The big giver: Adrienne Arsht, at The Kennedy Center
Adrienne Arsht is a very rare bird. For one thing, she is one of only a handful of women who could be labeled “power” philanthropists; it’s a male-dominated field, after all. For another, she is decidedly hands-on with her philanthropic endeavors. Instead of leaving key decisions up to a foundation staff, the tireless and inimitable Arsht does much of the decisionmaking on her own, with her considerable wealth, those red appointment books for both 2012 and 2013, and a Steno pad for writing notes to herself—not to mention the bon mots to remember (sample: “Principles don’t allow for exceptions.”). At her 70th birthday bash in New York, the actor David Hyde Pierce called her “a good example of what the one percent should be doing with their money.” Arsht, who seems to positively enjoy giving away money, concentrates on helping culture and the arts, though by no means exclusively. Her generosity has created things that enhance the world: music, fantasy, color. Yet intelligent philanthropy is hard work, as a day in her life clearly shows.
Arsht’s bright-red four-inch heels brighten a gray February morning. She is presiding over breakfast at her Northwest home with four women members of the DC Volunteer Lawyers Project, which provides pro bono legal aid to women. Arsht—a lawyer herself, and the daughter of lawyer parents—has funded a grant writer for the project since 2010. Typically, Arsht encourages them to think about growing: “What I’m really excited about is making this a national entity,” she says, volunteering to scout for a national foundation to support the idea. She wants detailed budget projections. “If I go looking for funding, I want to know what I’m asking,” she says. The power breakfast consists of an egg white and mushroom omelet and fruit salad. Her departing guests are given personalized M&Ms that were a gift to Arsht from The Kennedy Center.
Arsht pays a courtesy visit to the United Arab Emirates ambassador, Yousef Al Otaiba, at his embassy. On June 2, the embassy will host the Washington National Opera’s annual ball, the gem of the summer social calendar, which she is chairing. It will be the first time in the Opera Ball’s 54-year history that an Arab embassy has acted as host. “I wanted to thank the ambassador and his wife for hosting the ball, and to ask him about what his vision and wishes are in connection with the ball,” says Arsht, a long-time board member of the WNO and its relatively new parent organization, The Kennedy Center, where she is treasurer of the board of trustees.
Arsht has a phone appointment with Frederick Kempe, president of the Atlantic Council, the prestigious Washington think tank—she’s a board member—to discuss progress on the Council’s plans to establish an Arsht-backed South America center. Its purpose will be to generate interest in the continent, which she believes receives too little attention around the world. She says her argument to Kempe was simple: “The Atlantic also washes up on the shores of South America.”
Lunch at the Lafayette Restaurant in The Hay-Adams, at her usual table by the window. Her menu selection: organic chicken salad and a cappuccino. Talk centers round the $30 million Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, a gleaming downtown Miami landmark that has transformed the city’s cultural life (Arsht still frequents the city). There’s a passing reference to that birthday party at New York’s Plaza Hotel on February 13; the 240 guests included Plácido Domingo, Gloria Estefan, and Christoph Eschenbach, the music director of the National Symphony Orchestra.
Arsht works on the guest list for her next dinner party. She has invited both Delaware Democrat Senator Chris Coons and Senator Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican—“and they’re both coming, so I’ll build around that,” she says. “People in Washington tend to live in silos. I like to get people out of their silos, so they can talk to each other.”
Before her evening at The Kennedy Center, Arsht drops in on New Zealand baritone Teddy Tahu Rhodes, who is appearing in Mozart’s “Così fan tutte” and who will also star in the WNO’s Show Boat next year—a performance supported by the Adrienne Arsht Musical Theater Fund, created by Arsht in 2009 through a donation pledge of $5 million over 10 years. Then she’s off to the opening performance of Twyla Tharp: All American, a tribute to the American choreographer by the Washington Ballet.