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Knight Foundation announces $23 million for arts in South Florida

After five years of supporting artistic ventures dreamed up by everyone from indie filmmakers to museum directors and musicians, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation is ready for more.

The Miami-based foundation is devoting a total of $23 million in new gifts for the arts in South Florida, including $14 million for seven institutions and $9 million to continue the popular Knight Arts Challenge for another three years.

“Miami is continuing to develop this cultural identity,” said Dennis Scholl, the foundation’s vice president of arts. “So much of that is coming from the grassroots organizations. And the community continues to get a sense of itself through culture — that felt like it was still going on and definitely something that was still vibrant, so we wanted to support that vibrancy.”

The news will be officially announced Monday night as the foundation names the most recent round of arts challenge winners, drawing from money pledged in 2008. The new $23 million gift brings the total gifts in Miami to $86 million in six years.

“The point of all of this, as I never tire of saying, is we want to make art general in Miami,” said Alberto Ibargüen, president and CEO of the foundation. “To do that, you want to support arts institutions that day in and day out offer opportunities for people in Miami to see and feel and participate and engage art... and then at the same time engaging anybody in Miami who has an idea.”

The new grant series will continue to solicit ideas that benefit the arts in South Florida and require winners to raise a matching amount.

Michael Spring, director of Miami-Dade’s Department of Cultural Affairs, said the initial challenge came at just the right time to sustain the growth of the arts when the economy took a nosedive in 2008. The Knight support, Spring said, was key for organizations and donors.

“What the Knight Arts Challenge does, in addition to investing a lot of important dollars, is it puts a spotlight on the arts as an important area for civic investment,” said Spring, whose department has been a challenge winner.

The challenge requirement for matching dollars is key, said Michael Kaiser, president of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., who taught a two-year arts management training program in Miami funded in part by the Knight Foundation.

“When you just give a grant, it’s too easy for the organization to be thrilled and grateful and spend the money and then when the grant period is over, say ‘What do we do now?,’ ” he said. “When you make a matching’re requiring them to build the fundraising skills that they will need to replace the grant when the grant period is over.”

Scholl said the major gifts are going to institutions that are maturing but still fragile.

“Our premiere institutions are not institutions with great endowments,” he said. “We were really looking at institutions that have provided us artistic excellence and made special efforts to do audience engagement.”

Major grants that will be announced include $5 million for the Miami City Ballet to increase outreach and add new works, including commissions; $5 million to the Wolfsonian-FIU to develop programs to engage the community and make the collection more accessible online; $2 million for the Cleveland Orchestra, in part to expand educational outreach programs; $1 million shared by the Design and Architecture High School and New World School of the Arts to send students on cultural trips to New York City and Europe; $500,000 for the Borscht Film Festival to expand and $500,000 for the Miami International Film Festival to add to its prize money to attract entries.

“We’re over the moon,” said Daniel Hagerty, the Miami City Ballet’s new executive director. The group also has a new artistic director, Lourdes Lopez, following the tumultuous departure of founding artistic director Edward Villella.

The gift, Hagerty said, affirms the ballet company’s history of quality work and community engagement — and also the direction it’s taking now.

“It’s not just a financial show of support, it’s also a great emotional show of support,” he said.

For the 17-year-old Wolfsonian-FIU in Miami Beach, the gift will help the museum make its collection of more than 150,000 objects, rare books and archives more accessible to the public.

“I think the Knight recognition is a major endorsement of the great work that we’ve been doing,” said director Cathy Leff. “This next phase of growth is how the museum becomes a much more dynamic platform for providing much greater access to its collection both in physical and online spaces.”

The team behind the Borscht Film Festival — former classmates at the New World School of the Arts — won a $150,000 grant over two years through the Knight Arts Challenge in 2010.

“We never thought anybody in Miami would care about these indie filmmakers,” said Lucas Leyva, 25, whose formal title is Minister of the Interior. “It always seemed like those grants were for a museum or the opera or the ballet. That Knight would give us that grant, it meant that the city really wanted this and people who have power and knew things wanted us to continue doing it.”

Last year, the festival was held at the Arsht Center. Borscht has produced short films that have been shown at SXSW in Austin and at the Sundance Film Festival. And now, they have a new $500,000 grant.

“These are steps toward becoming the institution that we want to be,” said Leyva, who still lives in Miami. When the group won the challenge, he was so excited he had the foundation’s logo shaved into his hair. He said he’s been thinking about what he’ll do for an encore.

Said Leyva: “I found a barber who said he could do the faces of John S. and James L. Knight in my hair.”