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Its an idea contest: Interview with Dennis Scholl on the Knight Arts Challenge

Film still from a documentary filmed by Kirmaya Cevallos produced by Knight Foundation. Image courtesy of Knight Foundation.

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation are now accepting applications for the penultimate year of the Knight Arts Challenge, a grant initiative begun in Miami, now also in Philadelphia, that has to date granted 17.5 million dollars to a total of 78 ideas in South Florida and another 20 million dollars in endowments to cultural organizations in Miami. With just one more year of the challenge to go we spoke with Dennis Scholl, Miami Program Director and Vice President of Arts for The Knight Foundation, about how the Knight Arts Challenge benefits the growth and development of the arts in Miami by fostering community engagement.

Thomas Hollingworth: Can you begin by introducing yourself and summarizing in your own words what the Knight Foundation is and what the Knight Arts Challenge is?

Dennis Scholl: Sure. I’m Dennis Scholl. My role at the Knight Foundation is two fold, I am the Vice President / Arts and also the Miami Program Director. For the purpose of this conversation I oversee the Knight Arts Challenge in Miami, part of the National Arts Program of the Knight Foundation. The Knight Foundation is a foundation created by the Knight Brothers John S. and James L. Knight, two gentlemen who owned upwards of 30 newspapers throughout America, and seeks to work in journalism and the arts with the aim of providing assistance to, informing, and engaging communities. The Knight Arts Challenge is a 40 million dollar, five-year grant program in Miami that asks members of the community to generate and submit their best idea.

TH: I understand that the application process for the Knight Arts challenge is more user friendly than most grants, a factor that encourages a much broader scope of applicants, but with such an opening being made available to South Florida, and with a certain amount of dollars than need to be shared, is it in turn a challenge for the Knight Foundation to remain inclusive and loyal, for want of a better word, to the communities or potentially infinite demographic you invite to apply while still ensuring a finite number of quality winners?

DS: Well, the idea behind the contest is that everybody is invited to contribute their ideas. We as an organization do not feel that we can tell the community what the best art ideas are and we as an organization have chosen to make the contest very inclusive. It’s only a one hundred and fifty word maximum application to apply and the rules are very simple: 1. Your idea must be about art, 2. It must take place in and benefit South Florida and 3. If your idea is chosen as a Knight Arts Challenge winner you must find matching funds for the Knight Grant. In the three years that I have been involved in the contest I have personally read forty two hundred applications from the South Florida community and I never fail to be dazzled by the breadth of the ideas. The other thing that’s happened is, the simple act of encouraging anybody, a corporation, an individual, a collective like the Borscht Film Festival and of course what we call the 501c3’s in our community, the certified non-profit organization with tax exempt status, has caused, I would submit to you, dozens of people put ideas to paper and then go out and do them regardless if whether or not they became Knight Arts Challenge winners. And we love that as a sidebar result of the contest, that it helps people kind of get some place in terms of their artistic ideas. So we feel like we’re engaging the community by making the contest so open and by not limiting it to the usual suspects.

TH: As someone working to foster hotbeds for human expression through a selective process do you see your role more as a facilitator, a cultural censor or a bit of both?

DS: That’s a good question. When I think about what we are trying to do with the Knight Arts Challenge, and if you look at the list of winners, we are trying to encourage and provide fuel to ideas that have momentum. Many of the ideas that have been successful are from organizations or people who have a little bit of a track record, in other words they look suited for the idea, they have momentum and we try to fuel that.

TH: So when reviewing applications there is no consideration to be politically correct to different types of applicants?

DS: Its an idea contest, so were really always looking for the best ideas. I do believe that if you look at the winners, that those ideas come from all segments of our community and we’re thrilled about that.

TH: Can you tell me briefly about the Philadelphia connection, why the Knight Foundation chose Philadelphia and how the entrants and selection process differ from South Florida if at all?

DS: Absolutely. The Philadelphia Knight Arts Challenge is a 3 year, nine million dollar project that Knight took on based upon the overwhelming response of the community in Miami, in essence the success of the challenge. The Knight Arts program has Program Directors on the ground in eight communities around America; Akron, Charlotte, Detroit, Macon, Philadelphia, Miami, San Jose and St Paul, Minnesota. The Philadelphia community is very unlike Miami, it’s culturally mature with tremendous assets and we thought it would make for an interesting laboratory. By contrast Miami is such a teenager, in terms of its curve. I actually think Miami is ahead in terms of visual arts, but nowhere near equivalent in terms of classical music or theater. Philadelphia has had hundreds of years to develop as a community, the artistic capital there is very high.

TH: Do you share any personal goals for the Knight Foundation’s national arts program outside of those publically touted by the foundation?

DS: The foundation is really seeking to weave the arts into the fabric of the eight Knight communities. That’s really what we are seeking to do with the arts program and the reason I’ve been given the opportunity to do this job is because my personal interest coincide with the goals of the Knight Foundation. From a personal perspective I am concerned that we’ve got to find a way to help organizations engage with their audiences. If you look at the NEA study, Participation 2.0, it talks about the fact that people who engage with the arts on line are three times as likely to go to the performance hall. Well that’s a huge, huge discovery because the old excuse by legacy institutions used to be ‘if we give it to them for free on the web then they wont come to the hall’ and that’s just not true. I am very interested in audience engagement and the technology to facilitate that.

Dennis Scholl speaking recently at the Macon Arts luncheon. Image courtesy Danny Gilleland and Knight Foundation.

TH: Coming back to the present challenge, I have heard many applicants grumble over the need to match funds, that it’s a lot of work compared for example to the Florida Consortium grant, which by the way I have also heard people grumble is too small. Do you have any thing to say to these people?

DS: That is a fair question. Our goal with the match is two fold. This is a project to engage the community and what better way to engage the community than to say ‘here is an opportunity for a significant grant, but we want you to go out into the community and find those who will help you match it.’ The second part of that frankly is that we want to make sure that those who have this momentum, and who we are encouraging with this funding, learn what it is to go out and seek funding for artistic projects. It’s the old give a man fish teach a man a fish axiom. We are literally trying to encourage folks within the community to learn this process. A good example is a guy like Gean Moreno. Gean is a fellow who had never sought funding philanthropically or from the community before, but when he wanted to start [NAME] Publications he said “wow, this is going to be really difficult, but I am going to reach out to my friends ask them to help me with an edition” and he got ten artists to do editions of ten and he had a fundraising event, I actually offered to host it for him at World Class Boxing because I was so excited by the idea, and he raised his match.  So it’s about being committed to the process and finding non traditional ways to find a match other than asking patrons that normally give to these kinds of things. Now I agree that some of the individual artists might not have patrons, but they have the ability to raise the match if they put their minds to it and the proof is in the results that we’ve had. Virtually everyone has matched which is testament both to the hard work of the winners and to the community for stepping up for the winners. And you know what else? It makes people right-size their requests.

TH: So roughly what percentage of winning entrants go on to fulfill their goals both in terms of matching funds and realizing the projects they outlined in their applications?

DS: More than 95%

TH: And in what ways does the Knight Foundation continue to support winners in terms of matching funds, making exceptions and promoting projects?

DS: The most important thing I think we do during the matching process is that we give a lot of guidance as to what qualifies as a match. You may or not know Stuart Kennedy, he’s the program associate here that’s worked with me hand-in-hand since the contest started and he has a direct relationship with every one of the winners and there are times when people say to us “gee I’d be interested in supporting something in this area” and we say “wow you might want to go look at the Miami Music Project or Naomi Fisher’s individual artist project.” We are a foundation whose primary objective is grant making, but I will confess that we have spent a significant amount of time working closely with small organizations, individual artists and the collectives to both encourage them, guide them and even in some cases create opportunities for them.

TH: Nurturing

DS: Nurturing is a perfect word.

TH: Finally can you paint a picture for us of South Florida arts in ten years and then another picture of the same time and place highlighting the differences had the Knight Arts Challenge never existed?

DS: It’s a fair question, but I’m afraid I’m going to punt a little bit on the answer. I think this community is going through a rich and vibrant period for culture like never before. That’s the first thing I would say. The other thing I would say that it is dangerous to draw a bright line from the Knight Foundations efforts in the community and point to that and say “we did this ergo that happened.” I think that would be a mistake on our part. I think there are lots of people in the community who are incredibly enthusiastic about culture who are helping in all sorts of different ways, and it is not just about funding projects and it is not just about making art. There is an eco system here that is bubbling along in a wonderful and joyful way right now. It started a decade ago with the emergence of the visual arts community that you and I are fully engaged in and I think that it is dangerous to draw a bright line between what Knight has contributed to that process and the result of that process. I have lived here for almost fifty years now and suffice it to say that for most of that time the community was very different, but now it is accurate to say that we are a true cultural destination and that is not something that many of us who have labored in obscurity for many decades take lightly. So I’m not able to do that whole take-us-away-and-what-would-have-happened thing. There are so many people working so hard and we’re just one part of that. I am just so excited, and proud really, that the Knight Foundation has played some role in that process[.]

Applications for the Knight Arts Challenge are now being taken. To submit your ideas or for information on how to submit please visit Applications are being taken through March 2nd.

In the interim, next Wednesday (February 23rd), a Town Hall meeting is being held to answer questions about the Knight Arts Challenge. 5:30 p.m. Feb. 23, 2011, Little Haiti Cultural Center, 212 NE 59th Terr., Miami. Dennis Scholl, Vice President/Arts, Knight Foundation and Stuart Kennedy, Program Associate, Knight Foundation, will be on hand to field your inquiries.

This post was contributed by Thomas Hollingworth.



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Its an idea contest: Interview with Dennis Scholl on the Knight Arts Challenge