Knight Foundation’s Secret Weapon Alberto Ibargüen Looks Ahead

Siobhan Morrissey

Alberto Ibargüen at the home of Norman and Irma Braman. Photo by Gesi Schilling.

The way Alberto Ibargüen sees it, we are living in a “Gutenberg moment,” not just for the press, but also for the arts.

Referring to how the Gutenberg press forever changed reading habits, Ibargüen acknowledges that technology shapes how we receive our news and interact with art. He ought to know. As Miami Herald publisher at the turn of the century, he saw how the Internet reduced readership—and ultimately employees and resources—at the newspaper. Today he runs the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, where he assists with the evolution of both news and art through grassroots projects and established institutions.

“I see a world that has gone digital in the way that we communicate about virtually everything,” Ibargüen says. “That world requires that you simply be able to meet and engage the audience on the audience’s terms. It’s easy to see it with newspapers because we’ve seen what that did to the newspaper industry. I don’t want to have to wait for catastrophe before it happens, and to have what happened to newspapers and orchestras happen to museums.”

Ibargüen, 73, was born at the end of World War II but thinks like a millennial. Rather than fear innovation, he embraces it. He wants to bring art to the people in whatever medium best suits, from personal computers to public parks. He also wants to quell any concerns Art Basel may have about remaining in Miami when its current contract expires in five years.

“I want to get to the place where they would be crazy to leave, and if they left, art would nevertheless continue in Miami,” he says.

Early on, Ibargüen developed an appreciation for art, from the music of John Cage to the dance of Merce Cunningham. But he took a circuitous route to arrive at the Knight Foundation.

A native of Puerto Rico, he moved to New Jersey at age eight. He spoke no English, but later mastered the language well enough to run the newspaper at Wesleyan University. After serving in the Peace Corps in Venezuela and Colombia, Ibargüen went to the University of Pennsylvania Law School, and then worked briefly in banking. His background in banking and the arts made him well suited for an executive position at the Hartford Courant, which led to jobs at New York Newsday, El Nuevo Herald and The Miami Herald.

He joined the Knight Foundation in 2005, and under his watch the foundation has given more than $220 million to the arts nationally, with more than $122 million to South Florida.

“He’s a Pied Piper with discernment,” says Victoria Rogers, Knight Foundation vice president for the arts since 2015. “I think being able to fund the very best ideas gives him great satisfaction.”

He’s given away money for anything from a snowblower ballet to a mobile art gallery for unrepresented artists.

“We are not a charity,” Ibargüen insists. “We are social investors.” Roughly two-thirds of the grant money goes to established institutions. The remainder funds grassroots art, through initiatives like the annual Knight Arts Challenge. Celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, the challenge cultivates cutting-edge arts projects in four of the major cities where the Knight brothers owned newspapers, including its headquarters in Miami.

Since 2010, the foundation has bolstered Miami’s indie film community, with $900,000 in grants to the Borscht Film Festival. Borscht co- founder Lucas Leyva credits Ibargüen with paving the way for this year’s Oscar-winning Best Picture to be made in Miami.

“Without the Knight Arts Challenge, Borscht would not exist, and Moonlight would not exist, and the independent film community in Miami as we know it would not exist,” Leyva says. “It has been nothing short of fully transformational.”

Dennis Scholl, who preceded Rogers at the foundation, maintains “no one has done more for culture in our community than Alberto Ibargüen.” Although “Alberto came out of the womb wearing suspenders,” Scholl says, the elegant executive is not averse to rolling up his sleeves and helping artists at the creative level.

In 2010, Ibargüen assisted challenge grant winner O, Miami, a poetry festival, in hosting a crowd-sourced reading of a Rimbaud poem to Patti Smith at the Miami Book Fair. The following year, Leyva cast Ibargüen as a Spanish-speaking shark in a film about a nurse shark that mysteriously ended up on Miami’s Metromover.

Ibargüen’s enthusiasm for the arts is an ideal complement to his job at the foundation.

“I cannot tell you how perfectly this fits me,” he says. “It’s been one of the glories of my life.”