(National Medal of) Art Talk with Lin Arison
"The thread that unifies all great artists is their passion. It’s contagious. Just be near them for a moment and you’ll see that you’ll get swept up in their vision." --- Lin Arison
Given that Lin Arison's passion for the arts ignited during a grade-school trip to an art museum, it's no wonder that she's grown into not just an art-lover but also a passionate advocate for arts education. This passion has fueled not just one but two significant arts organizations for young artists: the National YoungArts Foundation and the New World Symphony. Not only has Arison invested in hundreds of young American artists, but her determination has helped to transform Miami into one of the great arts cities. We spoke with the 2012 National Medal of Arts honoree about the importance of mentorship, her take on "art works," and why sometimes it's worth it to sell off your Modigliani.
NEA: What do you remember as your first or earliest exposure to your engagement with the arts?
LIN ARISON: A class trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan when I was ten years-old left my first indelible impression on me. My classmates and I entered the theater---straight ahead was an eye in specific detail filling the whole wall. The camera pulled back and the eye became a face. Pulling back some more, hundreds of faces filled the wall. Shocking me, giant figures then took over the foreground in this magnificent painting by Jacques-Louis David. This experience promoted my traveling from my home in Washington Heights to the museum by myself by bus or subway, hungry to look at the paintings and sculptures, which I devoured as a gift.
My mother saved her pennies and bought the 12 volumes of My Book House and sat at the edge of my bed every evening and read to me. The first volume was nursery rhymes, the second was simple stories, and then each volume became progressively more sophisticated as I grew into them. When we got to Charles Kingsley’s Water-Babies, I had found my favorite which I begged her to read over and over. My imagination opened and so did my heart.
NEA: What was the spark that led to the creation of the YoungArts program? What's been most rewarding about the project? Most surprising?
ARISON: In the 1970s, Tom Hoving said Miami was a cultural wasteland. He was right. After high school, kids used to leave Miami---there was nothing for them. Because my late husband Ted had become successful starting Carnival Cruise Lines in Miami, he wanted to say “thank you,” so in 1981, with the help of consultants Seltzer & Daley, he and I created the National YoungArts Foundation (formerly known as the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts).
YoungArts came into being by taking over the Arts Recognition and Talent Search (A.R.T.S.), the exclusive pathway to becoming Presidential Scholars in the Arts. A.R.T.S. was created by Educational Testing Service (ETS) at the behest of President Carter as a means to identify and award the most talented high school senior artists in the United States. Prior to A.R.T.S., the White House Commission on Presidential Scholars, created by President Johnson in 1964, only measured the students, including the student artists, by academics and SAT scores. But now every year since the creation of A.R.T.S., YoungArts searches all the high schools in America to find the best artists who will join the academics at the White House to receive the Presidential Scholars’ Gold Medallion from the President of the United States.
Ted asked William Turnbull, head of ETS, to let him take A.R.T.S. to Miami so that he could build a strong foundation and other programs around the Presidential Scholars in the Arts component to further encourage and support artists in all the art forms. Turnbull agreed. So at the beginning, artists would come to Miami once a year for YoungArts Week, participating in workshops and master classes, receiving cash awards and scholarships to college, and performing for enthusiastic audiences. They’d come with their cellos, their paintings, their leotards, their voices, their cameras, their dreams from all parts of America. The local papers in Seattle, Albuquerque, and Kansas City, would write about Johnny Jones and his bass flying to Miami for YoungArts Week. People were aghast. Miami?!? But pretty soon, the tide turned and Miami became a known destination for the arts and young people.
What started as a program just for the Presidential Scholars in the Arts in Washington DC and then for the one YoungArts Week in Miami has now grown dramatically, thanks to the vision of board member Harry Hersh, with regional YoungArts programs in New York, Miami, and Los Angeles, and more regional programs in Sundance and other places on the way. YoungArts aspires to have regional programs across America to help give to as many deserving young artists as possible the life-changing experiences that the 17,000+ YoungArts alumni have had in its 32-year history.
NEA: What’s been the most surprising thing about the YoungArts project?
ARISON: What surprises me most about the YoungArts program is the dramatic expansion it has made in the past two years since Paul T. Lehr has become its President and CEO…. In addition to realizing what had for years just been a dream about having regional programs, Paul also had the vision to find and establish a permanent headquarters for YoungArts with year-round programming to support the arts. The new YoungArts national headquarters is one of the most beloved and iconic structures in Miami; it’s the former Bacardi building and campus. Just look up some of the images on the web and you’ll see that it is screaming to be an arts and cultural center---and now it will be.
The campus is being master-planned and transformed with YoungArts Artistic Advisor Frank Gehry to accommodate year-round programming at the highest level. Mikhail Baryshnikov, who mentors the YoungArts winners in New York and produces shows with them in his Baryshnikov Arts Center, will work with the young artists in the new headquarters. YoungArts Artistic Advisor Bill T. Jones is planning an annual one-month residency at the campus. We plan to have all of the [master artists] who work with YoungArts be a part of the programming in the new headquarters and many already have, including YoungArts Artistic Advisor Plácido Domingo [who taught] a master class in a packed room on the top floor of the campus overlooking the bay, and YoungArts alumnus Adrian Grenier [who screened] his documentary film Teenage Paparazzo on the plaza. With the new headquarters and vastly expanded programming, Paul has caused YoungArts to become visible---and that will help YoungArts help more young artists.
NEA: What’s been the most rewarding thing about the YoungArts project?
ARISON: The most rewarding aspect of the program is hearing year after year, that YoungArts has changed the young artists’ lives. They get a real sense of being an artist at a time when they need the most encouragement. They receive scholarships to college, when many would not be able to continue with their education or their art.
To see our YoungArts alumnus winning a Tony like Billy Porter in Kinky Boots; alumna Kerry Washington, a thoughtful citizen on the boards of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities and Americans for the Arts promoting art education for the next generation of students, not just for artists; alumnus Tony Yazbeck on the front page of the New York Times, dancing in the Broadway show On the Town as well as mentoring our young artists during New York YoungArts Week; alumnus Doug Aitken leading a cross-country whistle-stop tour for three weeks by train of shows by visual artists, music, poetry, and food [in a program] called Station to Station: a Nomadic Happening. These examples all were news stories just during the few days that I was writing the responses to these questions. Seeing these, and other examples like these throughout the year, every year, makes me know that YoungArts will always have these alumni as collaborators, to help us build support for the young ones coming along. We are becoming a family where all pitch in and help each other.
NEA: You are clearly very committed to both arts education and mentorship. Can you please talk about what you see as the value of each endeavor?
ARISON: YoungArts knows that exposure to the arts is an imperative for all students (not just artists) so they develop as balanced and creative human beings, good for themselves and good for the country. Being engaged in the arts opens the brain and enables the students to do better in their academic pursuits. It lifts their spirits. There is nothing like the promise of passion to get a kid out of bed heading for school.
NEA: What would you say to encourage master artists to become mentors to up-and-comers?
ARISON: The Masters love working with our young artists because they are so talented. They follow every nuance, and the Masters begin to re-live their own dreams and aspirations. When the filming is done for their YoungArts MasterClass episode [on HBO], the Masters are refreshed and energized---as if they discovered the fountain of youth. When these Masters are in the school system, teaching, they will live forever. Our Masters are our national treasure.
NEA: What was the spark that led to the New World Symphony? What are the particular rewards and challenges of starting a symphony from scratch?
ARISON: By happenstance, [my husband] Ted and I were sitting with our friend, Valerie Solti, in Croydon, outside of London, while her husband, Georg Solti was conducting the European Community Youth Orchestra. Ted couldn’t believe that such young musicians were so excellent and enthusiastic. Within three notes Ted decided to come back to Miami and start a training orchestra of young musicians. Miami didn’t have an orchestra. He spoke with Dr. Grant Beglarian, who at that time was the President of YoungArts, and asked if he knew of anyone who could take this on. Grant said he knew of just the man. Michael Tilson Thomas had been his student at USC’s School of Performing Arts and for years had been dreaming of starting a training orchestra. MTT had tried to interest people in doing this but never found the right person until he found Ted. When MTT tells the story of their meeting in New York, it is entertaining as only MTT can be, given his unique background (his grandparents, the Thomashevsky’s who started the Yiddish Theater, are memorialized in the show that MTT created for their music and their story).
We created the New World Symphony (NWS) where 90 musicians are trained by the best masters from all over the world. Every year 30 of the musicians leave to take professional jobs. Miami was very enthusiastic about their new orchestra; the community took the young musicians under its wing. The music got rave reviews from the moment of its first concert in 1988; their reputation only gets better each year. MTT is a born teacher and, while he still conducts the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony Orchestra, and tours everywhere, his coming back to Miami enables him to enjoy his dream come true. After enduring a very difficult start-up in an aged and crumbling South Beach before it was gentrified, two years ago Frank Gehry’s New World Center opened its glass doors to a magical wonderland of design. Concerts in the auditorium have flying sails for projections. There are also projections of the concerts on 7,000 square feet on the outside of the building called “Wallcast.” Wallcast is free and shows close-ups of the musicians, their instruments, with the music played out-of-doors, an acoustical wonderment, uplifting thousands of people who bring their children to enjoy classical music in the park in front of the center. These children will grow up loving classical music. The NWS’s aim is to be experimental. This experiment in training and presenting music has been successful, and should be copied by everyone.
NEA: You have worked with some world-class artistic forces. In your experience, do you think there's one thing (or things) that characterizes great artists?
ARISON: The thread that unifies all great artists is their passion. It’s contagious. Just be near them for a moment and you’ll see that you’ll get swept up in their vision. How grateful we are for this experience.
NEA: What’s your advice to young artists? What's your advice to young arts philanthropists?
ARISON: All artists should check out the YoungArts website to see where they can fit in. Young philanthropists should join the cultural institutions that appeal to them. Being involved will give them great joy. It’s a marvelous way to live a life.
NEA: I know you also have a great art collection. Do you have a favorite work, and/or a favorite artist and why?
ARISON: Ted and I collected paintings. My favorites were Monet’s water lilies and Modigliani’s painting of Jeanne Herbuterne. I sold them to help fund YoungArts MasterClass. Monet and Modigliani both would agree that helping the future generations is a good use for their art.
NEA: You have invested heavily in the arts. How would you articulate the value of investing in arts and culture enterprises?
ARISON: Investing in the arts and cultural enterprises has made my life meaningful, and as the NEA says “Art Works.” Looking at the transformation of Miami from cultural wasteland to land of plenty is the proof.
If you enjoyed this chat with Lin Arison, you may enjoy these conversations with her fellow 2012 National Medal of Arts honorees musician and producer Herb Alpert and Philadanco! founder Joan Myers Brown, as well as New Yorker editor-in-chief David Remnick's salute to the honorees.