Through Her Giving, Many Receive

Adrienne Arsht on her lifelong mission to make the world a better place

| 15 Aug 2020 | 07:21

The second presidential debate will be held at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami this fall. Those who don’t already know who the venue is named after will surely search for her biography, and what they will learn is that Arsht is an altruistic philanthropist with a penchant for the arts. And that building is her namesake because of the $30 million donation she made to save it when it was in danger of bankruptcy.

Earlier this month, her generosity made a great impact on the art scene here in New York, as she gifted the Metropolitan Museum of Art with $5 million dollars. Part of this endowment will be used to finance a paid internship program, making the Met the nation’s largest art museum to offer entirely-paid-for internships to all of its close to 120 undergraduates and graduates annually. “The ability to receive a salary gives you the ability to then focus on your future,” Arsht explained. “And this is an exciting way to give many an opportunity, going into a job, being in a not-for-profit, and being in one of the largest and most important museums in the world.”

The Delaware native and current D.C. resident’s donation to the museum is twofold, with a portion benefiting MetLiveArts’ new initiative that will feature live-streamed performances beginning in September. The focus of the programming is resilience through art, and there seems like no better time than the present for that theme to resonate. “Resilience, today, is the word,” she said. “Everything that’s going to get us through this is, by definition, resilience.”

Why is the paid internship program so important to you?

It’s obvious, perhaps only in hindsight now, that if you can’t pay your rent, you can’t do very much else. My father had to pay his way through law school and couldn’t avail himself of some of the opportunities that his classmates had in the way of internships and activities. And I remember as a child hearing this. He went to Penn Law School and would hitchhike home to Delaware to work. So I’ve been fortunate that in my time, I’ve been able to do unpaid internships. With my internships, there is the opportunity to reach out to students and graduates of HBCUs, historically Black Colleges and Universities. I have reached out in New York to the Jackie Robinson Foundation. I have long been impressed with its mission and its Jackie Robinson Scholars. Robinson’s daughter, Sharon, graduated from Howard University, an HBCU in Washington, D.C.

Your donation is also going to MetLiveArts. Tell us about that series.

Limor Tomer, who runs it, is a creative genius in using the spaces throughout the Met for performances of art and music. And I have supported her and funded her projects from the first-ever TED event at a museum. And most recently, she arranged for a performance in celebration of the 100th anniversary of women getting the right to vote of an opera called “The Mother of Us All,” about Susan B. Anthony with music by Virgil Thomson and words by Gertrude Stein, and she used students from Juilliard and musicians from the New York Philharmonic. I underwrote it and it debuted in February. I had been talking to Limor for about a year about projects where the entire Met museum could be used to highlight aspects of resilience that are manifested in all the different collections. The American Wing has George Washington crossing the Delaware, that famous painting. That certainly is resilience.

What is your favorite area to explore in the museum?

Well, I’m terribly partial to the American Wing, which is really my heritage coming from Delaware. And the early American furniture that comes from Philadelphia and all around there. The American Wing is like coming home for me. There’s a painting there that was my first contribution to the Met actually in 2012. It’s “Studies of Indian Chiefs Made at Fort Laramie” by Albert Bierstadt in 1859. And there was an opportunity to procure it for the American Wing, and I thought it was so important to have the American Indians, the indigenous population, reflected there, so I made the initial gift for it to be acquired. So when I have a few minutes after hanging out in Engelhard Court, where so much occurs, right in front of the entrance to the American Wing, I will run upstairs and see it and it makes me very happy.

You donated to the Arts Center in Miami, which was home to the first Democratic primary debates last year and now the second presidential debate will also be there. That’s really cool!

It is cool, absolutely it’s cool. I donated when it was about to go bankrupt after about two years. It was just clear to me that a city and a community need the performing arts. I went to the first debate that the Democrats had and it was exciting and I was terribly proud that this performing arts center had been used. And on October 15, the second presidential debate will be there, which is the town hall one. The tradition is that the presidential debates are always on university campuses, and a section is reserved for the students to experience government. When Michigan said they couldn’t handle it, I think coming to the arts center was partially an easy decision because the Democrats had already used it.

We have something in common; I went to Villanova for undergrad and you attended law school there.

Oh my gosh, yes! Both my mother and father had gone to Penn Law School and I applied, but the dean there told my parents they’d rather accept a man, because he would do more with his education. My mother was only the fifth woman to become a member of the Delaware Bar. When I was admitted, I was the eleventh. I lived in Wilmington and Villanova was a new law school. The current dean is Mark Alexander who is just a rock star. His sister, Elizabeth, is head of the Carnegie Mellon Foundation and his father is Cliff Alexander, who was the first black Secretary of the Army.

You credit your parents for instilling in you a love of philanthropy and the arts.

Philanthropy, I’d like to think, is in everybody’s DNA. Caring for others and the planet, to make life better for the future. And that’s what you’re here on earth for, to make the earth, while you’re here, a better place, and to reach out to others. My parents’ philanthropy was always at the transformative level. They funded the creation of the Academy of Lifelong Learning in the late ‘70s at the University of Delaware, and it became one of the largest institutions for adult learning, and an outpatient surgical center at a hospital. They always thought in terms of doing something that others weren’t interested in doing. And the arts were just a part of our lives. On Saturdays, we’d always listen to the radio to the Texaco broadcast of the opera. And there was the theater in Wilmington. The arts define us as civilized individuals and inspire us in our darkest times and reflect happiness and joy.