Back before Miami's book fair, film festival, ballet, and symphony existed, Mary Luft arrived in Miami. It was the early '70s, and she was a fresh-faced girl from Sioux City, Iowa. She attended the biggest cultural shindigs in town -- the Coconut Grove Arts Festival and the infamous annual Halloween bash at the Tigertail Avenue home of Gregg Gillingham.
"Everyone went to them," says Luft, now 67. "And when the house became too small for everyone he invited, Gregg moved it to the Deering Estate and other locations to accommodate the crowds. His events were legendary and part of a lost moment in time."
Hoping to add experimental arts to that tradition, she formed a company that would become Tigertail Productions, the granddaddy of Miami cultural institutions. Over the past 33 years, Luft's organization has published anthologies of Miami poets, introduced inner-city youth to artistic expression, hosted high-caliber dancers and musicians from around the globe, and even offered grants to local rising talent to pursue their dreams.
She's the rare individual who has single-handedly transformed the cultural landscape of our community. And as she prepares to kick off Tigertail's 33rd season with a free party featuring red-hot Brazilian forró music at Wynwood Walls on October 10, Luft shows no signs of lifting her foot from the gas pedal.
"Mary Luft has been instrumental in Miami's experimental scene. She has always supported and contributed to the growth of experimentation in art, dance, literature, and music," says Adalberto Delgado, an artist and curator who has known Luft since the '80s and who operates Little Havana's edgy and popular 6th Street Container, which has become one of our city's most respected alternative spaces. "She has created connections and programs for artists from other countries to bring their stuff to Miami and sometimes as an exchange with Miami artists."
Luft grew up in Sioux City, where the most prominent resident was Jerry Mathers of Leave It to Beaver fame. But unlike the somewhat naive "Beave," she had artistic ambitions from the get-go, aiming to become a ballerina or form her own dance company. After studying dance from age 7, she was offered a scholarship when she was 15 years old to study with the Ballet Russe in New York City.
Luft says that her mother had a "grand plan for each of her six kids" and that all of her siblings ultimately found careers in creative fields. "One of my sisters has a clothing line in Morocco, another sister is in opera, and the other is a visual artist in New York. Both my brothers build beautiful homes, and one of them is a musician as well," she says.
A career didn't happen immediately for Luft. She opened a dance school in her hometown that quickly failed. Later, she married Jack Luft -- an urban planner -- and started a family. They had a daughter, Kirsten, now a registered nurse, and a son, Adrian, now a stay-at-home dad.
When her husband received a job offer in Miami, the couple relocated. Soon, she joined an emerging professional troupe, Fusion Dance Company, as co-artistic director.
She says the gig gave her the opportunity to dance and choreograph ambitious pieces, but she longed for more. So in 1979, she formed Mary Luft & Company. It later became Tigertail Productions, a nonprofit with the mission of discovering new music and performance art and presenting it to South Florida audiences.
In 1984 she co-directed New Music America, a gathering that included the musician Sun Ra and a week of 12-hour days of performances and installations in Hartford, Connecticut.
Four years later, she brought the annual festival to Miami. "New Music America Miami took over the city with events commissioned for Metrorail, the New World Symphony, [and other venues. They were held] in Miami Beach hotels, a cruise ship, in escalators, on the street, and in halls," she says.
From the mid-'90s until 2001, when post 9/11 events curtailed international exchange programs, Luft's groundbreaking annual FLA/BRA Festival presented some of Florida's and Brazil's most innovative dance, music, theater, film, and visual arts projects.
Since then, Luft has become one of South Florida's most beloved cultural icons, as easily recognizable for her mane of white hair as for her all-black or all-white outfits.
For the 2012-13 season, Tigertail's theme is Art Out Loud. On November 17, she will bring legendary jazz and blues guitarist James Blood Ulmer to the Colony Theatre. Luft calls the 70-year-old Ulmer the "missing link between Jimi Hendrix and Wes Montgomery on one hand, and between P-Funk and Mississippi Fred McDowell on the other."
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On February 23 at the Miami-Dade County Auditorium, she'll present Tatsuya Nakatani and the Nakatani Gong Orchestra. Originally from Japan, the pioneering composer employs a drum set, bowed gongs, cymbals, singing bowls, metal objects, bells, and various sticks and bows to create powerful music defying category.
Luft will continue an amazing lineup with Emily Johnson's provocative new dance and live music performance, Niicugni, influenced by the artist's Alaskan Indian heritage. It will light up the Miami-Dade County Auditorium March 22 and 23.
"The work Mary has always presented has been contemporary and cutting-edge," Delgado says, "whether it be dance, music or art."