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Knight Foundation awards $8M to support arts in St. Paul

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The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra
The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra during a rehearsal in a press photo. The SPCO is one of the city's arts organization that will benefit from an $8 million grant by the Knight Foundation.
Courtesy SPCO/Ash and James Photography

The St. Paul arts scene received a huge shot in the arm today when the Miami-based Knight Foundation announced an $8 million grant to institutions and individuals to support the arts. The Knight Foundation grant comes in two parts.

The first $3.5 million will go to five anchor institutions: the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, Penumbra Theater, Springboard for the Arts, TU Dance, and the Arts Partnership, the umbrella organization building the new concert hall at the Ordway Center.

"Those are the institutions that get up and do it every day," said Dennis Scholl, vice president of the Knight Foundation. "Some of them have been around for a while. Some of them are growing very rapidly, but they serve many, many people in the community."

The additional $4.5 million will be available to organizations and individuals who pitch ideas for arts projects in St Paul, as long as they meet the three criteria of the Arts Challenge.

To qualify, the ideas must be about art,and  must take place in or benefit St Paul. Winning individuals and organizations also must find funds to match the foundation's grant.

The Knight Foundation works in 26 communities where the Knight brothers once owned newspapers, among them St. Paul. Similar grants will go to Miami, Philadelphia and Detroit.

Laura Zabel, executive director of Springboard for the Arts, which will receive $500,000, has watched what happened in those other cities, and sees great potential in her hometown, particularly from the challenge.

"It's a real statement that good ideas aren't tied to organizational structure or what your job title says you are," Zabal said. "It says that good ideas come from everywhere, and I think that's what the arts community really needs right now."

The grant will help the St Paul organization, a national leader in supporting artists, to work in seven other communities supported by the Knight Foundation. In St. Paul, Zabal expects the grant to produce a great deal of work which will be visible to everyone.

"It won't be just sort of shut away in a beautiful silo," she said. "It will be really integrated into the fabric of the community."

A number of the institutional grants are aimed at audience development. The SPCO will receive $1 million to increase its digital programming on the web and on mobile devices. TU Dance will receive $500,000 to offer classes and outreach programs to St Paul's diverse communities. The Art Partnerships will use its $1 million grant to subsidize productions by emerging arts groups at the Ordway. Penumbra Theater will receive $500,000 to hire two staff members to engage new donors and expand audiences.

Penumbra managing director Chris Widdess said the grant will be a game-changer, "not only because of its size, but because it's a multi-year gift." Widdess said such grants are rare nowadays. The grant's five-year span gives Penumbra some breathing room. After almost collapsing, the company is implementing a new business plan aimed at long-term stability.

Co-Artistic director Sarah Bellamy said the Knight grant is well-timed for the whole of the city's arts scene.

"St Paul is a gem, and I think that investing in the arts organizations that are here will continue to create that eco-system that is flowering right now," she said.

Joe Spencer, director of arts and culture for St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, agreed.

"The timing of this money and the size of the commitment is absolutely going to be, if not transformative in and of itself, going to be a huge help at a transformative moment for our city," Spencer said.

While Spencer is delighted the grant is directed to St. Paul, he expects a ripple effect outside the city.

"Knight has a specific commitment to St Paul because of the history and the legacy here, but this is going to be good for the whole region," he said.

The Knight Foundation will begin taking applications for the challenge in early April. Scholl, who read the 15,000 pitches from the three other cities, said he's looking forward to reading St Paul's ideas.