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Speaking of Leadership: Michael Spring

Michael Spring

Michael Spring

Michael Spring has been pretty busy these days; even more so than usual. Not only does he oversee a half billion dollar capital project budget with the Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs, but Spring recently came off of a five-month stint as an assistant county manager while Miami-Dade searched for its new mayor.

“I accepted the challenge,” Spring says, “on three conditions: that I would not get the office, that I wouldn’t get the parking space and that I wouldn’t get the title; I really wanted it to be an interim responsibility.” Since 1990, Michael Spring has served as Director of his department, and 21 years later, he still just wants to be nothing but a “director of a great local arts agency”.

With the appointment of Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez in July 2011, Spring sees great promise for his community: “Our new mayor is a ‘progressive arts supporter’” and in realigning much of the county government, he “took all of the cultural facilities that were being managed by the parks department and transferred them to my department”.

When asked about this ‘added responsibility’, Spring says, “Organizationally speaking it’s the right thing to do. Practically speaking these facilities have been starved for years in the Parks Department. They come with enormous challenges. They are underfunded, understaffed, and in desperate need of capital improvements” In align with his Department’s mission, he resolves, “We’ll have to dig in and figure out a way to make them great. But that’s the job, right?”

But this move, like many of the recent changes in Miami’s county government makes perfect sense to Spring: “That’s been the job of our department over the last three decades, to promote the arts as a major community strategy for making Miami an international cultural center. It’s great to be able to report that the new mayor shares the goal. He understands it. One of the first things he did when he was elected was that he affirmed the county support with the two biggest projects going on to build a new art museum and a new science museum. He actually elevated those projects to priority status in our capital funding program to ensure that that we would have all the money we needed to fund the projects.”

In addition to healthy mayoral support, for Michael Spring it’s about planning with respect to your region: “Miami is a geographically vast place. 2100 square miles of territory, ranging from urban to rural to agricultural in terms of the landscape. Our strategy for building a great cultural center is to locate all of the major cultural facilities in downtown Miami and on Miami Beach and develop a network of neighborhood facilities in the outlying areas all over the county so that we have these neighborhood facilities where people can enjoy the arts closer to where they live, where their kids go to school”.

These cultural facilities, in addition to the two proposed and approved museums, include Miami’s new South Dade Cultural Center, which just opened in October 2011. Not to mention Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, which opened in 2006: “it was one of the few ‘purpose-built’ art centers in the country with a separate opera ballet house and a separate concert hall as opposed to a multi-purpose facility. That was a really big statement from Miami that we could manage to populate this major new performing arts center which is a rip-roaring success”.

For a community that sees so many great successes culturally, it begs the response that the Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs must have all of the answers. When asked how he has able to achieve so much during his tenure as Director, Spring comments that “leadership is the ability to do a lot of things all at once, and to not rely on any one single strategy for success”.

“Some of the earliest lessons that I learned in the very beginning of my career came from the importance of cultivating a great board of directors; My department has an amazing advisory board and I think it has been the key to our success. It’s the same advice I give to arts leaders in the nonprofit organizations which is your success is tied fundamentally to the degree to which you cultivate a great board, and in turn inspire them to leadership on behalf of the arts in the community. I had a board chairman some years ago who said to me (being that I was an idealistic young leader out to change the world and change society’s views of the Arts in America). He said, ‘You know, Michael, you’re not going to be the best director of a $3 million local arts agency in the nation unless you develop a more strategic sense of how to build your department’. I looked at him, puzzled, and asked, ‘What do you mean?’ and he said, ‘Well, it’s all well and good and we should try to change the point of view of every living human being in our community about the arts, but really, it just takes 7 votes of a 13 member county commission.’ And I thought to myself, ‘That really makes it targeted; to know that if we were to convert a majority of the county commission, that’s a great beginning to build the resources you need to change everybody else’s mind’.

“He gave me the strategic approach: ‘Build your own board. Get it to be powerful enough so that you can be able to change leadership’s minds about their view of the arts and assemble the resources to change everybody else’s mind.’ That has been the formula for success here, and we are very proud to have a dynasty of community leadership on our board.”

Spring can attribute much of his department’s accomplishments to the advice he received early on: “The chairman of my board currently is a banker who has chaired every other major civic organization in town, from our chamber of commerce to our convention bureau, and so on. He’s the most powerful guy in town and he’s the chairman of my board. “So when I go and talk to people about the arts, more often than not I’ll have [Adolfo Henriques] talk to them. And coming from a prominent business leader it’s very powerful. Voices from the arts have to come from unlikely places, atypical places. It is important to realize that while we go about the work of converting Americans minds about the importance of the arts for our society, we have a more targeted strategy to convince leadership of the same concept.”

To implement a great strategy, one cannot do it alone. Spring is backed by a staff of dedicated, empowered individuals who enable Michael and the rest of the department to generate great success: “I am a firm believer of hiring people that are smarter than you are. Some of the best things we have ever done here have been done not by me as the director of the department, but by the incredibly talented team of professionals we have assembled.”

Credit should be given where credit is due. According to Spring, “There is a almost a zen quality to giving credit to other people. I am a firm believer in not taking credit for every last thing the department does, but pointing to staff members and saying, ‘It was that person’s leadership that accomplished this for the arts in that community’ and in the end it all accrues to you, the department, and the mission in what we’re doing.”

Empowerment is a great factor to the success of the department: “I have a bunch of leaders here who I just leave alone. The way I describe it to my staff members, ‘you have a portfolio of work; these are you’re responsibilities, and you have a budget that goes along with it, and just go out and do great things’.”

He adds, “and that doesn’t suggest any abdication of responsibilities as a manager, but what it does is that it imbues people with the confidence that they can go out and be creative and they can exercise their leadership skills and make real inroads in the community here. I’ve had staff members invent things here that changed the life of people in the community just because they felt that had the wherewithal to do that. I’m a strong believer of cultivating new leadership and giving people room to grow and accomplish things on behalf of the arts”.

According to Spring, “It is important as a leader to have a very clear idea of what your mission is, and then to array your resources, both financial and human resources, to accomplish that mission.” As such, the Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs has organized their work around three areas:  “1) strengthening arts groups and artists because that’s the capital of our work, what arts groups and artists are able to accomplish in the community. 2) Improving cultural facilities: because artists, arts groups and audiences need to have great places for art to happen, and 3) if we’re successful in these first two parts, then our third part is increasing participation in the arts”

After all, it’s all about the degree at which one plans and develops a strategy for success: “Things don’t happen by chance,” says Spring, “They happen because leaders have a good, strong organizational ability.”

*This article also appeared in Arts Link, Americans for the Arts’ quarterly members-only magazine. If you are interested in joining our organization to receive this and many other benefits, visit our Membership page.

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