Miami’s Cultural Godmother is Leaving

(Photo – Mary Luft performing in 1979)

Performance art? We got that. Contemporary dance? Check. Musical experiments? Yup. Shows in warehouses and other non-theater spaces? Absolutely. A spot on the U.S. cultural map? Sure.

That we do owes much to Mary Luft, Miami’s cultural godmother. In 1979 she launched Tigertail Productions to present the radical, genre-shifting performance work she loved in a Miami with virtually no arts scene, much less a progressive one. In doing so, she transformed culture here; opening minds, giving artists a chance, inspiring others to make their own mark. Where others saw a cultural wasteland, she saw opportunity.

“Miami was absolutely wide open,” Luft told me for a story I did at the Miami Herald on the birth of culture here in the 80’s. “It had that spirit of anything was possible.”

Now she and her longtime partner John Kramel are leaving for the Upper Hudson Valley near New York City, the board is disbanding Tigertail and Luft is selling the Spring Garden bungalow (working fireplace, giant deck, bucolic atmosphere, in case you’re interested) that’s been her home and office for almost 30 years. Her departure marks the end of an era, a generational shift in the local arts world. And I wonder whether, once again, her actions will change the city. Certainly, whatever comes next, no one can replace Mary Luft.

Mary-Recent-Louvre
Mary Luft. Photo by John Kramel.

The longevity that’s made her an institution is one motivation. At 72, she’s tired of cranking out grants and sweet talking hotel sponsors and explaining why this choreographer or that experimental jazz guitarist is worth our attention – all the repetitive work that goes into presenting season after season. She still loves making things happen and art that upends your vision of the world. But just like when she started Tigertail, she’s looking for new possibilities.

“I want to do something different,” Luft says in an interview at her home. “I don’t want to do paperwork. I don’t want to work 60 hours a week. I want to see different places. It’s probably the first time in my life that I don’t have a plan. For me it’s not like it’s empty. It’s wide open.”

“If I could move tomorrow I would.”

She and Kramel have already found a house in the Hudson Valley, which, along with Western Massachusetts, is drawing groups and artists retreating from or priced out of New York, as well as expansive institutions too big for a city: the Lumberyard (formerly the American Dance Institute), Dia:Beacon, Mass MOCA, the Experimental Sound Research Center. Choreographer Stephen Petronio is opening a dance center. NYC is a short train or car ride away.

The Tigertail website will stay up for six years. Two influential community-based programs will continue at other organizations; dance/film festival Screendance Miami under Miami Light Project, and the wonderful teen spoken word programs WordSpeak and SpeakOut with Arts for Learning.

Mary Luft came to Miami from Iowa in 1970 with her husband, who worked in urban planning, and their two young children. Trained as a dancer, she was part of Fusion, Miami’s only modern dance company, and lived in Coconut Grove, Miami’s bohemian enclave, on the street that gave Tigertail its name. (Glenn Terry, founder of the King Mango Strut, did her incorporation papers.) She fell in love with experimental music and dance, and began trekking to where she could see it: New York, a fellowship at the National Endowment for the Arts in DC, a road trip to experimental music event New Music America in Minneapolis in 1981, driving all night, her children sleeping in the back seat, because she didn’t want to miss anything after a forced overnight stop in Georgia to fix her tanked transmission.

Tigertail was her vehicle to explore and join this new artistic realm of “performance, crossover, new and experimental music – this whole arena of things coming out of our time. But you couldn’t hear them on the radio, couldn’t see them in print, it wasn’t on television. So it was discovering that circle, moving into that circle.”

“I started selfishly. My family and my kids were here. By bringing it here I got to see and experience it.”

She presented her own choreography and performance pieces, concerts with avant-garde musicians and video artists, site-specific shows when that was a radical concept, created collaborations, brought artists who’d only thought of Miami as a place for their aging parents. In 1984 she was hired to co-direct New Music America in Hartford (the event moved to a different city each year.) Four years later, she and then partner Joseph Celli, an experimental musician and presenter, produced New Music America Miami, a massive ten-day, city-wide festival under the aegis of the culturally ambitious Eduardo Padrón, then VP of Miami Dade College Wolfson Campus (already home to the Miami Bookfair.) The festival brought John Cage, the Kronos Quartet, sound installations on the Metro Mover, Ornette Coleman and Gilberto Gil at the Cameo Theater on South Beach (in collaboration with the nascent Rhythm Foundation.) This city had never seen anything like it.

Mary-DanceForMiamiPromo-JamesTheobald-1985-ByHenryPerez
Mary Luft and James Theobald in a 1985 promotional picture for “Dance for Miami.” Photo by Henry Perez.

In Miami, with its lack of arts institutions or history, she could learn by doing. She was good at detail and organizing, though writing and math came harder (she took two days to do her first half-page grant budget.) But she didn’t falter. “When you’re in something you’re just in it,” Luft says. “You’re seeing things that are really interesting and going with it, figuring out how to survive and make it happen.”

The 80’s were a time when new types of performance, dance, music and media surged out of the avant-garde and its New York center to widening platforms and audiences, and to cities across the country. Boundaries between underground and pop, artistic and commercial blurred. Laurie Anderson and Philip Glass became art stars. Contemporary art went regional. And Luft was key in making Miami part of the artistic maturation of America. When I moved here in 1987, after dancing in the East Village, the directors of PS 122 and Dance Theater Workshop (where Luft twice presented concerts), two leading downtown venues, both told me to look her up – she was the one person they knew here.

Luft changed the lives of many people who went on to be part of Miami’s art scene. Janine Gross, who co-founded the Miami Light Project in 1989, and Gustavo Matamoros, founder of the Subtropics Music Festival, worked on New Music America. Tigertail fostered choreographers from Demetrius Klein and Dale Andree to Heather Maloney (who has also run her own performance space in Wynwood), Lazaro Godoy, Marissa Alma Nick, Carla Forte, and Pioneer Winter – who’ll continue directing Screendance and has become an influential presenter and cultural catalyst himself.

When Luft announced she was leaving earlier this summer, tributes poured out on Facebook. “We stand on your shoulders,” wrote Beth Boone, executive director of Miami Light since 1998.

(I’ve got a foot on those shoulders myself. Luft gave me my first job that wasn’t bartending, waitressing or dancing – as an office/production person at New Music America. Interviewing her for this story, I found out that she paid me as much as she paid herself. Trust me, it was not a lot. The following year, still working for her, I’d begun writing press releases, and one day she remarked “you’re a good writer.” It was the first time anyone said that to me. Two years later, I began working as a freelance journalist.)

Luft is also fearless about following her instincts. Tigertail’s FLA/BRA festival, (inspired by a 1989 Fulbright to Bahia, Brazil), which ran from the mid-90’s to the mid-2000’s, presented cutting edge Brazilian composers, choreographers and performers before Miami’s Brazilian connection became a major economic and cultural force.

“There’s no one like her in Miami,” says Elaine Wright, a dancer and teacher at New World School of the Arts who is president of the Tigertail board. “She’s like a performing artist fairy godmother. She has a keen eye. She doesn’t go with mainstream Miami at all. She loves to challenge her audience. She exposes audiences to artists and work that is always modern, always relevant, always challenging… it’ll always take you to a deeper level. That’s a rarity in Miami. There is going to be such a void with the dissolving of Tigertail.”

Just as Luft’s launch of Tigertail marked the beginning of a cultural era in Miami, her departure signals another shift. The kind of public funding so crucial to Tigertail has steadily diminished since the 90’s, and with conservatives dominating government, seems likely to shrink still more. Particularly in Miami, arts groups have become far more dependent on individual donors, whose generosity will always be outstripped by the number needing their help. The millions that the Knight Foundation has given through the Knight Arts Challenge have been transformative, but the one-off nature of the program, which tends to fund individual projects, means that it is mostly not a steady support for organizations. The cultural center of gravity – and a lot of the funding – has shifted towards big institutions like the National YoungArts Foundation, the New World Symphony, the Adrienne Arsht Center and PAMM.

Meanwhile, fast rising rents and accelerating gentrification have made survival more difficult for individual artists and small companies of all kinds. Though that crisis is not unique to Miami, it’s intensified here by our dependence on real estate and developers’ quick adoption of artists as transitory neighborhood window dressing. Miami Light Project, for instance, is struggling to remain in the Wynwood space it shares with Arts for Learning. Hard to imagine who would start a presenting organization now; it’s just too hard.

Mary-Eiko@Vizcaya2016
Choreographer Eiko Otake performed at Vizcaya in 2016 for Tigertail’s Water Festival.

Luft has modified what she does to deal with these changes. As theaters like the Colony on Miami Beach became too expensive, she shifted to other locales and partnerships with the likes of Vizcaya Museum, where she presented an amazing performance by Japanese choreographer/dancer Eiko Otake and Fire Gods in the Garden, a showcase for four local choreographers; with PAMM, which hosts much of Screendance; Miami-Dade County Auditorium, and HistoryMiami. She has stayed lean before that was a corporate catchphrase, paying herself little, helped by a few (or just one or two), usually part-time employees.

And she has some advice for anyone who wants to follow in her footsteps and start a one-woman cultural revolution.

“If you want to do it, do it. Talk to the best. Do your research. Be realistic. Don’t get in over your head – if you blow your budget you won’t exist. Collaborate.”

After initially refusing to do a farewell event, Luft finally consented to an informal good-bye party on September 9 at Salt restaurant on Key Biscayne. There’ll be an open mic to tell stories; there should be lots of them, detailing the adventures of a pioneer and the transformation of a city.

But Luft isn’t one to engage in nostalgia.

“Things can have a beginning, middle and end,” she says. “That’s valid… Things have cycles. They go up, they go down. You have to have a sense of timing. This isn’t working. The scene has changed.”

The farewell celebration for Mary Luft and Tigertail will be at 8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 9 at Salt, 4600 Rickenbacker Causeway, Key Biscayne, FL 33149. Admission is $25, in advance/online only (no tickets at door) and include a glass of champagne and hors d’oeuvres, at Brown Paper Tickets.

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