls her “killer instincts.” As the daughter of two attorneys—her mother was the Honorable Roxana Cannon Arsht, the first female judge in Delaware; her father was Samuel Arsht, a prominent Wilmington attorney, and the architect of corporate law in America—she comes by those instincts naturally.

The Library houses an atlas opened to North and South America, highlighting her relationship between the two continents.

She grew up in Wilmington, Delaware, in a home filled with classical music, opera, and a love for theater and books. (“Books are like friends, and I love to have them surround me,” she says.) Her mother played the piano, so Arsht took piano and ballet lessons. Each Saturday, the family listened to the Texaco radio broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera hosted by announcer Milton Cross. Such a broad spectrum of culture gave her an early appreciation for the arts.

After graduating from Mount Holyoke College with a major in economics and political science, Arsht earned her law degree in 1966 from Villanova and began her career with her father’s law firm of Morris, Nichols, Arsht & Tunnel. But after a few years, she decided to branch out on her own. In 1969, she moved to New York and joined the legal department of Trans World Airlines (TWA). She eventually became the first woman in the company’s property, cargo, and government relations departments.

An original work by Ghanaian artist El Anatsui sits above the living room’s fireplace.

In 1979, life changed for the busy career woman when she met Myer Feldman, a divorced Washington, D.C. lawyer and former behind-the-scenes powerhouse legal counsel to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. Although Feldman was 28 years older and had been a classmate of her mother’s at Penn Law School, Arsht was immediately attracted to his intelligence, wit, and respect for her independence and career. She quickly moved to Washington, and they married soon after.

During their marriage, Arsht, who didn’t want children (“I prefer to mentor those 25 and up,” she says) worked for a Washington law firm before starting her own title company to help with some of her husband’s real estate projects. But by 1996, after nearly 18 years in Washington, she was ready for a bigger challenge: running TotalBank in
Miami, a company owned by her family.

A 20-foot bell sculpture by Kris Martin stands guard in Arsht’s backyard.

“That is when I got a deep appreciation for Miami’s Hispanic community,” Arsht says, nodding to the bank’s Cuban American and Spanish roots. Arsht moved to the Magic City full-time and became TotalBank’s chairman of the board. “I got involved with that community and its fabric, and found it exhilarating when its members embraced me as their own.”

Susan Kronick, a longtime friend who met Arsht in the late 1990s, says she is a powerful combination of intensity and generosity. “Adrienne was running TotalBank, and I was the new CEO of Burdines department stores,” says Kronick, a career retail executive. “I have always had great respect for her insatiable effort to reach out to whatever community she finds passion for.”

Under Arsht’s leadership, TotalBank grew from four locations to 14 with more than $1.4 billion in assets. In 2007, she sold the bank to Banco Popular Español for $300 million, pocketing about $200 million, according to The Washington Post. Traveling frequently between Miami and Washinton, D.C., Arsht maintained a satisfying commuter marriage to Feldman until his death in 2007.

Giving Back

Arsht is always on the go. She is focused and aware, never content to bask in the glory of past successes. With homes in Miami and Washington, D.C. (and regular trips to New York City), she has the ability to connect people of different backgrounds and beliefs through her transformative philanthropy. “I believe that my time here on Earth is a gift, and how I pay back for being alive is what may be called philanthropy,” Arsht says. “I start with how a gift can be a ‘game changer.’”

In July, Arsht contributed $5 million to the MetLive Arts series and internship program at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. This gift provides funds for performance programming and also engages with artists of varied backgrounds, perspectives, and voices. In 2012, her $10 million gift to Manhattan’s Lincoln Center was recognized with the dedication of the Adrienne Arsht Stage in Alice Tully Hall.

Four years ago in Washington, she created the Adrienne Arsht Center for Resilience at the Atlantic Council, which has been renamed the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center (thanks to a $30 million Rockefeller gift that she matched). Recently, the center launched Stories of Resilience, a weekly newsletter that inspires the human spirit and highlights kindness, digital ingenuity, and human imagination. Arsht believes that the power of this type of storytelling is crucial at moments of challenge, and can motivate and mobilize people in a way that pure research can’t.

“One of my passions is resilience, something I have thought about most of my life,” Arsht says, citing her sister’s death by suicide in 1973 at the age of 29. “I am not sure what made her do it, but I focus my life on resilience because it is evolution and survival. It strengthens our society.”

Arsht funds causes pertaining to ethics, medical research, domestic violence, and global policy. In 2013, she was an early promoter of Latin American causes, giving $10 million to the Atlantic Council in Washington to establish the Adrienne Arsht Latin American Center. Her donation will focus on the role of South America in the trans-Atlantic community.

For her vast philanthropic efforts, Arsht has received numerous national awards, including the 2017 Carnegie Hall Medal of Excellence for her visionary and excellent contributions to cultural and nonprofit institutions (she’s the only woman to have received this honor), and the 2011 Award for Outstanding Philanthropy by the Association of Fundraising Professionals. She is a trustee for the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, where she established the Adrienne Arsht Theater Fund, a member of the Trustees Council of the National Gallery of Art, a board member of the Blair House Restoration Fund, and a supporter of the DC Volunteer Lawyers Project, which represents women and children who are victims of domestic violence.

Making it in Miami

Although Arsht travels extensively, she owns two Miami homes, including her 2007 purchase of Villa Serena on Brickell, overlooking Biscayne Bay. This two-acre, period-perfect, Mediterranean Revival design created by architect August Geiger, was the former digs of prominent politician-lawyer William Jennings Bryan, who argued against Darwin’s theory of evolution at the famous 1925 Scopes monkey trial. He ran for U.S.
President three times, and was appointed Secretary of State under President Woodrow Wilson in 1913—the same year he built Villa Serena.

Villa Serena, a two-acre Mediterranean Revival home overlooking Biscayne Bay, is located near Arsht’s primary residence and has received historic designation.

With a love for preservation, Arsht spent four years restoring this historic gem, a job she found quite satisfying. “Villa Serena is located next to my primary residence and has received historic designation,” she says proudly.

When Arsht comes to Miami, she reconnects with friends, welcomes house guests, and often hosts home concerts around artists who are in town to perform at the Arsht Center. “It is wonderful to have a special performance at home, then the next evening attend an opening at the Arsht,” she says. “Since I collect nineteenth-century figural napkin rings, I often ask my dinner guests to pick one and then tell the others the reason for that selection. It is a chance for everyone around the table to get to know each other.”

She also enjoys hosting chatty pre-performance dinners prepared by chef Brad Kilgore at Brava in the Arsht Center. “My friends want to know what they have missed, what I committed to, or what new project is in the works,” says Arsht, whose other favorite restaurants include Versailles and Caffe Abbracci. “I love Miami.”

Over the years, Arsht has donated to many Miami charities like the Vizcaya Museum and Gardens Endowment Fund, Florida Grand Opera, Jackson Memorial Hospital Foundation, Cuban-American National Council, and The University of Miami Arsht Ethics Programs—as well as a lab at the university medical school’s Bascom Palmer Eye Institute. In 2008, she became the first woman to join the Five Million Dollar Roundtable of United Way of Miami-Dade; 10 years later, Chapman Partnership, a Miami organization that empowers the homeless, honored her with the Trish Bell Lifetime Achievement Award for her excellent commitment and contributions to the South Florida community.

A trailblazer and maverick who makes quick decisions and gives from her gut, Arsht believes that her philanthropic contributions are about more than the amount of money she gives. It could be writing a check or donating time; either way, she encourages others to get involved in what they believe no matter how much they can afford, because it is the actions that make a difference.

“I wake up happy every day,” Arsht says. “Women shy away from recognition for their philanthropy, and I want to set an example so they know that it is okay to give. I hope that my actions are respected and in turn will inspire them to give.”

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