Miami-Dade County

Knight Arts Challenge winners show South Florida’s cultural strength, diversity

They range from an old-fashioned traveling medicine show to a cutting edge interactive virtual reality art project, from reviving the work of a near-forgotten poet to dances at the reviving Miami Marine Stadium, from programs bringing foreign artists to South Florida and Miami artists into the city’s schools and neighborhoods.

What the 49 wildly disparate recipients of the sixth annual Knight Arts Challenge award share is an original vision for expanding culture in South Florida. The winners were announced Monday evening in a ceremony and performance at the New World Symphony on Miami Beach.

“Asking for the best art ideas from every corner of the community has resulted in a richness of creativity that we never could have imagined,” said Dennis Scholl, vice president/arts for the Knight Foundation.

The grants totaled $2.72 million. The most generous was $180,000 allowing acclaimed chorale Seraphic Fire to become the ensemble-in-residence at the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center. The smallest was $2,500 for a multi-media opera by Florida Atlantic University professor Joey Bargsteen. Most awards between $25,000 and $100,000. Since the Challenge program launched in 2008, it has given out $22.1 million to 167 projects, selected from over 7,500 ideas submitted in a short, simple online application.

Director, actor and writer Teo Castellanos won the $20,000 People’s Choice Award, beating out four other groups in a vote-by-text campaign. It came in addition to his challenge grant of $25,000. The money will help him create Third Trinity, a play and film about two cousins, one a Puerto Rican nationalist, the other a drug smuggler, who grew up with Castellanos in Carol City. His director and collaborator will be Tarell Alvin MacCraney, an award-winning Liberty City-raised playwright and director who started his career as a student of Castellanos in 1995.

“It’s a huge deal – money is always good but acknowledgement is the biggest thing,” said Castellanos. “It’s about these two very different philosophies of life, from communist to cocaine cowboy… and that juxtaposition which is very important in Miami.”

Several themes emerged among the winners. One was a focus on obscure or forgotten parts of Miami history. They include $15,000 for the University of Wynwood’s book and conference on Miami-born poet Donald Justice, a Pulitzer Prize winner almost unknown in his home city, and $8,000 for choreographer Hattie Mae Williams’ site-specific dances at the Miami Marine Stadium and the Venetian Pool in Coral Gables. Two projects were funded for Overtown’s historic Lyric Theater, slated to reopen in 2014: $50,000 for a spoken-word series created by the Black Archives History and Research Foundation of South Florida, and $80,000 for Miami Contemporary Dance Company’s Up and Over Overtown dance series.

“The community has matured culturally… and with that comes reflection and looking back at what got us here,” says Scholl.

One result of that growth seems to be the number of experimental multi-media or interactive projects in this year’s group of winners. Among them are Ivan Toth Depeña’s public art projects, which will be viewed with a specially designed mobile app that will generate virtual performances, and Indie Film Club Miami’s interactive film and new technology festival, which employs immersive events and social media. “These ideas are the conscious reflection of where we’re going as a society in terms of the audience wanting to be involved, to curate their own experience,” says Scholl. “Artists are beginning to take advantage of those tools.”

Winners included educational programs such as the Miami Music Project, launched with a Knight Challenge grant five years ago, which got $100,000 to expand its orchestral academy for public school students to a third location in Liberty City. Major public art programs include $120,000 for a monthly evening performance series at the Perez Art Museum Miami and $75,000 to extend the massive Art Public outdoor art exhibit at the Bass Museum, from the week of Art Basel Miami Beach to the end of April.

And several groups are hosting programs for visiting artists, speakers, and critics, all ways of connecting Miami’s art scene to the world.

“There’s more of a hunger locally to be connected on a more international level,” says Scholl. “It’s how we integrate the art scene globally, not just here and New York or here and L.A., but how to get those people here and get our people out there.”

Among them is the ArtCenter/South Florida, a cultural pioneer that helped transform Lincoln Road and South Beach when it opened 30 years ago. The complex of galleries and studios got $120,000 for an artist residency program that will allow it to provide longterm studio space, living quarters, and produce shows for artists from South Florida and beyond.

“Now we can take the lead and make this program strong,” says ArtCenter executive director Maria Del Valle. “The most important thing besides the money is the recognition. We are 30 years old but we needed this big push. They are saying we are on the right track for this new era.”