Do-it-yourself spirit results in renewal of Knight Art Challenge Detroit

Arts / Article

Above top: Haleem Rasul of Hardcore Detroit, credit Leena Lee. Video: Acres of Diamonds, The Story of the Knight Arts Challenge in Detroit.

As the lights were lowered in the performance hall of the Masonic Temple, a collective state of excitement took hold.  The sound of a growing, rhythmic cadence filled the air.  Seated with colleagues from Knight in a box above the stage, we had a bird’s eye view of the dancers, their sound suits swirling in response to their movements as they strutted down the center aisle. Nick Cave’s Here Hear was in the house and the crowd went wild.   That’s just one of the magical movements that comes to mind when I think about the more than 100 winning projects the Knight Arts Challenge in Detroit has funded over the last several years.

 In 2012, Knight launched a three-year, $3 million per year Knight Arts Challenge in Detroit, part of a nearly $20 million, two-pronged investment for both local institutions and more grassroots efforts.  The first three years of the challenge were, in some ways, an experiment. Would the challenge add to the momentum organically emerging in Detroit’s arts community? Given the city’s economic climate, would winners be able to raise matching funds? Our experience exceeded expectations.  Detroiters responded to the contest in droves, submitting more than 3,500 ideas reflective of the spirit of Detroit.  Our winners, 114 so far, have fueled the artistic excellence and ongoing growth of the local cultural community.  Many of them received national and international press coverage.  This summer an article in The New York Times made reference to four separate Knight Arts Challenge winners and their projects, including local artist Olayami Dabls’ lifelong labor of love, the MBAD African Bead Museum, and Cranbrook Art Museum’s “Nick Cave: Here Hear.” Its no wonder the Detroit Free Press has called the first group of contest winners the “soul of Detroit.”

Artist Nick Cave with kids at Cranbrook.

I lost my heart to Detroit touring the city with Knight Program Director Katy Locker at the wheel.   As we drove up and down the streets of the different communities, Katy, a walking encyclopedia, provided history and thoughtful insight, her love for her city coming through loud and clearly.   I met those who had stayed through the worst, others who left and came back and others new to the city, all with a shared belief in the promise of Detroit.

Our personal and collective stories are told through the arts. They bind us to place; they often pay homage to the past and help us envision the future, no more so than in Detroit.  Detroit has a visceral energy that fuels creation. With funding through the challenge, the city has transformed into an urban stage, a landscape for large-scale public art installations, a place for the resurgence of literary arts, a city where internationally-renowned artists want to be, and home-grown talent can shine.  As Detroit moves beyond bankruptcy, the arts have continued to play a significant role in the city’s recovery.   In recognition of this, the foundation is increasing its commitment to the arts in Detroit by renewing the Knight Arts Challenge for an additional three years, a $9 million investment.

The Knight Art Challenge will continue to support artistically excellent cultural experiences that contribute to a sense of place and community identity; to support innovative ways to reach, engage and increase audiences for the arts; and, to seed the ongoing growth of the cultural ecosystem by supporting arts at a grassroots level.

On Monday night, when we announce and celebrate the 2015 Detroit winners, it should become clear why we’re betting that the arts will continue to create wonder, to provoke, to spark dialogue, to connect us to one another, and most importantly, be “authentically” Detroit.    We can and will learn much from a city that refused to quit. There’s so much more to come.