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The National YoungArts Foundation was born when the late cruise-ship magnate Ted Arison and his wife Lin read a New York Times article labeling Miami as a “cultural wasteland.”
It was the late 1970s and, to the contrary, Miami’s creative scene was starting to flourish. Artist enclaves were popping up amidst South Beach’s newly protected Art Deco gems and a progressive community began making waves.
“My grandparents took that as a personal insult and decided to do something to change that,” YoungArts board member Sarah Arison told The Hollywood Reporter at the organization’s glitzy 700-person Backyard Ball presented by Max Mara on Jan. 9.
The fundraiser raised more than $1.6 million for the national nonprofit, which connects emerging artists with high-profile mentors and provides arts scholarships. 2016 Arison Award honors went to actress Rosie Perez and theater director Robert Wilson; 1997 YoungArts Winner in Theater and Tony Award nominee Tony Yazbeck took home the Arison Alumni Award.
The interdisciplinary organization that the Arisons established in 1981 has grown in tandem with its home city, while bolstering its commitment to identifying and nurturing the next generation of American artists. According to Arison, YoungArts is one of the only, if not the only, organizations to encompass visual, literary, performing and design arts.
“There was a time, that I think we’re just coming out of now, when the artistic disciplines were very siloed. You were a dancer, you danced in your company and that was it,” said Arison, describing the arts’ shift away from isolated endeavors to collective execution. “Seeing amazing collaborations is a reminder of what we’ve been doing for 35 years.”
A series of performance vignettes — directed by Yazbeck and performed by YoungArts alumni — opened with a radiant solo by India Carney, a 2011 YoungArts Winner in theater and a U.S. Presidential Scholar in the Arts.
The singer’s mesmerizing rendition of the classic ballad “Over the Rainbow,” followed by the pop hit “Roar,” brought the bustling crowd back into the moment.
“All of our hearts, and all that we could contribute to music, have been poured into this performance,” said Carney.
Later, the tent fell silent when gala emcee Billy Porter (1987 Winner in theater and 2013 Tony Award winner for his performance in Kinky Boots) introduced honoree Wilson.
The legendary avant-garde theater artist towered over the podium without saying a word. This tactic commanded attention for a powerful acceptance speech, in which he theorized that future civilizations would examine the artistic endeavors of our time rather than revisit Donald Trump and political minutiae of today.
Wilson closed with a maxim encouraging the audience to protect the art of the past and the future: “If we lose our culture, we lose our memory.”
At YoungArts, the art of the past is preserved through alumni relations and the future comes with the announcement of each year’s winners. Out of more than 12,000 applications, only 819 were deemed winners this year, and approximately 170 of that group were selected to participate as finalists in the weeklong intensive in Miami.
It’s hard for the industry not to take notice, as stars from Kerry Washington to Adrien Grenier consider YoungArts an influential alma mater. Executive and artistic director Kristy Edmunds of the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA points to the immense talent at YoungArts Week. “Often when we look at young people, we still think of them as kids, but they are artists and they are significant, and this is a national organization that’s looking to buoy them into the world,” the acclaimed artist and curator told THR.
When Porter presented Perez with her trophy, the veteran film star and former co-host on ABC’s The View said she didn’t come to accept an award. Said the YoungArts master teacher, “I came to honor the kids.”
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