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42 projects win Knight Arts Challenge; Minnesota Orchestra roars back

Courtesy of the Knight Foundation
This year’s big winner in terms of dollars is the Twin Cities Jazz Festival, with a $125,000 grant.

In January, the Miami-based nonprofit Knight Foundation announced a major investment in St. Paul: $8 million in new funding to “engage and enrich the city through the arts.” A large part ($3.5 million) went to five St. Paul arts institutions: the Arts Partnership, Penumbra Theatre, Springboard for the Arts, St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and TU Dance. An even bigger chunk ($4.5) was set aside for a three-year free-for-all called the Knight Arts Challenge. Basically, if you had an idea for the arts in St. Paul and could describe it in 150 words or fewer, you could apply. Anyone could apply – individuals, groups, nonprofits, corporations, schools and colleges.

What happened was the highest per-capita response to any Knight Arts Challenge to date. (There have been 13 so far. The Challenge also operates in Miami, Philadelphia, and Detroit and recently added Akron to the list.) “We asked the community to come out in force, which is what St. Paul did,” Knight Foundation VP for arts Dennis Scholl told MinnPost. “From a city of a few hundred thousand people, we received 868 submissions.

“Sometimes you worry the first year that in a very diverse community, only the cognoscenti will figure it out. We hoped for and received many applications from a wide cross-section of the new St. Paul. Somali ideas, Arab ideas, Latino ideas, Hmong ideas. That allowed us to make very good choices and very diverse choices as to the winners. For us, one of the most important things about the contest is it has to look like the community.”

From 868 submissions, 42 winners were chosen and announced Monday in St. Paul. They will split a total of $1.365 million. They are a broad and colorful group with profound, beautiful, witty and smart ideas. Stahl Construction Company will restore historic company signs in Lowertown. Artist Michael Bahl will create a dinosaur sculpture that doubles as a bike rack. A group of four artists will project a light show on the steam plume that billows from the roof of the downtown St. Paul power plant. A radio program, broadcast on the new Dayton’s Bluff FM station, will showcase Latino East Siders. There will be a Hmong fashion show, a printmaking program, a “food opera” that pairs dishes with new musical compositions, and a teeny, tiny museum in a vintage fire-hose cabinet along University Ave. Plus poetry, theater (including a site-specific play about the State Capitol), dance, storytelling, screenwriting, murals, a mobile classroom, a mobile art program, and music. Lots of music, from classical to hip-hop to jazz.

Happily, the Knight Foundation is not allergic to jazz. In fact, this year’s big winner in terms of dollars is the Twin Cities Jazz Festival, with a $125,000 grant. Founded in 1999, now heading into its 17th year, the Jazz Fest weathered tough times in Minneapolis before relocating to St. Paul in 2008, where it settled in and blossomed into a free, three-day event that draws more than 30,000 people.

Founder and executive director Steve Heckler fully intends to grow it into a world-class event. He has already tapped Afro-Cuban drummer, bandleader and composer Francisco Mela to serve as next year’s artistic director, and he knows what he wants to do with the Knight money. “Our plans are to expand the scope of the festival with more stages and additional headliners we wouldn’t normally be able to afford,” Heckler told MinnPost. “We’re looking at the new Saints stadium [located a short distance away from the festival’s main site in Mears Park] and potentially adding some year-round activities as well. We want to work with emerging and developing artists, and partner with organizations for performances, so we can continue the jazz tradition and keep it alive. By and large, our mission is to keep it as free as we can.”

Every Knight Challenge winner now has a year to raise matching funds equal to Knight’s commitment. How many finalists typically follow through? “Virtually all of them, Scholl said. Of all the people who have won Knight Arts Challenge grants, 96 percent have matched.”

Heckler aims to raise his matching funds even sooner; the next Twin Cities Jazz Festival is scheduled for June 25–27, 2015. Meanwhile, the second year of the three-year Knight Arts Challenge will open for new ideas in April.


If there was ever any doubt that the Minnesota Orchestra could roar back after the greatest crisis in its 111-year history – a 16-month lockout, open war between musicians and management, numerous departures – it evaporated during the opening weekend’s three concerts, with their full houses and superb performances.

The crowd rising to its feet and cheering as the musicians and Osmo Vänskä came on stage was no longer a political statement but a welcoming one. (There would be nothing wrong with making this a tradition.) The musicians coming out afterward to mingle and greet the crowd seemed perfectly normal. (This, too.) The music was big and breathtaking: Barber’s Cello Concerto, with guest cellist Alisa Weilerstein, a passionate, emotional player, and Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, “Resurrection,” an 85-minute monster that picked us up, tossed us around, threatened us with hell and raised us up to heaven.

For the final movement of five, the Minnesota Chorale, 140 voices strong, which sat quietly through the first four movements, began to sing so softly that it was more vibration than sound. Chorale member and blogger Scott Chamberlain Facebooked a moment during rehearsal when the chorale was told, “In the soft passage, be careful turning the page … you’re drowning out your singing.”

Gubernatorial and mayoral proclamations were read, and audience members had their pictures taken for a photo mosaic, now projected to be 18′ square, that will soon hang somewhere in Orchestra Hall. (If you missed the photo op but still want to be included, you can send a high-res image of yourself to

To borrow from sports, we could call the Orchestra’s resurrection a Minnesota miracle, except it took so much hard work from so many people. It was just a year ago tomorrow – October 1, 2013 – that Vänskä resigned. It seemed for a time as if everything was lost, or about to be lost. At a farewell concert the following weekend, Vänskä himself called the situation “so terrible … almost hopeless.”

And now those who follow such things are watching the grimly similar situation at the Atlanta Symphony, where the musicians have been locked out since Sept. 7, weeks of concerts have been canceled, and the orchestra’s president, Stanley Romanstein, quit on Monday. (Some of you will remember that Romanstein was formerly president of the Minnesota Humanities Center.) In the words of Music Director Robert Spano, Atlanta has been left with “a deafening silence.”

That’s not what happened here. During the lockout and after Vänskä’s resignation, the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra planned and produced dozens of concerts on their own and announced an audacious 10-concert mini-season. Former music directors Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, Edo de Waart, Eiji Oue and Vänskä returned to lead them. Community groups Orchestrate Excellence and Save Our Symphony Minnesota formed, held meetings, wrote letters and organized rallies. Lawn signs sprouted. The Young Musicians of Minnesota sprang up to express solidarity with the musicians, their teachers and mentors.

Silence is the friend of lockouts and labor disputes; it found no home in Minneapolis. And today we have a new board chair in Gordon Sprenger, a new (if interim) CEO in Kevin Smith, Vänskä back on the podium, a full season of concerts, more citizen involvement and a shared sense of optimism in the future. The orchestra sounds terrific. Go if you can. 

The picks return on Thursday. We have something else in the works for tomorrow.

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 09/30/2014 - 01:45 pm.

    According to what I see on the Atlanta Musicians’ Facebook page

    they are also holding guerrilla concerts. On what was supposed to be the opening night of their season, they gave two free concerts at Kennesaw State College and filled the school’s auditorium to capacity twice, with large numbers of people still left out.

    On the whole, though, the accounts of what is going on in Atlanta make me think, “I’ve seen this movie before.”

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