July 29, 2014

Editor's Page

Three C's

Mark R. Howard | 1/1/2007


Mark Howard
These are heady times for the arts in Florida. Miami has a stunning new performing arts center. In St. Petersburg, which is about to get a museum full of the work of glass-master Dale Chihuly, the beautifully renovated Mahaffey Theater has reopened. Tampa's performing arts center is healthy, and plans for a new art museum may finally be gathering momentum. Miramar wants to build an $18-million cultural arts center with an 800-seat theater. Orlando, the only top 30 urban market in the country without a high-profile performing arts center, has ambitious plans for a big arts facility.

Perhaps the most important trend in the arts world in Florida, however, is not so much the arts palaces themselves as the way some are being run.

Traditionally, performing arts centers have functioned in their communities the same way cherries do on a sundae. They're nice to look at, and the picture looks incomplete somehow if that cherry is missing. But just as the cherry isn't essential to the taste of the sundae, it's often tough to quantify what a performing arts center does for its community much beyond providing a nice room to see the traveling production of The Lion King.

Centers tend to be managed as if creating a terrific menu of cultural offerings will automatically rub off on the health of the community in a positive way. The arts lineup, however, is rarely integrated into the broader goals of the community, whether cultural, educational or economic. Sure, school kids get bused in for an hour's worth of symphony once a year, and everyone pretends the children are somehow better for the experience, but nobody can quite tell you how. Sure, economic developers love to boast of a shiny arts center in their communities, but they'll fluster quickly if you ask them exactly how it helps business.

At the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale, Mark Nerenhausen is managing with more in mind. In talking to local educators, for example, he learned that "the most important thing on their agenda was the FCAT and literacy." The local reading curriculum included two books, one read by every second-grader and one read by every fourth-grader. "So we said we'll produce plays based on the books, on your curriculum guidelines. Their outcomes drove our content."

The plays were commissioned, local artists got work and tens of thousands of kids now see a play each year that's directly tied to their schoolwork. Without compromising the quality of the art, Nerenhausen helped local educators, and the Broward center accomplished a nifty piece of community-building in the process. The center is even working with local universities to measure whether the approach is working. Art plus accountability -- now there's a concept.

Another example: The Broward center scheduled a performance of the Jobim Sinfonico, the symphonic works of Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim, best known in the U.S. as the composer of "Girl from Ipanema." But the center did more than just stage the music: It worked with economic development organizations, the state of Florida, Nova Southeastern University and the Brazilian-American Chamber of Commerce to put together a program that added educational and economic-development components. The Brazilian performers spent time in local schools, with live internet linkups to classrooms in Brazil. Perhaps more interesting, the center hosted a two-day trade forum with a delegation from Brazil that included high-level representatives of the Brazilian ministries of economic development, commerce and culture along with important politicians, including one future presidential candidate.

The effort led to the designation of the center as an official point of Brazilian culture in the U.S., and the trade officials came away happy as well. "We were able to combine culture, community and commerce" -- all built around the arts performance, says Nerenhausen.

The arts will only grow more relevant to business as international trade expands. Some time after the Jobim Sinfonico concert, Nerenhausen says he was part of a trade mission in which businesspeople and economic development officials from south Florida traveled to Brazil on behalf of the Free Trade Area of the Americas. While it was clear why all the business types boarding the plane were there, Nerenhausen says he detected some "why-is-he-here?" glances directed his way. At a stop in Brazil, however, it was Nerenhausen whom some of the Brazilian officials first recognized -- from the event in Fort Lauderdale -- and greeted warmly. The point, he says, isn't that he had succeeded in elevating his own personal profile, but rather how the arts can become a vehicle for building the kind of personal relationships that are essential in developing business relationships. "We're starting to figure out how to play the culture game" in the same way businesspeople use golf to further business relationships, he says.

Nerenhausen says he's encouraged that some communities that are planning arts centers, including Orlando and Miramar, are organizing them with a broader set of outcomes in mind than just staging performances. "They're starting with the right premise -- with the idea of what do we need to help make an impact on the community."

To make the arts game effective, Nerenhausen says, a community's business and political leadership has to understand it as well. But it's clear to him that performing arts centers can't start and stop with art any more. "We see quality of art as an absolute precondition for us to succeed," he says. "We have to have quality. But it's our job to take that quality and connect culture with the community and with commerce."

You can reach Mark Howard at mhoward@floridatrend.com

Tags: Politics & Law, Editor's column, Around Florida

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