Miami Warms Up to Culture

Two orchestras, a resident ballet, and small companies ride crest of new wave

SUN worshipers who come to Miami to bake on the sands find, perhaps to their surprise, some hot spots off the beach: The ballet. The symphony. The opera. Culture, with a capital C, is heating up in Miami. In just six years, the United States' southern-most major city has turned into the proud host of two acclaimed professional orchestras and a feisty ballet company that is gaining international attention. These major institutions round out the region's cultural menu, once dominated heroically by the long-established opera company.

``The pot is bubbling,'' says Alvis Sherouse, a Miami resident for 14 years. ``You go to either of the orchestras' concerts, and there's such excitement among members of the audience.''

Joining these top groups is a burgeoning number of smaller dance troupes, theater companies, and artistic enclaves, which are turning this metropolitan area into what tourist officials now call ``the sophisticated tropics.''

Cultural leaders, however, qualify their generally buoyant attitudes about the region's rising profile: In a city that is still young, uncertain funding and audience development pose serious challenges for the long-term future of the arts.

``There are a lot of people in the community who don't know what's going on and who don't participate,'' says Willie Waters, artistic director of the Greater Miami Opera, one of the top 10 regional opera companies in the US.

Edward Villella concurs. ``A lot of new habits have to be created here,'' says the former New York City Ballet star who started the Miami City Ballet from scratch four years ago. People are ``just beginning to understand what supporting a major cultural institution entails.'' In this city, he says, $25,000 is considered a major gift, compared to a national average of $50,000 to $100,000.

Culture for yuppies

Fueling the arts boom has been an influx of young professionals who have put down roots and decided to patronize cultural organizations.

``A surprising number of them are discovering classical music,'' says James Judd, the young English music director of the Philharmonic Orchestra of Florida. ``If you get them in once, they seem to be tremendously turned on.''

Formed six years ago with the merging of two South Florida symphonies, the Philharmonic attracts sell-out crowds and has gone from a $600,000 budget in 1983-84 to a projected $5.8 million level next season. Still, ``we're constantly in a major education process,'' Mr. Judd says. If enough money is raised, the Philharmonic could follow up on invitations to tour worldwide. Already, the orchestra plans to record with a major label next year, Judd says.

``The Philharmonic is now on the level with the best regional orchestras like the Cincinnati, Atlanta, and Pittsburg symphonies,'' says Mr. Sherouse, vice-president of broadcast operations at WTMI, South Florida's classical music station. In addition, the New World Symphony, a training orchestra for young virtuosos, has soared in popularity during its three-year history, playing nationally and abroad under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas.

Local arts involvement is not totally new to Miami residents. For some 20 years, the Concert Association of Greater Miami has been bringing in full-length ballets and big-name artists. Now presenting 30 concerts a year - including such acts as Luciano Pavarotti, Jessye Norman, Itzhak Perlman, the London Symphony Orchestra, and the American Ballet Theatre - the association has helped spawn the public's desire for more cultural events.

``We're known as `Lincoln Center South,''' says Judy Drucker, association president. The increase of performing groups, however, has a downside, she adds. ``In one week, you can have five concerts! I really don't know if we have the audience for this.'' Recently her organization has felt the financial strain of audiences spread too thin.

``People can't go to everything,'' says Mr. Waters at the opera. ``So they're deciding on two or three things, and that begins to impact upon on us in terms of finances.'' A search for new audiences

A major theme among cultural leaders is the need to develop new audiences that break through barriers of age and nationality. ``The Hispanic and the black communities are our answers to the future,'' says Ms. Drucker.

While many white retirees have moved north, the Hispanic population has boomed here. Dade County, a roughly 2,000-square-mile area with 26 cities (Miami is the largest), is almost 48 percent Hispanic today, compared with 23 percent in 1970.

Willie Waters was encouraged by a survey of audience attendance at recent opera performances. ``We found most of the young people that came were Hispanic and that there were lots of families,'' he says. But ``we've got to continue building new audiences - or we'll perish.''

Last fall, the Philharmonic played some outdoor concerts in Miami, one of which was an all-Hispanic program with jazz flutist Nestor Torrez. ``It was enormously successful,'' says maestro Judd. ``That's an area we're going to develop.''

Osvaldo Monzon, director of the Cuban Museum of Arts and Culture, would like to see the white community sponsor more projects for different cultures. The arts ``could be an important vehicle for unity between many of our communities,'' he says.

Some efforts have had only limited success. New Theatre, a four-year-old, black-box theater in Coral Gables, presented a contemporary musical called ``You Are Here,'' which looked at life in Miami from Hispanic, black, Jewish, and Anglo viewpoints.

``We tried to reach out to a multi-ethnic audience,'' says Rafael De Acha, director. ``The reality is: There's a gap between good intentions and accomplishment. We played to the same audience we always play to,'' largely Anglo and Jewish.

Cross-cultural collaborations can't be forced, he adds. ``There's been a lot of ethnic friction here that's going to have to be healed with time.''

An impressive number of theaters, museums, and musical groups around town are reaching out to youth to build future audiences. New Theatre offers blocks of free seats to public-school students. ``We need to start with the kids,'' De Acha says.

But central to reaching new audiences, say arts leaders, is a proposed three-theater performance center just north of downtown. The orchestras, the ballet, and the opera ``are clamoring for space,'' says Waters, whose opera company has been sharing the Dade County Auditorium with high-school graduation ceremonies.

It's up to the voters

Progress on the arts center has been slow, and it will not go up for several more years. ``At least community leaders are serious about it now and are actively trying to find the money,'' Waters says.

``We're at a crossroads,'' says Kenneth Kahn, executive director of the Metro-Dade Cultural Affairs Council, the county funding arm for the arts. ``If you don't have a revenue base to build on and commitment from legislators for the long term, you're in trouble.'' He sees progress for the arts as being ``in the hands of the voters.''

Arts leaders consistently identify ``better corporate support'' as vital to sustaining the arts here. But a chief drawback is the paucity of big businesses and Fortune 500 companies based in Miami, compared to other major US cities. Banking and tourism are the major industries.

Yet the community is learning that culture and the future prosperity of the region are linked.

``We need a counterbalance to some of the negatives that are associated [with Miami] - like the drug problem and the race riots of the past,'' says the ballet's Mr. Villella. ``If a city doesn't have a symphony or an opera or museums, business people seek other places to live.''

First in a three-part series. Part 2 will be published Friday, May 11.

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