How Alex Dreyfoos engineered the framework of Palm Beach County’s cultural landscape
The most successful endeavors often start with serendipity. In the case of Palm Beach County’s now-prolific cultural scene, it all began with a series of isolated incidents in the life of one man: Alex Dreyfoos.
Although Dreyfoos is credited with setting the county’s arts juggernaut in motion 40 years ago, he admits he didn’t always have a vision for it. His actions—in the beginning, at least—were propelled by self-interest. Over four decades, his journey in the arts evolved, becoming a passion so strong that even now, at age 85, he continues to imagine what could be—and work toward it.
Rewind to 1968. Dreyfoos, a brilliant young engineer, was riding high on the success of his inventions—electronic equipment for the photographic industry, then marketed worldwide by Eastman Kodak—and decided to focus as much energy on life’s pleasures as he did on his work. Five years after establishing Photo Electronics Corporation with business partner George Mergens, he traded in the cold winters of Westchester County, New York, for the perpetual sunshine of Palm Beach County. An avid fisherman, scuba diver, sailor, and pilot, he could engage in all those pursuits while continuing to build his company. Life was good.
There was only one problem: Very few engineers wanted to join him in what they viewed as a “cultural desert.” Looking back, he can’t blame them. At the time, Palm Beach Opera, The Society of the Four Arts, and the Norton Museum of Art were the pillars of culture here, with a few smaller organizations in the mix. That’s when he realized that culture was a key part of fueling Palm Beach County’s economic engine. But igniting an arts movement was the furthest thing from his mind.
True, his mother was a professional cellist and he grew up with the arts, but he was too focused on his career in technology to build a cultural community from the ground up.
As it turned out, culture became a repeating theme in his life. In 1978, five years after he and Mergens bought ABC affiliate Channel 12 from John D. MacArthur and renamed it WPEC (later a CBS station), Dreyfoos wanted to see the area’s cultural environment grow to nurture performances—and, in the process, help him recruit talent. To that end, he aimed to develop a cultural calendar. Since there was no single source for such a thing, WPEC station relations manager Judy Goodman suggested gathering organizations interested in starting an arts council. “We asked people to come in to the station [for a meeting] and we couldn’t fit everyone in,” Dreyfoos says. With a laugh, he adds: “I told them their first project was to put together my cultural calendar.”
The Palm Beach County Council of the Arts, the early iteration of the Cultural Council of Palm Beach County, was chartered in June, 1978. Dreyfoos appointed Goodman as founding executive director of the nascent organization, a role she describes as “part of our gift to the community as a station.”
As the Council expanded, it assessed needs throughout the county and found that the citizens wanted a performing arts center. Strengthening the arts infrastructure via the Council was a tactical step in that direction. “If we didn’t have programming strength and stability, we couldn’t realize the dream of a performing arts center,” Goodman says.
But the organization needed funding. Working with a bed-tax consultant, Goodman devised the strategy and organized the advocacy for a tourist development tax that would raise money for, among other things, cultural programming. The referendum passed in 1982, forging a major turning point.
Dreyfoos, who served as founding chairman of the Council of the Arts, discussed the viability of a center with influential friends, including Leonard Davis, a major supporter of the regional arts. Recalls Dreyfoos: “He said that while he admired my drive, it wouldn’t work because this community would never pay for it.” So he thought small-scale. “I stupidly thought that a little $30 million center was the only thing we could do.”
It wasn’t until tragedy struck that he got serious about the effort. In 1986, Mergens was hit by a car while riding his bike in Palm Beach. The accident claimed his life a few days later—and Dreyfoos was devastated. “George and I had a wonderful ability to finish each other’s sentences,” he says. “We were partners in everything, and best friends. Then George died, and I was in an emotional tailspin. I spent 100 percent of my time on the performing arts center as a distraction.”
He turned first to Palm Beach’s wealthy community. He polled a few friends and noted philanthropists and was surprised by what he found. “They didn’t want a two-bit place,” Dreyfoos says. “They were used to Carnegie Hall and the Boston Symphony. If they were going to support [a performing arts center], it had better be of that quality. It became clear that it would be easier to raise $60 million than $30 million.”
Dreyfoos came up with a new plan and says, “Suddenly, everyone supported it.” He and Davis each pledged $1 million to kick off the campaign, and things snowballed from there. It took 11 years of fund-raising and hurdle-jumping, but the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts opened, fully funded at $60 million, in 1992—and has been thriving since. “Leonard Davis really was the 400-pound gorilla, but he let me have all the glory,” Dreyfoos says with characteristic modesty. George Michel, Dreyfoos’s friend since the two were roommates at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1950s, says, “There’s no question the Kravis Center would never have been built without Alex. When he’s passionate about something, he [doesn’t] give up.”
“Alex is very goal-oriented,” says Judith Mitchell, CEO of the Kravis Center since it opened. “He searched and studied and looked at the different angles of how a center like this could benefit a larger community. I was really struck by his desire to make this the performing arts center for everyone—not just a toy for the rich.”
Even after the Kravis Center was built, Dreyfoos didn’t sit on his laurels. The School of the Arts, located just behind the performing arts center, invited him to become involved. He was impressed by the public school, which admitted by audition, and in 1997 gave $1 million to push the institution to a new level. It was the largest private donation ever bestowed upon a Florida public school.
A graduate of MIT and Harvard Business School, Dreyfoos believes that a liberal arts foundation is important, even for STEM students, and that art and science should be taught concurrently at educational institutions. “The arts and sciences are integrally linked,” he says. “They both require conceptualizing and ideas. To be creative scientifically, one has to have a base of understanding.”
The Alexander W. Dreyfoos School of the Arts, he says, also has a strong science program and should be renamed to reflect that. In fact, he’s made it a bit of a mission. And if there’s one thing history has proven, it’s that Alex Dreyfoos doesn’t give up on his goals.
Reflecting on his impact over the past 40 years, Dreyfoos insists that the legacy he has built is owed more to teamwork than a singular vision. Either way, the accomplishments are impressive. According to Pollstar magazine’s ranking of ticket sales worldwide, the Kravis Center is the top performance space (for venues with 10,000 seats or fewer) in Florida, selling more tickets annually than Radio City Music Hall. The Dreyfoos School is ranked among the 100 best public high schools in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. And culture in Palm Beach County accounts for $633 million in annual economic impact—including more than 14,000 jobs.
[Culture] has attracted a lot of people who used to come down only for fun in the sun,” he says. “Because of the arts, they’re now here as permanent residents, contributing to the economy.”
Goodman, now an attorney based in West Palm Beach, expresses pride at the way the Cultural Council has developed: “What has happened is wonderful. The diversity of the community has fueled a lot of incredible growth.”
“A community becomes more cohesive when there’s opportunity for cultural activity,” Michel adds. “It ties people together.”
Although Dreyfoos has a lot to be proud of, the achievement nearest to his heart is his recent gift of a Marshall & Ogletree Opus 1 digital organ to the Kravis Center. The one-of-a-kind instrument, the most technologically advanced in the world, can reproduce 18,000 sounds from various pipe organs and has more than 200 stops and 96 audio channels. In 2016, Dreyfoos gave $1.5 million to acquire it—and dedicated it to the memory of George Mergens.
In many ways, the gift was symbolic. “George would have loved the mechanics of this organ,” Dreyfoos says. Contemplating the sentiment, he adds: “It really was the closing of the circle for me.”
Alex Dreyfoos, who founded the Cultural Council of Palm Beach County in 1978, is one of the region’s foremost art patrons. But the MIT- and Harvard-educated engineer and inventor is also a prolific photographer. The avocation has yielded hundreds of thousands of photographs over seven decades. The gallery below is a sampling of his work, with more appearing in A Photographic Odyssey: Around the World With Alexander W. Dreyfoos. The book is sold at the Cultural Council of Palm Beach County Roe Green Uniquely Palm Beach Store, and proceeds benefit the Cultural Council. —Daphne Nikolopoulos
Photos and captions originally appeared in Palm Beach Illustrated, July/August 2017