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Knight grants help local arts groups

Earlier this month the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation granted nearly $2.3 million in awards to 34 winners of its 2012 Knight Arts Challenge Miami.

The awards range from $10,000 for the Pablo Malco Foundation’s Hip-Hop Symphony, which aims to marry the rhythms of hip-hop and dance with the instrumentation of classical, to ArtWorks’ $225,000 grant for a project to help high school students in Overtown, Wynwood, Little Haiti and Liberty City pursue the arts via paid art internships and apprenticeships.

And South Miami-Dade could soon see a new space for community theater with a residency opportunity for artists at Palmetto Bay’s Deering Estate, thanks to a $35,000 grant to the Deering Estate Foundation. Mary Petit, executive director of the Deering Foundation and Jennifer Tisthammer, Deering’s director, see many possibilities for providing community theater in the region, which she said lacks community theaters beyond a Black Box room at the new South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center in Cutler Bay.

Grants, which must be matched by the recipients, were given to individuals, organizations or others in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties in disciplines such as film, dance, theater, music, visual art and storytelling.

Winning a grant is a considerable boost, not only financially, but psychologically, in helping fledgling, as well as veteran, organizations thrive in today’s tough economic climate.

“There’s a sense of affirmation and recognition for such a young arts project, an official imprimatur in South Florida that you’re a Knight Challenge winner and that you arrived,” said Robert Rosenberg, director for the Coral Gables Art Cinema’s Cinemateque project which landed a $150,000 grant.

“Feels to me like a really big boost, a huge acknowledgment of what a great show we have,” agreed Andrea Askowitz, co-creator of the popular Lip Service reading series which has a $50,000 grant to help spread more stories.

Meet some of the winners:

Expanding a Nonprofit Film Arts Center

Project: Coral Gables Art Cinema

Recipient: Coral Gables Cinemateque

Award: $150,000

The Coral Gables Art Cinema, built out of a parking garage on Aragon Avenue two years ago, has quickly become one of South Florida’s premiere art houses. Along with a handful of other stand-alone art movie theaters, the venue, a joint venture between the city of Coral Gables, which owns the building, and the Coral Gables Cinemateque, a nonprofit film arts organization founded by Steven Krams, proves that not every screen in town needs to feature Hollywood’s biggest hits.

Robert Rosenberg, director of the two-story theater — which features an art gallery and beer and wine concessions to go along with its stadium-sized screen and its enveloping surround sound — has lofty ambitions to match his surroundings.

“We’re going to focus this grant on two different projects we’ll be doing. The first will be the South Florida Children’s Film Festival in April. We’ve been planning to do this, but this is jumpstarting it.”

The three-day annual event will feature family programming in partnership with the New York International Children’s Film Festival.

“Hopefully, with this national profile this festival will bring families to films with alternative programming. The other piece is a series of initiatives designed to enhance the production of feature films in South Florida,” he says.

To accomplish this, the Cinemateque aims to bring directors, screenwriters and producers to town for residencies, to present their master works and to host community talk-back sessions along with master classes.

“The whole thing threads its way to developing and identifying one screenplay we’ll shepherd to completion to getting a film made — the key piece missing in the independent film art production world,” Rosenberg says.

The end result?

“A Miami-based, Miami film feature that could get screened at Sundance, something no indie film [from Miami] has achieved.”

Giving a Voice to More Miami Stories

Project: Lip Service: True Stories from all Miami Communities

Recipient: Lip Service

Award: $50,000

Lip Service’s premise is “true stories, out loud.”

If the idea of hearing eight people who stand solo on stage and read their personal stories for eight minutes apiece doesn’t sound as exciting as a staging of The Lion King, reconsider. Lip Service, the six-year-old reading series co-created by Andrea Askowitz and Esther Martinez-Kenniff, packs theaters for every quarterly production. No stars. No staging. No musicians. Just a guy or gal with a story to share.

Who needs more?

“The stories are profoundly moving, hysterically funny, beautifully crafted. I come to every one. Soon as I get the email to a show I buy a ticket because they sell out every time. They are local talent and it’s just wonderful,” says Nan Imbesi, a South Miami fitness instructor who came to Actors’ Playhouse at the Miracle Theater for Saturday’s holiday-themed edition, Lip Service’s 25th show.

Lip Service welcomes the submission of personal stories (via and Askowitz and Martinez-Kenniff will select the best and work with writers on how to deliver an effective presentation. “It’s honest, revealing, funny, sad, it’s everything,” Askowitz says. “It’s like watching someone read their diary and all the emotions are covered because every story is different.”

Lip Service came to Miami six years ago when L.A. transplant Askowitz approached a “bearded man” at Books & Books and asked him where someone could go to tell or hear true stories. Mitchell Kaplan, founder of Books & Books, said, “Do it here,” and a South Florida audience favorite was born.

Askowitz’s first crowd was built around her mom’s friends.

“Sixty-five-year-old Jewish women can handle any kind of smut and perversion our loyal supporters dish out,” Askowitz teases.

At Saturday’s show on the main stage smut or any derivation of such was noticeably absent — storyteller Darin Spurlock, a Miami dietician, never quite managed to make a hot love connection with the beautiful Latina he spotted on the last Metrorail train of the night. But most of the stories ached with poignancy, topped with a welcome dash of humor.

Patsy Asuncion, born poor in Chicago, told how a Christmas miracle helped her learn the power of believing; Martinez-Kenniff, weeks away from delivering her first child, came to terms with having a daughter when her own example of childhood was less than ideal; Sarah Klein told a hilarious tale in deadpan of her father’s myriad obsessions, from hats to cats to Hanukkah to Asian cooking.

“People are not afraid to tell their truth and that’s the kind of thing that resonates with an audience,” Askowitz says. “You walk out feeling like you’ve been at a musical or a rock concert. It feels good.”

Introducing Travelers and Residents to Global and Local Rhythms

Project: Educational and Entertainment Encounters

Recipient: Miami International Airport

Award: $40,000

“It’s a huge honor to be part of the Knight Foundation family,” said Yolanda Sánchez, director of fine arts and cultural affairs at Miami International Airport. Her program gained $40,000 to help continue its random acts of culture program that has seen ballet stars, musicians and other local talent burst out in full-performance before surprised travelers. The new goal is to increase its offering of global and local rhythms to serve an eclectic community.

Imagine hiking down to baggage claim, hardly a highlight of any trip, and suddenly you are immersed in the sounds of African drummers or jazz groups. Or, you’re waiting at the gate and instead of staring at the latest episode of Hawaii Five-O on your four-inch iPhone screen while you wait for your flight to arrive you get to enjoy a live performance by members of the Florida Grand Opera. So far Sánchez’s department has been responsible for 64 such occurrences.

“We run the whole gamut and this has been a huge success for our passengers and employees who also benefit from anything we do there. To have this award will allow us to continue that programming.”

Sánchez laughs when she recalls one of last year’s more amusing developments after a group of jazz musicians opened their cases and took out their instruments to play in one of the airport’s corridors.

“One of the musicians from one of the jazz groups had his case on the ground, casually, and people started putting in money. The guy made about $25 in three minutes!”

Celebrating South Florida’s African Diaspora Artists

Project: Art Exhibit and Festival

Recipient: Opa-locka Community Development Corp.

Award: $60,000

South Beach and Wynwood neighborhoods became rejuvenated thanks to an infusion of art and arts groups. Opa-locka, with its distinctive Moorish architecture, could stand to gain some of that international exposure and rebirth through the seed of its Knight grant, says Aileen Alon, arts and cultural initiatives coordinator for the Opa-locka Community Development Corp.

“We were founded in 1980 and mostly focused on affordable housing and real estate in terms of community. It wasn’t until 2010 when we started to look at arts as a possibility for community development,” Alon says.

The corporation is leveraging a $22 million HUD housing rehab grant to boost its low-income neighborhoods, and art will be a strategic component of that revitalization. The Knight grant will help produce a multidisciplinary juried arts festival and exhibit to coincide with major public art installations in Opa-locka. The theme of the art will be the African Diaspora. The corporation has already hosted artists, both local and national, for luncheons and tours of the city in hopes that the architecture will inspire them to create for an exhibit still a year or so away.

“All these artists starting to come work in the community has opened our eyes to see the role of art and culture in engaging a community and creating new opportunities for residents and stakeholders,” Alon says. “The long-term vision in which the arts and culture are integral to every day life in Opa-locka and having an event highlighting African Diaspora would be a part of that.”

Bridging Hip-Hop and Cultural Events to Kids

Project: TruSchool Hip-Hop

Recipient: Sixth Street Dance Studio/Whole Project

Award: $40,000

Miami’s Sixth Street Dance Studio’s TruSchool is a free hip-hop program for grade-school kids in Little Havana and Overtown dedicated to the original elements of hip-hop.

“Peace, love and unity, those are the basic elements of hip-hop,” says Brigid Baker, the studio’s director and choreographer or, as her students call her, Queen B.

The perception that hip-hop has moved away from these elements can be attributed to a marketplace that favors depictions of bling culture and derogatory depictions of women in some of the more popular rap hits. But this isn’t the heart of hip-hop, she says.

“Corporatism co-opting and the monetization of our world,” Baker says. “Hip-hop is an incredible American art form, a healing protocol that grew from the South Bronx out of artists — these visionaries — who discovered a way to stop gang violence through movement and dance. [Break-beat DJ] Afrika Bambaataa started the peace, love and unity original tenets of hip-hop.”

Baker hopes to achieve the same in Miami with these principles and to partner with the Uganda Project, a grass roots organization that uses social media, art and public forums to mentor and bolster the youth community. (See

The $40,000 in Challenge funding will help the nonprofit Little Havana dance space buy turntables, paint for graffiti, musical equipment and to find DJs and emcees to incorporate house dance and lindy hop into the programming, along with the addition of writing and other cultural events.

“We’re changing perceptions by correcting and allowing [hip-hop] to grow into its full octave,” Baker says.

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