The Arsht of Inspiration

The Arsht Center’s newest President & CEO Johann Zietsman brings an impactful legacy to Miami-Dade.

By Eric Edelman

Decades before Johann Zietsman became the Adrienne Arsht Center’s newest President & CEO, he was a soldier. In Apartheid-era South Africa, most soldiers were content with a gun in hand and battle to fight. But Zietsman was different. A budding architectural student and gifted horn player, he much-preferred an instrument over a rifle. During his studies, he would commit himself to military service in the summers, which required his participation in military camp performances, where he often performed and welcomed collaboration with others, particularly black musicians.  Despite the cultural differences between himself and some of his counterparts, performing music was akin to speaking a universal language for the very first time. “I was a clueless dumb 19-year-old soldier with a narrow view of life,” Zietsman recalls. “Experiencing a piece of performance art by black people in a black environment—my overriding outtake was that this was such a powerful experience of humanity and of what we have in common with each other,” Zietsman continued. “It made me realize how powerful the arts and performing arts are…just that half an hour of theater changed my life. I realized the cause we were fighting for was not a just cause.” This revelation would inspire Zietsman to commit himself to ensuring as many people—regardless of color, culture, or creed—could experience the arts and maximize their creative potential, even if it meant standing up to the status quo. 

In Apartheid-era South Africa, challenging the status quo meant challenging the law-affirmed segregation of blacks and whites. To do so publicly meant accepting a pariah-like status or the possibility of jail time—outcomes Zietsman was willing to face. The arts would become more than a passion; he would use them to break down barriers, build bonds, and inspire others to do the same. “I think I’m an activist first, the medium or tool I’m using becomes second,” Zietsman says. “The arts became a very important way to influence people or bring people together and create cross-cultural understanding. They are a beautiful means to achieve that.” This philosophy of art as a means of stirring change would continually guide him in the ensuing years, eventually landing Zietsman at countless international stops in various leadership positions. The one-time budding horn player and activist concedes he never foresaw being at the helm of a legendary arts and cultural center like the Arsht Center, but it’s a testament to his never-ending desire to seek challenges and inspire change. “When you’re young, people tell you, ‘you’ve got to have a plan. You’ve got to know where you’re going,’” Zietsman says. “I’ve never been like that. I’ve always gone from opportunity to opportunity, from challenge to challenge—I’ve always liked that.” As President & CEO of the Arsht Center it is both a new challenge and a new opportunity. At his most recent decade-long stop in Calgary, Alberta, as CEO of the Calgary Arts Commons, Zietsman helped the Commons turn a financially floundering arts center into a financially successful beacon of arts and culture. Since starting his new role as the Arsht Center’s President & CEO, Zietsman reveals he’s right at home despite the warmer climate and proximity to South Florida’s shimmering coastline. “I feel at home.

There’s a sort of “organic messiness,” which is very much how South Africa was. Folks of very different cultures and very different backgrounds were figuring out how to live with each other,” Zietsman says. “And I think Miami is doing that every single day. It’s a very interesting dynamic to experience.” Building off of where his predecessor John Richard left off, Zietsman looks to facilitate the Arsht Center’s growth and bring more of Miami’s rich and vibrant culture into the building, creating a street-to-seat experience that’s always been Zietsman’s signature. “I’m not talking about starting a revolution,” Zietsman clarified. “I’m talking about drawing people deeper into our experience—whether they have a ticket for our show or not.” With a track record of success and channeling his uniquely revolutionary spirit in leadership positions throughout his life, he remains committed to inspiring others in his new role as CEO. “Do I miss making art myself? Absolutely, I do,” Zietsman answers. “But would I go back to that life and not be an enabler? Never. The joy of seeing you put a smile on someone’s face or inspire them to do something they never thought they could do is incredible.” 

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