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Front Page » Opinion » To Survive Arts Must Advance From Edifices To Endowments

To Survive Arts Must Advance From Edifices To Endowments

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Written by on October 15, 2009

By Michael Lewis
Even as Miami-Dade irons out its budget cuts for struggling cultural groups, the arts put forth their construction plans.

In this sole respect the arts and professional sports are curiously similar: each seeks a new building.

For sports, it will have a very short life.

As we know, our first professional basketball arena was used less than 10 years. We’re on our second.

The first hockey arena (combined with basketball) lasted less than a decade before we "needed" the second — thankfully, on Broward’s tab.

Major League Baseball, 17 years old here, expects its second stadium — the first created for baseball — by its 20th birthday.

Then last week the National Football League made clear to the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce that the Dolphins’ two-decade-old stadium is dated and something expensive must be done if we want to keep luring Super Bowl and Pro Bowl games.

Of the big four sports venues, the longest useful life was 20 years. Imagine planning like that for housing, with its 30-year mortgages. Or office buildings.

We’re now bonding a baseball stadium for 40 years. If its life span is 20 years, we’ll be paying off most of its $3 billion tab long after the stadium closes, just as we did — for far less — for the Miami Arena, our first pro basketball and hockey hub. Miami sold the old arena and still was $26 million short of paying off the mortgage.

What does this have to do with the arts? Little, we hope, as far as useful life — though the Miami Art Museum plans to exit a relatively new home that taxpayers built for it with no new use announced.

But while the arts may stay in place longer than sports teams, the drawing boards are crowded. The environment for the arts may be perilous, but every group cries out for a new building.

Even while kinks are being worked out of the new two-building Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts downtown, a new arts center is almost three years behind schedule in south Miami-Dade. The county arts budget that just took a huge hit will be tapped to operate it.

And while building a glittering downtown performance center, we’ve also been constructing homes for its three resident companies, all of which include performance spaces.

The New World Symphony is building a luxurious center in Miami Beach.

The Miami City Ballet, hard hit by layoffs of dancers, built nearby.

And, as we reported two weeks ago, the Florida Grand Opera still plans to raise a headquarters adjacent to the Arsht Center, starting as soon as 2011.

Those are just the tip of the arts edifice iceberg. The Museum of Contemporary Art plans to build. So do the Historical Museum of Southern Florida and the Miami Museum of Science. The Frost museum is new at Florida International University. If the Coconut Grove Playhouse manages to reopen, it too will build.

Government supports stadiums and arenas for for-profit sports teams. But as non-profit arts organizations fuel their edifice complexes, most rely on huge private contributions.

Because buildings can be named for donors, even as arts groups struggle to operate they find major gifts to erect the buildings.

In a way, that’s admirable. Big cultural gifts are vital.

But suppose that instead of trying to erect buildings, our arts groups successfully corralled major funding to funnel directly into endowments.

Large endowments would secure the future health of organizations that annually just scrape by. Teetering arts groups would become strong.

But groups appearing before a panel formed by County Commissioner Rebeca Sosa to assess the health of the arts focus instead on government funding to survive, apparently on the theory that the public owes them a living.

Unfortunately, elected officials don’t see it that way today, and they aren’t going to in the long run, either.

Groups that don’t build major endowments — the New World Symphony alone seems to have one now — will be condemned to fight annually for scraps and beg government for handouts.

That’s no long-term winning formula, any more than is the idea that seems to prevail in the arts today: Build it and they will fund.

Without an endowment, maintaining buildings and paying off their mortgages will become nooses around the necks of our fine arts groups.

Given that, which cultural institution will be the first to focus its fundraising not on operating this year or building next year but endowing for perpetuity?

And which major arts funder will be the first to endow under the key condition that if the institution seeks a building before the endowment reaches a very large, very explicit goal, the money must be immediately returned?

We all love beautiful new buildings — if we can afford them. The more the merrier.

But we want the institutions they’re built for to outlast the concrete.

A strong arts community, after all, is not the one that has the most world-class buildings that stand over time but the one that has the most world-class institutions that financially stand the test of time.