Five Questions for: Johann Zietsman

President and CEO of the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County


It’s been just over a month since South African-born Johann Zietsman joined the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County as president and chief executive officer and the arts community is anticipating some serious enhancements. Holding the same position in Calgary Canada’s Arts Commons, Zietsman there turned a projected $900,000 deficit into a $1.3 million surplus while also creating National Geographic Live and a volunteer concierge program. It’s been a long and fruitful career in arts (he played the French Horn in symphony while studying architecture,) the military (he grew up in the Apartheid regime) and politics (he was recognized by Nelson Mandela’s government) for Zietsman, so SocialMiami editor Brett Graff sat down with this industry leader – he’s the current chair of the Performing Arts Center Consortium and a member of the International Society for the Performing Arts – to get his take on culture, career and – of course - our city’s culinary features.

So, tell us – what do you have in store for the local arts community, will there be changes?
The answer is “yes and no.” Obviously something will change because new leadership does that, but it’s not my aim. I want to take this organization and build upon it’s incredible foundation. For an organization to reach this point is spectacular in our industry.

And how do you go about deciding what we need?
We’re kicking off that process with something we haven’t done for a while: we’re going to every one of the county’s 13 districts and doing a series of town hall listening sessions. We’re asking people what the Arsht Center has meant to them and what would they like to see more of, or differently or perhaps how the center can have a different impact on their lives. That will give me a good idea of what our stakeholders and universe would think of this county-owned facility. Everyone is welcome and if you can’t come to a meeting, you can go to our website’s homepage, where you can submit comments.

What do you like about Miami as a city?
I’m attracted to the layers of diversity and complexity and organic messiness. That’s what’s unique, it’s authentic and real and you can’t avoid it, and people are constantly confronting and dealing with the diversity you find everywhere -- and figuring out in in a way that feels groundbreaking. I feel like I’m living in a future that other people will get to but we’re already there. If you don’t see it, it’s because you think it’s just life, but if you ‘ve lived like I have in many cities, you see people live past each other and they don’t collide or interact and in Miami that collision is part of life. In the arts we reflect society and show the best and worst -- and this is the best place to be.

And what do you like most about Arsht Center?
Many performing arts centers start on the performing arts piece and then add education – but this place started with education in its DNA and I think that’s amazing. It’s wonderful for an organization like this to -- from day one – say, “we’re going to expose every single child in grades 5 and 7 and now 9 in Miami-Dade Public Schools to the performing arts” and to say “We care about the impact on the next generation,” from Day One is unique.

What’s your favorite type of arts programming?
What’s your favorite kid? (laughs) I honestly don’t have favorites, I’m a classically trained musician and conductor but I have many memories of being changed from theater. It connects with us in a profound way. Provocative theater that makes you think about social issues, but I also like a good evening of music.

Okay, you might be too interesting, can we break the rules and ask a sixth question? What amazing restaurants have you discovered since arriving?
We discovered Mandolin, a Greek bistro in Wynwood, really nice little place, and we like Amaro. We are going to go to a Venezuelan restaurant tomorrow night. I always want to go to a Brazilian rodizio, I’m south African so I like meat.

Okay – we may have to change the name of this column - seven questions. SEVEN, that’s it, I promise. You say “we” a lot.
My wife is Tharrie, she’s the interesting one in the family. She’s an artist who right now is doing three-dimensional work with textile and fiber, but she’s a painter and illustrator and marionette maker and manipulator. We have two children – my daughter is 36-years-old and is a marketing executive for a cosmetic company. My son is age 34 and he’s a prosthodontist - he does implants bridges, everything prosthetic in your mouth. They were both in theater growing up, performing in professional productions such as Evita, Oliver, and Annie.