10 years, one mission: To make art general in Miami – Knight Foundation

10 years, one mission: To make art general in Miami

This year, Knight Foundation is celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Knight Arts Challenge’s founding in Miami. Attend a celebration event, and learn more below about the challenge’s impact.

From supporting the creation of Miami’s first art-house cinema, to an art-filled mini golf course, and a contemporary dance project that raises awareness about Alzheimer’s, the Knight Arts Challenge has funded a dizzying array of artists and organizations since launching in 2008. One overarching theme has been “to make art general.”

It’s a deceptively simple proposition with profound consequences.

For Knight Foundation President Alberto Ibargüen, the idea crystallized at a meeting about a start-up poetry festival that would become a city-wide event: O, Miami. Instead of the standard poetry readings, O, Miami founder Scott Cunningham had grander plans to bring a poem to every Miamian in the month of April – whether dropped from a plane, sewed in second-hand clothes or painted on roofs so that passengers would see them as they flew into Miami International Airport.

“I thought that was a great idea and I remembered the last paragraph of ‘The Dead’ by James Joyce which begins with: ‘The newspapers had it right. Snow was general all over Ireland.’ That’s what I want. I want you to find art anywhere, everywhere. I want it to be general all over Miami.“

What most connects people to place are personal relationships and culture, said Ibargüen, citing the results of a Knight-funded Gallup survey. “If we can tap into that, we bind people to Miami. That’s very important for a town that up until not long ago was most famously known for transients.”

Since its inception, the Knight Arts Challenge has brought to life 335 projects with its support, including Weird Miami Bus Tours. That person-to-place connection is at the core of Weird Miami, which was started by visual artist Naomi Fisher. Curated by local artists, each tour has a theme and features a different neighborhood. It’s a great way to meet and understand the vision of local artists while getting to know the city, Fisher said.

 “Many people in the art world come to visit Miami during Art Basel, but really don’t know anything about [the city], and I would get asked ‘Why do you live down here?’ So this really started as a way to explain why Miami is so interesting and such a source of inspiration for artists,” she says. “I found myself having a kind of default tour that I would give to people who were visiting from out of town — and when I talked to the other artists it seemed like they also did too and all our default tours were actually related to our practice of art.”

With each year of the Knight Arts Challenge, art continued to spill out of institutional settings and into public spaces, neighborhoods and workplaces. The challenge has funded a music series in Doral, a mariachi ensemble in Homestead, and a beats academy where kids learn to mix music in Overtown. Over the last few months alone, Alvin Ailey dancer Jamar Roberts has taught aspiring performers in South Dade, a renowned sculptor is working with volunteers to weave a piece from willows at Pinecrest Gardens, and a new, experimental play on Miami’s changing neighborhoods is taking place inside the rooms of a Little Havana hotel.

Exile Books, founded by visual artist, curator and writer Amanda Keely, embodied the challenge’s ethos when it created an itinerant pop-up artists book store that traveled through several Miami neighborhoods.

Keely’s idea was “to change the way people experience art,” she said. “I didn’t want to just have books on a shelf. I wanted it to be an encounter, a public encounter or an intervention where I’m placing publications and books made by artists in a slightly different way in a very accessible place, so it’s fun and engaging.”

A significant amount of the more than $122 million Knight Foundation has invested in the South Florida arts since 2005 has gone to strengthen the city’s largest institutions — helping to bring Wallcasts to New World Symphony and expanding programming at the Pérez Art Museum Miami and the Miami Film Festival, just to name a few. That’s because of Knight’s two-pronged approach, to fund institutions that provide programming daily and to support smaller efforts, so that everyone has a chance to make their idea a reality. The Challenge has had a significant impact beyond the anchor art institutions, particularly on individual creators, arts entrepreneurs and small nonprofits.

“One of the most important contributions of the Knight Arts Challenge is all the artists and projects that have come to light,” says Lissette Mendez, director of programs at the Miami Book Fair. Born in Cuba but raised in Miami, Mendez still remembers “when the ArtCenter on Lincoln Road was just a little corner store.” She has seen the city grow culturally. “There were a lot of artistic outlets already in place in the city, but the Knight Arts Challenge really boosted not just institutional makers but those individual artists that have often not found any support. Every year, I read the list of projects funded and I am inspired.”

Ever Chavez, founder and executive director of FUNDarte, arrived from Cuba in 2000 and has made it his mission to showcase local talent, often hidden in plain view. “I’ve used the support of the Knight Arts Challenge to give an opportunity to Miami-based artists to develop ambitious projects and step out into the spotlight.”

He mentions programs such as flamenco guitarist Jose Luis de la Paz, presenting his work “Resonancias;” and the staging of the play “Writing in Sand,” about migrant women, which later toured Central America and was designed to engage the Latino and LGBTQ communities. “The funding from the Knight Arts Challenge is the difference between being able to present it or not,” says Chavez.

Those opportunities have, in turn, a ripple effect.

As many Miami-born artists of her generation, Fisher thought that, after graduation, she would “leave Miami for art school and never come back — and I was shocked when I came back.

“The Rubell Collection existed, [art collector] Rosa De La Cruz was giving tours in her home. There was this totally different thing happening, and once the Knight Arts Challenge happened,  it allowed this kind of bubbling up arts community to actually have funds to make something. We didn’t have to leave in order to fund our work. We could still stay in Miami and create projects, and this was just so crucial for younger artists like myself.”

In time, those homegrown artists will continue remaking Miami’s cultural landscape, nurturing a virtuous cycle with profound social and economic consequences. For Ibargüen, the approach of the Knight Arts Challenge, and the expectations it carries, both artistic and practical, is simply “very sound, solid reasoning.”

“It’s an appropriate aspiration for Knight Foundation to leverage the natural assets of the community in the arts to lift the spirit, explain us to each other and bind us to each other in a way that will allow us to create the new Miami of our dreams,” he said. “One day I want somebody to say ‘The newspapers had it right. Art was general all over Miami.’”

Fernando González is a Miami based arts and culture writer and critic.