Art Binds People to Place and to Each Other

Good afternoon.

Let me begin by thanking David Rubinstein, John Gray, David Skorton, Amanda Moniz, and everyone involved with the Philanthropy Initiative at the Smithsonian for this important and timely symposium. Thank you for inviting me to share what I’ll call notes from the field about the power of art to build community.

Our theme today is the role of philanthropy in advancing art and culture in American life. I came to that subject at Knight Foundation after a lifetime in law and the news business, but with the bias of an art lover, smitten since a junior high school trip to the Old Metropolitan Opera and the purchase of a small painting of a peach—which I still have—at a community art fair sometime in the 1950s when I was in high school.

This topic resonates deeply with me.

At Knight Foundation, we share David Rubenstein’s enthusiasm for what he called “patriotic philanthropy.” We are committed to a democratic republic with an informed and engaged citizenry at its core. Our mission is to support those informed and engaged communities. Investing in art and culture is central to our mission. I can tell you why in just 9 words:art binds people to place and to each other.

Art and culture build community. That’s not just something I know in my bones to be true. It’s a conviction confirmed by our grant-making experience and by extensive Gallup polling.

Over the course of three years — from 2009 to ‘11 — Knight and Gallup spoke with 43,000 people in 26 communities around the country. Our question was simple: What attaches people to the place where they live? The study was called “Soul of the Community” and we found that, contrary to conventional wisdom, social offerings and aesthetics bind people to place and to each other even more than what we had expected: education or jobs.

Art binds. Culture generates social capital and strengthens a community’s character. Art brings people together physically — at galleries, museums, performance spaces — and culturally, through its capacity to tell a community’s shared story, to inspire reflection, and form connections that transcend differences.

The insight that art and culture bind people to place has animated our work ever since the Gallup study. It inspired the launch of the Knight Arts Program, which, over the last 10 years, has awarded more than $270 million to artists and art institutions in eight cities across the country. That includes $125 million in Miami, which has been ground-zero for our efforts.

The results have been breathtaking. Art is everywhere in Miami, immersive and inescapable, engaging people in their lives day-to-day.

In this past decade, Miami has built two concert halls, an opera house, a science museum, three public art museums, three private art museums, dozens of art galleries and one of the most innovative poetry festivals in America, “O, Miami” — where our goal is to reach every person in a county of 2 million people with a poem at least once in the month of April. Art Basel/Miami Beach, the biggest art fair in North America, just celebrated its 11thseason, and the Miami book fair continues to be among the top 5 in the nation. We’ve begun to develop an independent film scene, invested in music education and improved our ballet. In Wynwood, warehouse walls are a canvass for art. Every third grader in the county comes through the Pérez Art Museum. Thousands more high schoolers visit the Institute of Contemporary Art.

In Miami, a vibrant city of exiles and immigrants that used to be a transient waypoint, art is a permanent fixture helping to build a culture that can last.

This explosion of art, of course, didn’t just happen. It was 30 years in the making and required artists, government, audiences and, of course, philanthropy. Along with some very generous private donors, I’m glad to say we at Knight did our part and served as catalyst.

The Knight Arts Challenge, our flagship arts contest, has received more than 24,000 proposals in Miami alone. We use local artists to advise and ensure that the art is good, and we’ve selected nearly 1,000 winners, as diverse as Miami itself.

We don’t try to fund a specific field of art but rather to create a sense in cities and towns that art is accessible — that art is general.

The success of that simple and open approach has helped us develop a coherent, transferable model for arts fundingin communities: to create community, to inform community, to build community.

After ten years, we’ve taken away three key lessons: 1) Leverage a community’s natural assets; 2) Simultaneously fund institutional and emerging art to create momentum; and, 3) Intensify the impact by narrowing the geographic focus.

  1. Leverage what’s trending.Look forwhere, how and whatart is being created. In Miami, we noted a 30-year film festival, a big number of art collectors, the arrival of Art Basel (this was ten years ago), and the proliferation of all manner of music. So, we started there. Like any community endeavor, funding the arts should be organic, an authentic reflection of a place, its people, and its history.
  1. Simultaneously fund major arts institutions and emerging, grassroots art.We’ve invested in most of Miami’s prominent arts institutions, though never as the biggest funder, both to encourage others and to extend our resources. Meanwhile, we’re by far the biggest funder of grassroots arts, not only to expand access but to create buzz. One large grant to a museum paid over time does not spark as much attention as 60 small grants to 60 individuals every year. But if you do both simultaneously, you turn on the heat. And after six or seven years, you’re really cooking.
  1. The third lesson is tointensify the impact by focusing on a clearly defined geographic area. Geographic focus makes it more likely that audiences will know the artists, organizations and venues. Familiarity breeds support and a belief that the arts belong in that community.

I’m pleased to say we’ve already begun to use this model in other cities.

In Akron, building on the region’s tradition of modern dance, Knight has established a National Choreographic Center, in partnership with DANCE Cleveland and the University of Akron. During the Detroit bankruptcy, Knight partnered with Ford — and Darren was absolutely spectacular in his leadership of that effort — Kresge and other foundations to buy the Detroit Institute of Art, saving a treasured piece of culture for the city and the region. In Charlotte, we’ve helped stand up a program for artist residencies at the McColl Center for Art + Innovation. In Macon, we funded the Otis Redding summer camp for young musicians. And so on.

The response in these communities has been universally positive.

And there’s more to come. We live in a digital and social world, so we’ve begun supporting the use of digital technology to create and present art. We started by endowing the New World Symphony’s digital media capacity to reach audiences in and outside the concert hall. We’re now offering to fund digital media experts to work as part of museum curatorial staffs —insidethe curatorial staff, not on the marketing staff — to help develop programs that meet audienceswhereandhowthey live, which is increasingly digital. And we’ve also commissioned crowd-sourced symphonies to express the local, authentic sounds of Detroit, Akron, Miami and now Philadelphia, which is yet to premiere, and will be in Philadelphia at the Kimmel and then later by the Philadelphia Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. And we’re only just getting started.

This is a case study in strategic, practical, and impactful philanthropy, aimed at producing better art, more engaged and stronger communities. I cannot stress the importance and power of philanthropy to fund risk, to fund consistency and to keep funding until there’s critical mass.

And I cannot stress enough the power of the results.

Imagine every American living in a community where art is alive and accessible —where art is general. Where art has bound people to place and to each other.

Philanthropy can lead the way.