BY HOWARD COHEN MIAMI HERALD
Considered by many an African proverb, “It takes a village” suggests that a community must provide for its children for them to flourish.
And while it’s true that it took many devoted people to propel young Miami into an internationally recognized arts and cultural community, it is also fair to say it can take one person to help motivate a village.
That person, many Miami civic leaders say, was Susana López Ibargüen. Ibargüen died Saturday morning, Aug. 28, in Miami, surrounded by her husband Alberto and son Diego.
Ibargüen, who was 76, battled amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a neurological disease that affects the nerve cells responsible for controlling voluntary muscle movement. She was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease about two years ago, her husband said. Wife. Mother. Arts activist. “Or miraculous, warm, opinionated, feisty and fiercely loyal,” adds longtime friend and Knight Foundation Trustee Susan Kronick.
Let’s not rank those titles, but it wouldn’t be a slight to agree with her family when they say her most enduring commitment was to the Pérez Art Museum Miami. At PAMM, Ibargüen rose from advocate, to volunteer, board member and president of its board of trustees. When ALS led to her retirement in 2020, she was elected a trustee emeritus. PAMM named a stage in her honor.
That, along with the messages of love delivered her way via Zoom at the dedication, was all the memorial she needed, she decided. A traditional service, she told her husband, was not necessary. How could anything top that?
GETTING PAMM BUILT “She loved, just loved that museum,” said her husband, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation President and CEO Alberto Ibargüen.
“She was one of the kindest persons I have known,” said the museum’s namesake and Related Group CEO Jorge Pérez. “At the same time, she had strong opinions which she did not hesitate to express. Had such a strong will. I remember when we were together in Lake Como and she was recovering from a very bad foot infection. Alberto was concerned about her walking but she would not miss coming with us on beautiful hikes in spite of her uncomfortable condition.”
Miami attorney and PAMM Board of Trustees Chair Aaron Podhurst met Susana Ibargüen more than 25 years ago and was “fabulously impressed with her,” from the start, he said. “If I have to use a word, she was one of the most sincere persons I ever met. If it was on her lung it was on her tongue. She told you in the most sincere way about everything,” Podhurst said.
Securing Ibargüen’s commitment to the museum’s board was easy given her interest in the arts. It was also vital for the museum’s creation and evolution from the Miami Art Museum, Podhurst believes.
“PAMM was a fledgling situation that hadn’t even gotten land yet. We tried for 20 years to get it and Susana participated in her own right and she was very popular in this town with the politicians and the people in this town. They really admired her and she was so instrumental in helping us in getting the land where PAMM sits.
“As a private citizen trying to do something, all the politicians and both the city of Miami and the Miami-Dade County boards listened to her,” Podhurst said. “I can say without exaggerating Susana Ibargüen, in the 20-plus years she was on the board, was not only the most valuable member but she was the most popular trustee at the Pérez Art Museum. Everyone loved her and she gave her all to it.”
For her work in support of arts and culture, Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava, who was then on the County Commission, honored her by proclaiming May 14, 2020, “Susana Ibargüen Day.”
AN ARTS LOVER AND SCHOLAR Where did that passion to support the arts come from? Friend Alexandra Villoch, Baptist Health Foundation CEO, offers a theory.
“She loved just knowing about art and it wasn’t just about PAMM. She knew about art and artists and what was going on. She was always so young at heart about what was happening,” said Villoch, a former Miami Herald publisher.
Ibargüen also served as a volunteer board member of the Miami Dade Cultural Affairs Council until late 2019, and was an early member and officer of the Funding Arts Network to help support emerging artists and cultural institutions in Miami. She was also a former member of the board of trustees of Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden.
“She had a passion for the arts and a conscientiousness that made her a model board member,” said Michael Spring, director of the Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs. “She loved serving on grants panels and her service gave credibility and sagacity to our public peer review process. She was the volunteer that we could count on to ask the perceptive questions and make insightful observations. She understood how the power of the arts improved people’s lives and made communities better places. The quality of her civic involvement set the standard for how concerned citizens can make the difference in advancing our community’s cultural life.”
BUILDING COMMUNITY That point is not lost on her husband, Alberto, a former publisher of the Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald. He said two things about his wife stood out from the beginning: “She was principled and she was also one of the most willful people I ever met.
“I think she saw clearer than most that arts and culture really do define a place and a community,” he said. “When we moved here 26 years ago there was a lot of transients — people moving in and out — much more than today where people are moving in. And she felt given how so many people came from so many different parts of the hemisphere and of the world there was really great value in supporting arts and culture as a way of connecting people to each other and connecting people to this place.”
Susana Ibargüen was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in September 1944. She was educated at the University of Buenos Aires and graduated from Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, with a degree in economics. She spent a decade in banking.
She moved from New York City to Miami with her husband in 1995. The couple were married for 52 years, said her friend, Knight Foundation event planner Terry Schechter. The two became close friends 21 years ago when both were board members at the Miami Art Museum.
“She was an amazing woman, a gift in all of our lives,” Schechter said. Oh yes, it’s established that Ibargüen loved the arts. But did you know she also was an avid soccer fan? “Not American football, but soccer,” Schechter said, before chuckling about another passion these arts advocate besties had shared together. “She and I loved watching race car racing. She was incredible. She was feisty. Witty. Brilliant. The definition of a good friend.”
SURVIVORS AND DONATIONS
In addition to her husband, Alberto and son, Diego, Ibargüen’s survivors include her grandchildren Javier Diego, Anna Sofia and Julia Ester. Also, her brothers Alberto D. López and Jorge Horacio López.
The family asks that donations be made in her honor to PAMM, the ALS Clinic at the University of Miami or ALS Center at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York.
“If there is anything to learn from this it’s the need for more research for ALS,” Alberto Ibargüen said. “It’s a solitary prison and affects people in radically different ways.”
Alberto T Lopez, Father (deceased)
Arazeli Ordoñez, Mother (deceased)
Alberto Ibarguen, Spouse
Diego Ibarguen, Son
Javier Diego, Grandson
Anna Sofia, Granddaughter
Julia Ester, Granddaughter
Alberto D Lopez, Brother
Jorge Horacio Lopez, Brother