national youngarts foundation
Shelly Berg (LEFT), jazz pianist and dean at University of Miami’s Phillip and Patricia Frost School of Music, gives pointers during a YoungArts Miami jazz master class.

National YoungArts Foundation President and CEO Paul T. Lehr has a lot to say. He can speak fluidly about how his Miami-based organization works to identify the nation’s most talented high school students, flying them to its campus on Biscayne Boulevard each year. And he is unmistakably skilled at discussing the distinctions in the 10 performance categories. It’s also clear that the stack of statistics he stores in his head is keeping pace with the growing scholarships the YoungArts organization facilitates, not to mention the famous alumni it produces (Nicki Minaj and Adrian Grenier, to name a few). But Lehr will not name—under any circumstances, not on and not off the record—the feature films in which he himself has appeared.

“I was always getting roles, but there’s a reason I’m an arts administrator and not an actor,” he says with a laugh. “I am a classically trained pianist and thespian. Arts and music have always been at the center of my life.”

Today, from his office seven stories above Biscayne Bay, Lehr is ensuring art becomes a central and permanent part of life for an increasing number of American teens.

national youngarts foundation
Debbie Allen, YoungArts President and CEO Paul T. Lehr, and alumn Adrian Grenier at the 2013 YoungArts Performance and Gala.

More than 11,000 young people—a number that’s doubled over the past three years—ages 15 to 18 apply for the opportunity to come to Miami and perform, exhibit, or train with masters such as Mikhail Baryshnikov, Jacques d’Amboise, Plácido Domingo, Bill T. Jones, Quincy Jones, Mary Walkley, and Martin Scorsese. The number of winners since Lehr took the helm has grown from 150 to 800. Over the program’s life, it has awarded $6 million to students and has facilitated more than $150 million in college scholarships. The nationally renowned program has also over the past three years spun off regional successions in New York and Los Angeles.

“The goal is to change these kids’ lives,” says Lehr. “To give the validation and confidence by helping them to take the next step and giving them exposure, create opportunities not just with prize money but with access to scholarships.”

That’s exactly what happened to Yara Travieso, a 2005 New World School of the Arts student who attended the national summit. Her college plans were all but solidified until she performed in YoungArts before an audience that included Lawrence Rhodes, artistic dance director at The Juilliard School. Though she hadn’t applied to the prestigious New York school, that particular show secured her an audition that eventually led to a full scholarship.

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A visual arts master class with Miami-raised artist Daniel Arsham (RIGHT).

“It was a nervous moment,” says Travieso. “Dancing a solo in front of your heroes. But YoungArts gives you the validation you need to take risks. For me, it was the stone in the lake that created so many wonderful ripples for years.”

YoungArts was founded in 1981 by the late founder of Carnival Cruise Lines, Ted Arison, and his wife, Lin, after organizers of the US Presidential Scholars Program—which recognizes the country’s highest-achieving high school seniors at White House-sponsored receptions and award ceremonies—came calling for help. The organizers wanted funding to build out the program so it could acknowledge and include the nation’s most gifted artists. The Arisons denied the funding request but more than fulfilled those intentions by creating the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts. While the name was recently shortened to YoungArts, it remains the country’s most prestigious arts competition and is the exclusive nominating organization for the US Presidential Scholars in the Arts. Three years ago, the organization made real estate headlines when it bought the former Bacardi Tower and museum buildings and began to transform the city blocks into a multidisciplinary arts complex and campus designed by Frank Gehry. Last month, YoungArts held its annual gala—where it raises the bulk of its funding—and this February, the Miami regional winners will for one week both showcase and fine-tune their talents.

“It’s one thing if your acting coach says you’re good,” Lehr notes. “It’s another thing when Kathleen Turner says, ‘This is what you were meant to do.’ It’s a national program saying, ‘You’re one of the best in the country.’”

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Rosie Perez giving a theater master class at YoungArts Miami.

In addition to receiving attention from movie stars and US presidents, YoungArts alumni get noticed by the country’s most competitive arts colleges. New England Conservatory, Manhattan School of Music, the Art Institute of Chicago, and The Juilliard School take a serious look at these kids when it comes to admissions or scholarship money.

“The Juilliard School and YoungArts have the same goal of identifying the best artists of the next generation, and every year some YoungArts winners are part of Juilliard’s new incoming class,” says Lee Cioppa, Juilliard School’s associate dean for admissions. The outstanding artistic experience these gifted students receive through YoungArts programs, in addition to financial support in the form of scholarships, is extraordinary in furthering their desire to pursue their dreams in the arts.”

It also offers opportunities that most kids would consider unimaginable. In the evenings, they perform at distinguished venues such as the New World Center and the Pérez Art Museum Miami, while during the day, they fine-tune their talents with world-renowned masters.

“These really are the most talented kids in the country,” says Walkley, who has taught voice technique to Broadway stars, American Idol contestants, and at least four private students who later became Presidential Scholars. “I recommend everyone go to the concert because it showcases a level of excellence that makes this event not just an opportunity for the performers, but for everyone in Miami who appreciates a rich cultural experience.”

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