Arts Leader Profile: Meet Ashlee Thomas, Co-Founder of MUCE 305
Ashlee Thomas considers herself a cultural ambassador of South Florida. A Miami Native, she attended high school at New World School of the Art in the Musical Theater Division. Understanding the importance of business, she received her Bachelor of Marketing from Florida State University. Upon graduating, she relocated to Los Angeles where she was a member of the professional dance company Contra-Tiempo Urban Latin Dance Theater. Internationally, she served as Festival Director of Melbourne Australia’s first web series festival. Upon returning to Miami, she completed her Master’s in Public Administration at Florida International University. She has worked in arts administration as Marketing Manager at the African Heritage Cultural Arts Center under the Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs and as Manager of Education & Community Outreach at the Adrienne Arsht Center. All this led to her current role as Co-Founder and President of MUCE, the Miami Urban Contemporary Experience, an arts and festival production company bringing niche heritage experiences to the world. Ashlee also recently joined the ranks of Miami-Dade County Public Schools as the Drama Magnet teacher at Charles R. Drew K-8.
She sat down with Artburst Miami to talk about her current and future projects, path to co-founding MUCE and the arts community in Miami.
Artburst: Tell us about your path to C0-Founding MUCE 305
Thomas: Miami Urban Contemporary Experience, lovingly called MUCE aka MUCE305 started as a pop-up exhibition at Jazz in the Gardens in 2015. My partner and I wanted to bring art to the people (and visitors) of the music festival. After a third person came up to us throughout the day at Jazz in the Gardens and asked if we could bring this experience to their festival, their mall, their city – we knew we were more than just a pop-up exhibit, and truly a niched cultural experience that filled a need to see more Contemporary African Diaspora art in South Florida. With my theater background, marketing degree, love for art, and the perfect business partner – we created magic, we answered a desire some didn’t even know they had until they saw themselves in a painting staring back at them.
Artburst: What do you think makes a vibrant community and what role do the arts play?
Thomas: Communities are most vibrant when a healthy mix of education, housing, jobs and culture are accessible to the majority in said community. It’s when people can walk to the nearest diner, or bike to the supermarket; invite friends over who live just blocks away from each other and jog safely and enjoy public parks. Active citizens who show up to commission meetings. A city is most vibrant when it is unique – a balance between local artisans, farmer’s markets and big chains. The arts are the glue that makes this possible. It is the foundation. People are looking for a quality of life that fulfills, entertains, and gives purpose. This is what the arts provide. A busker on the street or a front row seat in the community black box theater, artists are the architects of community development.
Artburst: What excites you about Miami?
Thomas: For me, Miami is like the wild wild west. If you want to be a pioneer, Miami is the place to do it. It’s a great city to experiment and scale a business. Because the city is tourist-centric and tourists love to explore culture, it makes for a great opportunity to share what is unique about me with others. Miami is warm, it’s mangos and avocados, salsa, and griot and shrimp & grits. It’s comfort. Miami is freedom – you have to know what to do with all the creative freedom bestowed upon you. The city enjoys risk takers, applauds them, and rewards them… this excites me as someone who left the corporate spaces of arts administration to create my own cultural institution. Miami is a tough city, it requires a level of grit, tenacity and relentless commitment to keep going and succeed. Miami has pushed me in ways no other city has – because Miami allows you to be free to be, you can play all day in the sun or go hard in the paint; it is really up to you what you make of it. It’s the place for creators.
Artburst: What is something exciting you are currently working on?
Thomas: Over the past four years we have hosted pop-up art exhibitions and cultural experiences wherever we could. We have a permanent space in Little Haiti and four new exhibitions from phenomenal local visual artists. The space has allowed us to also manifest our residency program. We planted a seed years ago that we would be a platform for a community of creatives to have space to explore, connect and expand. And this year we will have five resident arts organization at our physical space, the MUCE Campus. Residents will showcase cultural programming like free drum and dance circles, poetry and open mic nights centered around gratitude, a soul food vegan dining experience and donation-based community dance classes. Residents start in September and I couldn’t be more excited to watch each of them flourish in the space. Folks can learn more through our Instagram page @muce305
Artburst: From your perspective, how can we leverage the arts to build a more connected community?
Thomas: More strategic planning and collaborative communication. Because many of us are artists and also running our own business, it makes it hard to stay connected. We almost end up in a siloh, not even aware of the other artistic experiences happening around us. I met a performing artist when I first moved back to Miami about five years ago. We hit it off and I just knew we would be creative friends while living here. We have run into each other only twice in five years (both of us are extremely involved in the arts & culture sector). We served two different cultural demographics – a seriously missed opportunity for us to connect our audiences on the account of limited collaborative communication and real strategies in place to make that happen. With so much going on – how do we connect and support? A possible solution: During homecoming at my alma mater Florida State University, the planning committee hosted a stepping competition (a form of rhythmic dance where your body becomes a percussion instrument) and partnered up organizations that had no connection whatsoever in an effort to remove the inhibitions of crossing cultural lines. It worked, even if it were just for a few months, we were all connected to folks we wouldn’t have known otherwise. We could take a page out of the FSU book and learn something.
To learn more about upcoming programming at their site in Little Haiti, visit the MUCE 305 website.
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