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St. Paul receives $8 million for the arts from Knight Foundation

The new funding is meant to “engage and enrich the city through the arts.”

The Knight Foundation's Dennis Scholl said of the Arts Challenge: "There is no trick. This is our way of crowdsourcing artistic ideas in a community."
MinnPost photo by John Whiting

In a game-changing vote of confidence for St. Paul’s creativity, collaborative spirit and commitment to the arts, the Knight Foundation yesterday announced its largest arts investment in St. Paul to date: $8 million in new funding to “engage and enrich the city through the arts.” Of that, $3.5 million will go to five arts institutions and $4.5 million to the Knight Arts Challenge, an easy-access contest open to anyone with an out-of-the-box idea.

The grants were revealed before some 250 Twin Cities arts makers, administrators and supporters at the Minnesota History Center. Polly Talen, the Knight Foundation’s St. Paul program director, introduced St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, who got so excited he forgot to introduce Dennis Scholl, the Foundation’s vice president for arts, who had flown in from sunny Florida for the event. Founded by John and James Knight, brothers and newspaper publishers whose Knight-Ridder corporation once owned the Pioneer Press, the Knight Foundation is based in Miami.

“We are a city that ultimately understands that a great city has a great arts community, a thriving arts community,” Coleman told the crowd. “This is one of the most vibrant arts and cultural communities of any place I have ever been, ever seen, and it’s about to get one hell of a lot better.”

Five ‘anchor institutions’

Scholl announced the five “anchor institutions” that will receive Knight funding: the Arts Partnership ($1 million), Penumbra Theatre ($500,000), Springboard for the Arts ($500,000), St. Paul Chamber Orchestra ($1 million) and TU Dance ($500,000).

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The Arts Partnership is a unique collaboration among four organizations: Minnesota Opera, the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, the Schubert Club and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. Its Knight grant will subsidize productions at the Ordway’s new Concert Hall, due to open in spring 2015, by non-Arts Partnership members. This literally throws the doors open to emerging and mid-range performing arts groups that could not afford to rent the 1,100-seat, state-of-the-art facility on their own.

Penumbra will use its grant to hire development and marketing directors to engage new donors and audiences, part of the five-year plan to ensure its viability that the theater unveiled earlier this month. Springboard will share artist toolkits from its most successful programs (including Community Supported Art) on a national scale. TU Dance will expand its class offerings, grow its audience and fundraising program, and offer more need-based support for dance students.

Expanding SPCO’s Listening Library

The SPCO will use its Knight money to broaden and deepen a project begun with an earlier Knight grant. In 2010, the SPCO received $75,000 to create a digital database of concerts. Its free Listening Library now includes 250 full-length performances by the SPCO, recorded live. Available on the SPCO’s website and also as a free app for iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch, the Listening Library has already drawn more than 300,000 unique visitors, 90 percent from outside Minnesota. The average time spent on the site is over 15 minutes. Some people are spending hours listening to the SPCO online. 

“The Listening Library has exceeded our wildest expectations in terms of traffic,” SPCO president Bruce Coppock told MinnPost earlier this week. “When we began our conversation with the Knight Foundation about the new grant, that gave us enough evidence that there is real, sustainable traffic in the digital concert hall world. This grant is about expanding the existing platform.”

Mayor Chris Coleman
MinnPost photo by John Whiting
Mayor Chris Coleman: “We are a city that ultimately understands that a great city has a great arts community, a thriving arts community.”

Near-term priorities include mobile-optimizing the website (so you can enjoy the library even if you don’t have the app), making it possible to save and share playlists, creating an Android app, and developing a strategy around video. “Our new concert hall will have robotic camera locations, and video is the next frontier,” Coppock said.

“The miracle of this grant is that it’s a million-dollar research fund,” Coppock explained. “It pays for something cultural organizations rarely have: research and development. This is expressly R&D money. It’s very visionary grantsmanship, very enlightened. We’ll recalibrate our near-term list on a yearly basis because things are changing at warp speed. We’ll know whether to put the emphasis on video, on expanding our audio platform, or on other platforms we don’t yet know about.” Google glass? Anything is possible.

The Challenge: ‘Crowdsourcing artistic ideas’

St. Paul is only the fourth city to receive Knight Arts Challenge money. (The other three are Miami, Philadelphia, and Detroit.) This is especially exciting because the $4.5 million (up to $1.5 million each year for three years) is available to anyone: individuals, collectives, nonprofits, companies. The Challenge has three simple rules: 1) the idea must be about the arts, 2) the project must take place in or benefit St. Paul, and 3) the grant recipients must find matching funds. How long is the application? Only 150 words.

“People always ask, ‘What’s the trick?’” Scholl said in a phone conversation with MinnPost. “There is no trick. This is our way of crowdsourcing artistic ideas in a community. We’re not here to tell you what a good art idea is; we’re here to ask ‘What’s important to you? What matters to you culturally?’ So far, we’ve given away tens and tens of millions of dollars. It takes a while for folks who’ve had an artistic vision they haven’t been able to realize, and folks who have never had an opportunity to participate in philanthropic funding, to believe that we really mean it: this contest is for everyone. You can go anywhere with your idea. After the first year, people get it. They see that their neighbor down the block won a grant.” For a sense of the grant’s variety and scope, see the Knight Arts Challenge Winners Index.

The Knight Foundation has had a long relationship with St. Paul, providing $64 million in support since 1977. Why was St. Paul added to the short list of Challenge cities?

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“The more I came up there, the more clear it became that St. Paul is the kind of community that will respond to the Challenge,” Scholl said. “First, it has a very vibrant grassroots arts community, with a lot of activity. Second, there’s a spirit of collaboration and cooperation within the arts community that we don’t see as often in other places. Maybe it’s the cold weather and everybody has to pull together, but there’s a true spirit of collaboration among arts organizations in St. Paul that we found very impressive. And third, you have a mayor who really believes that cultural activity is a critical component of his community’s everyday life. Mayor Coleman believes that culture can be meaningful to a community. That’s an important factor for us.”

‘Organic activity bubbling up’

“The arts ecosystem in American in virtually all communities is inherently fragile,” Scholl said. “That’s a given, and it has been for a long time. But that’s not what we think about when it comes to the Knight Arts Challenge. We think about communities where there is a lot of organic activity bubbling up. We saw that in Miami, we saw it in Detroit, and we see it St. Paul whenever we come here. There’s never a time when I don’t hear about five, ten, or a dozen new ideas or projects.”

The Knight Arts Challenge opens for applications on April 7. We’ll let you know the details as they become available.