A sound investment: Miami’s Arts and Business Council marks 35 years of returns


Laura Bruney has led the Arts and Business Council of Miami for decades.

In Greater Miami, the arts means business — some $1.5 billion worth annually.

When the pandemic hit, many arts groups were threatened with going bust. Laura Bruney, founder and CEO of the Arts and Business Council, said the situation was even worse than the Great Recession.

“One hundred times worse,” Bruney said. “During the Great Recession, people could stay open — you weren’t in lockdown, you weren’t prohibited from attending live events.”

“But the pandemic locked everything down,” she continued. “Nobody attending means no revenue.”

For the ABC, which was marking its 35th anniversary last year, that meant pivoting to how it could help arts orgnaizations survive. The question became how to recapture audiences, find new donors and sell tickets in the upturned landscape.

In the end, many were able to survive through support from major funders and local government.

Beyond philanthropy

That’s because — uniquely to South Florida — many organizations here understand that a strong arts community is good for business, she said.

“Most business giving to arts here is not charitable,” Bruney said. “It’s coming out of their marketing or business development departments.”

That’s a sentiment echoed by Adolfo Henriques, vice chairman at Related Group, benefactors of the Pérez Art Museum Miami and El Espacio 23 gallery, among others.

“Our investment in the arts is not about just philanthropic opportunity,” Henriques said, “it’s about creating a stronger community, which benefits, quite frankly, our own business.”

While the arts and culture may be part part of any great city’s DNA, in Miami, they play an especially unique role in attracting talent. Mayor Daniella Levine Cava in particular, Bruney said, understands the impact the pandemic has had on the arts and has made it clear she wants to help the arts recuperate.

“Arts and culture, creativity and inspiration — they all feed into who we are as a community, how we innovate, connect and create,” Maria Budet, chief marketing officer at the Miami-Dade Beacon Council and the ABC’s current board chair, said in an email.

The county “looks at arts as an investment rather than handout, because it has such a big economic impact,” Bruney said.

Pandemic relief

But the pandemic created unique challenges — chief among them, how to recapture audiences. Among other initiatives, the ABC created an audience development program, spearheaded by a steering committee of local marketing leaders, to spot trends and establish successful strategies.

For Michael Edwards, founder and principal cellist of the South Beach Chamber Ensemble, the ABC was instrumental in helping it develop a more effective Facebook ad campaign to market its virtual pandemic-era performances.

“Being a cellist and founder of an ensemble, I don’t have the language for that,” Andrews said. “They give you a common language to approach people in business.”

Edwards said his group received support from a local, nationally known hotel that gave the ensemble performance space as a means of helping broadcast its own name.

Indeed, as they look for customers, local businesses should keep arts audiences at the top of mind, said John Copeland, an ABC board member and cultural tourism director at the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“We know arts audiences tend to be higher educated, with more disposable income, and more community minded, and want to invest in community,” Coepland said.

If they have the resources to do so, getting involved with an arts organization has a high likelihood of a significant return on investment.

“I like to remind businesses, if you want your business to be strong, you need a community that can support that,” Copeland said. “And the arts builds communities by gathering people and providing a high quality of life for people in Miami-Dade County.”

Challenges ahead

There remains work to be done as the pandemic drags on. The bounce-back has been strong, Bruney said — but incomplete. Miami-Dade’s leisure and hospitality employment, which encompasses arts positions, remains some 30,000 jobs below its pre-pandemic high.

“A lot of artists are seasonal, contractual employees,” Bruney said. “So if there are no performances, there’s no opportunities for them.”

At the same time, many employers are still having trouble finding workers.

“Just like the job market in the whole sector, people are finding a hard time getting employees,” Bruney said. “Arts is not necessarily one of the top payers — people work for arts because they have a passion.”

And corporate funding remains depressed, with many in wait-and-see mode or putting more money into health and wellness programs.

But Copeland notes the influx of new firms to Miami is creating more opportunity than ever before to invest in cultural.

“As we’re seeing more companies and businesses set up considerable opportunities here, they’re going to be looking to invest and give back,” Copeland said. Still, the relationships can often take years to develop.

Longer-term, the pandemic may have actually provided a dividend to the arts, Bruney said.

“A lot of people are now saying they would rather buy experiences than things,” she said. “People are hungry for that opportunity to make meaningful connections.”

Rob Wile: 305-376-3203, @rjwile