Leap of faith accelerates growth of South Florida’s cultural community

Five years ago, Knight Foundation took a leap of faith and launched the Knight Arts Challenge, a $40 million initiative to accelerate the momentum in South Florida’s cultural community.

We called it a leap of faith because the arts challenge was one of Knight Foundation’s first contests. We knew we didn’t have a corner on the market for innovative arts ideas. By opening up the process, and asking the community for their best ideas for the arts, we thought we could use the challenge as a magnet to pull good ideas out of the region’s most creative thinkers. 

Each year, we have been taken aback by the number of ideas we have received, and have funded 110 to date for projects by small cultural start-ups and big institutions and nearly everything in between. 

As a regular part of our work, though, we often review our initiatives midstream, to see how they’ve progressed and how we can improve them. 

We hired AEA Consulting to pore through the data and to interview members of the arts and cultural community. The result is Building the Arts in Miami, a new multimedia report available at that we’ll unveil at the Grantmakers in the Arts Conference in Miami Beach this afternoon. It features insights and recommendations for the challenge, and also profiles of grantee projects that give a great overview of the achievements of South Florida’s cultural community. 

Here are some of the key insights:

Reaching a Diverse Pool: In total we’ve received 5,299 applications in the first four years of the challenge. The pool of applicants itself has been varied – ⅗ of the applicants aren’t even traditional nonprofits, but individual artists, businesses, public agencies and the like.  That’s likely because of the simple application process that asks just three questions in the first round. Geographically, while winners have been concentrated in Miami Beach and the Wynwood Arts District – Miami’s cultural center – we have had winners from a wide swath of the county.

Fueling South Florida’s Creative Zeitgeist: When we surveyed artists in Miami, Knight Arts Challenge applicants and finalists in the challenge, the majority said South Florida has become culturally vibrant over the past five years. Some 63 percent of those surveyed indicated that the Knight Arts Challenge has made an important contribution to this trend. Perhaps most interestingly, the challenge funding has had the biggest impact on individuals, start-ups and less prominent organizations that benefitted from the visibility and reputational boost. Gean Moreno, who launched an art book publishing company, said that winning the challenge forced him to think strategically about how to make his idea a reality. Since launching, [NAME] Publications has been invited to present at the New York Art Book Fair and the NADA Fair. 

Producing a Halo Effect: Of the people surveyed who didn’t win a grant, 2/5ths said the process was beneficial even though their idea wasn’t funded. We were a little surprised by that finding; being turned down for funding can be a setback. Yet several reported that it helped them hone their ideas, and even sparked collaborations with other artists and groups. The researchers called this the challenge’s “halo effect,” meaning its impact spread beyond the winners. Lolo Reskin, whose Sweat Records is a challenge winner, described it: [the challenge] “has given so many people who have the ideas and are starting to put them into action or are about to more hope and motivation to do that. I know people who have been inspired seeing Sweat or Borscht [Film Festival] and other young organizations get real live funding, and they have furthered their game.” 

The researchers also offered some recommendations as to how to improve the challenge. Here are some of the highlights: 

  • Embrace more crowdsourcing: The researchers suggested we could do more by having the crowd help select who gets funding. We’ve responded by launching a “People’s Choice Award,” offering $20,000 to the organization who gets the most votes by text. Voting is ongoing through Oct. 22. You can see the nominees at

  • Ensure a multilingual approaching: Applications should be accepted in all three of South Florida’s dominant languages – Spanish, English and Creole, the researchers said. We made the changes earlier this year to better reflect the community. 

  • Cultivate the applicant pool: While the current contest harvests the best ideas, more could be done to help cultivate others  – whether by providing more feedback on proposals, or for example having an ideas fest or an event where people could workshop ideas and improve them. This is an area we’re seeking to address. 

Open contests are a relatively new area for philanthropy, which has traditionally operated in a fairly top-down manner. We plan to use the insights here in our other contests, including the Knight Arts Challenge in Philadelphia.

You can find all the recommendations, and profiles of challenge winners in the report, available at

By Knight’s VP/Strategy and Assessment, Mayur Patel, and VP/Arts Dennis Scholl