The Biscayne Times

Jun 25th
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Written by Melissa Wallen - BT Contributor   
March 2012

The Knight Arts Challenge is back, looking for more ways to enrich Miami’s creative scene

ArtsChallenege_2The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation has plenty to celebrate as the Knight Arts Challenge enters its fifth year of donating to Miami’s burgeoning arts scene.

Created in February 2008, the Arts Challenge is an initiative designed to empower creative minds and contribute toward the cultural transformation of South Florida. At the outset of this endeavor, the Knight Foundation pledged to donate at least $20 million over the course of five years, funding artists, thinkers, and entrepreneurs with a vision -- and a compelling pitch.

Thousands of proposals have been received each year, and the foundation has thus far funded 109 innovative ideas representing a diverse array of interests and cultural experiences, such as the Sleepless Night festivals in Miami Beach, LegalArts Residency, Random Acts of Culture, the Borscht Film Festival, and [NAME] Publications.

“These projects don’t happen in a vacuum,” explains Dennis Scholl, vice president of the Knight Foundation’s national arts program, which includes the Challenge. “These things don’t happen in a community that isn’t going through some sort of metamorphosis. As a community, we’re in an amazing time for culture.” Scholl should know. He and his wife are among of Miami’s most prominent art collectors.

The Knight Arts Challenge has two components: donations to Miami institutions and a communitywide competition. The institutional component has provided grants totaling $20 million to establish leadership endowments for the Miami Art Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and the New World Symphony, institutions responsible for bringing legitimacy to Miami as a cultural destination. (Recently the Knight Foundation expanded the program to include a second Knight Arts Challenge in Philadelphia.)

ArtsChallenege_2_1On the competition side, applicants submit their most innovative ideas for consideration. In 2011, 31 projects -- culled from more than 1000 applications, many from small cultural groups -- received $2.9 million in funding.

Past winners have set themselves apart by concisely expressing ideas that are both relevant to their communities and reflect artistic excellence. One such success story is Karen Peterson, a dance professional who has spent the past 20 years educating “mixed ability” and special-needs students through her nonprofit organization, Karen Peterson and Dancers.

After winning the Knight Arts Challenge last year ($10,000), she expanded her established residency programs to include 22 Miami-Dade public schools, accommodating more than 350 students. Her residency program affords children opportunities to express themselves physically despite their disabilities. For many of these children, the idea of creating forms such as circles or straight lines through movement is transformed from something abstract to something they’re able to accomplish themselves.

Despite such compelling causes, the Knight Arts Challenge isn’t simply about doling out money. Once a proposal is chosen, the artist or collective is required to match the funds promised by the Knight Foundation -- dollar for dollar. “It’s important that the community be our partners, because we don’t want to just hand out money,” says Scholl. “By requiring some kind of match, the artistic community learns how to go out and raise money on their own.”

There have been very few exceptions to this matching principle, notably in cases involving smaller, fledgling organizations. However, all recipients have made the effort to connect with their communities and raise funds on their own.

When [NAME] Publications was selected as a Challenge winner in 2008, for example, founder Gean Moreno expressed concern that finding matching funds would prove difficult. “Gean reached out to the community and got ten artists to do limited editions of ten objects, prints, and drawings,” recalls Scholl. “He threw an event, sold the work, and raised all of his funds to match the grant. He’s a beautiful example of an artist who gets it done, and I’m proud of that.” (Moreno’s grant amount: $30,000.)

Scholl continues: “We hope that by giving artists some start-up capital, we can get the idea started, and the project will get some momentum going. If your idea is a great one, people will sign on and continue to support you.”

Moreno’s [NAME] Publications, now established and financially viable, won again last year ($20,000) and dedicated its artist-book series exclusively for one year to four local women and their work. The books were showcased in international collections, libraries, and book fairs, bringing attention to Miami’s diverse cultural community.

Another Knight Arts Challenge winner from 2011 is Coral Morphologic, a coral aquaculture laboratory run by marine biologists Colin Foord and Jared McKay. Through Coral Morphologic, Foord and McKay combine their love of science, coral, and art by cloning fluorescent corals and photographing them for use in multimedia projects.

Coral Morphologic sees these naturally fluorescent corals as pop-culture icons for the city, and thus intrinsic to its identity. The duo’s contributions to protecting coral reefs, as well as their photographs and multimedia projects, highlight Miami’s unique relationship to marine life that lies beyond the beach.

For the next two years, Coral Morphologic will receive $150,000 in support from the Knight Foundation while Foord and McKay work on a project titled “Aqua/Cultural Transformation,” in collaboration with the Miami Science Museum, and a series of short films for the Miami International Airport.

“Since the beginning, between Miami and the Knight Arts Challenge in Philadelphia, we’ve received over 8000 applications, and I’ve read every single one of them,” says Scholl. So what stands out in this sea of applications? “A good title helps a lot, actually,” he notes. “It’s one of those things that just jumps out at us.”

And remember: Winning the Challenge is not as important as the ideas behind the proposals. Scholl believes that the process of concisely committing an idea to paper makes the applicant far more likely to follow through: “The Challenge itself is a catalyst for people who’ve had ideas, but never wrote them down. We polled people who were a part of the Challenge, but didn’t win, and asked, ‘Have you moved your idea forward simply because the Challenge required you to write it down and send it to us?’ Believe it or not, over 40 percent of the people we spoke to said Yes.”

The Knight Foundation is accepting applications for this year’s Arts Challenge through Monday, March 19, at Anyone interested in participating is encouraged to apply.

Applicants can learn more by speaking with Dennis Scholl at a town hall meeting scheduled for March 14 at the Little Haiti Cultural Center (212 NE 59th Terr.).

The English Q&A begins at 6:00 p.m., followed by a session in Spanish and Kreyol at 7:00 p.m. You can also participate in a live web chat regarding the Challenge by visiting on March 7 from 1:00 p.m. to 2:00 p.m.


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