Sarah Arison: When Passion Meets Purpose

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From philanthropy to film production, Arison is using the lessons learned from her grandmother to help young artists.

It may sound obvious, but art is not confined to the walls of famed museums and galleries. Even for the museum-averse, art enriches our lives on a daily basis. It is in the clothes we wear, the movies we watch, the music we listen to, the houses in which we live and the furniture with which we fill them.

“There isn’t one aspect of our lives that isn’t touched by an artist,” says Sarah Arison, president of the Miami-based Arison Arts Foundation, a private grantmaking organization that provides support for emerging artists and the institutions that foster them. “There’s a designer, an architect, a director or a musician behind almost everything.”

To Arison, art is not a luxury: It is a necessity. And that is why she has made it her mission to support the arts and those who create it.

In addition to leading the foundation, which her grandmother Lin Arison founded in 2005, Arison is a trustee for the National Young Arts Foundation, founded in 1981 by her grandmother and grandfather, Ted Arison, founder of Carnival Cruise Lines. YoungArts’ signature program is a merit-based arts competition for the most promising artists aged 15 to 18 from across the United States. Each year, more than 8,000 applications are submitted, and approximately 170 are chosen as finalists.

YoungArts winners in dance, photography, voice, theater, writing, visual arts, cinematic arts, design, jazz and classical music receive financial awards of up to $10,000. They are also provided educational experiences with master artists such as Frank Gehry, Debbie Allen, Plácido Domingo and Mikhail Baryshnikov, and opportunities to perform and showcase their work at cultural institutions across the country. YoungArts alumni include singer Josh Groban, playwright Tarell A. McCraney, and actors Viola Davis and Anna Gunn.

“Every one of our winners has different talents, backgrounds, hopes and aspirations, but seeing the joy they have when given the opportunity to pursue an education, start a career and create a community with other artists is invigorating,” says Arison, who is also a trustee of the New World Symphony, MoMA, Americans for the Arts, MoMA PS1 and American Ballet Theatre."

There isn't one aspect of our lives that isn't touched by an artist."

Sarah Arison

But Arison, who lives in New York with her husband, Thomas Wilhelm, was not always so inspired by art. She used to, admittedly, not even understand it. It wasn’t until a trip to France that art finally began to make sense. After her grandfather died, a 15-year old Arison and her grandmother went to the Auberge Ravoux in the village of Auvers-sur-Oise to visit the small room where Vincent van Gogh spent the last two months of his life. It was there that she read private letters between van Gogh and his brother.

“Reading those letters, I began to understand the passion and drive that artists have,” she says. “It’s not like picking a career randomly. It’s something so innate. It’s something they have to do.”

A self-proclaimed math and science nerd, Arison never intended to have a career in the arts. When her grandmother asked her to head Arison Arts Foundation during her third year in college, the young Arison changed course. She majored in French and business at Emory University in Atlanta and learned how to lead the organization by watching her grandmother.

“My grandmother was still heavily involved then. We went to board meetings and did everything together. It was a real learning process for me,” she reflects. “When she finally stepped away five years ago, I felt ready to handle it.”

Arison has also found her own outlet in art: as a film producer. Her first feature film, "Desert Dancer," starring Freida Pinto, debuted in 2015, and her second film, a documentary called "The First Monday in May," opened the Tribeca Film Festival a year later. The documentary tracks the creation of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute’s show “China: Through the Looking Glass” and the 2015 Met Gala, a major annual event in fashion, another one of Arison’s passions.

While Arison credits her grandparents for immersing her in the art world from a young age — they took her to the symphony when she was only 4 years old — she admits that experiencing art does not have to mean traveling to France to retrace van Gogh’s final footsteps. It can be as simple as visiting a local museum or watching a performance at a small community theater.

“So many of our cultural institutions have incredible year-round educational programs that allow kids to interact with and create art,” she says. “Just that exposure can do amazing things.”

Arison is already working with the executive team at YoungArts on a new endeavor. Her focus has long been on teenagers, and will remain so, but she now wants to also help artist professionals in the beginning stages of their careers.

“Currently, there’s a lack of professional development in arts academia,” she says. “So many artists come out of school and don’t know how to start a career.”

Her plan is to use mentors who have successfully navigated a career in art to teach new graduates how to find a job and prepare themselves professionally. Because after all this time in the art world, she gets it: Passion does not always follow a clear path.

“Young artists are vital to our society. They’re creating the next generation of things that will impact our everyday lives,” she says. “If we don’t support them, can you imagine what the world will look like?”