Miami-Dade County

A foundation’s bet on the arts in Miami paid off big — so it’s laying down millions more

An audience at Wynwood’s O Cinema, which is getting a $1.5 million grant from the Knight Foundation for a new home.
An audience at Wynwood’s O Cinema, which is getting a $1.5 million grant from the Knight Foundation for a new home. O Cinema

A dozen years ago, the Knight Foundation made a bet that investing in Miami’s fledgling arts ecosystem would reap big benefits for the city.

About $128 million in grants later, Knight says, it’s paid off big time: the roster of local arts groups and the number of arts jobs have exploded, art production and attendance at exhibits and performances are both up dramatically, and the arts have become part and parcel of Miami’s identity at home and abroad.

So what to do about the winning run now? Put more money on the table, of course.

On Monday evening, foundation officers announced $37 million in new funding for Miami artists and arts groups large and small at a ceremony at the Perez Art Museum, one of Knight’s main beneficiaries.

The infusion extends, expands and amends the Miami-based foundation’s hometown commitment to the arts, said Knight president Alberto Ibargüen and Knight vice president for the arts Victoria Rogers in an interview.

The foundation will renew its popular Knight Arts Challenge, an open-call, “no-rules” competition in which artists submit ideas for mostly modest grants. The Challenge will return in 2019 and alternate years with Knight New Work, an initiative launched in June to help underwrite the creation of original works of art, with a focus this year on performing arts.

Knight is also making new grants to bolster “anchor” institutions such as PAMM ($3 million) and Miami City Ballet ($3 million), and to promote creation of cutting-edge art through grassroots groups such as Borscht Film ($1.25 million), Locust Projects ($1 million) and the Miami New Drama theater company ($750,000). A $2 million grant to Miami-Dade County’s cultural affairs department will go toward restoration of the shuttered Coconut Grove Playhouse.

One strategy Knight is fostering is the creation of residencies, including a cinematic arts residency at ArtCenter/South Florida ($500,000) that’s meant to act as an incubator for “micro-budget narrative feature films.”

Knight’s decision to expand local arts funding was underscored by release of a report commissioned by the foundation. The report, prepared by research firm TDC, concludes that the arts and Knight grants have had a “transformative” effect on Miami, boosting local artistic activity and participation significantly, helping recast the city’s reputation and shift the way residents see their hometown. Knight has become the “foremost” private arts funder in Miami, the report says.

Among the report’s findings:

* A fifth of the 276 arts groups now operating in Miami-Dade were launched after 2005, when Knight began making arts grants. Total spending among those groups increased 168 percent from 2005 to 2015.

* Local arts attendance rose 27 percent in those 10 years, outpacing population growth.

* Local employment in arts industries rose 21 percent from 2011-15, reaching 203,649 jobs in 2016. Categories showing the strongest growth included photography, writing and crafts. People of color made up more than a third of that workforce in 2016.

The report also hit a note of caution, pointing out that arts activities in Miami rely on a small number of funders and that many of its largest groups have little to no money in operating reserves. More than a third of the city’s arts groups lack cash reserves or adequate endowments, the report says.

Funneling grants to the arts fits neatly with the Knight foundation’s mission, which is to promote engagement and strengthen communities in which brothers John S. and James L. Knight published newspapers, Ibargüen said. The Knights once owned the Miami Herald.

“Why in the first place are we doing this? Because art binds. Our research, our experience, our intuition tells us art and culture are among the most effective ways to bind people and communities together,” Ibargüen said.

The new round of grants and programs is designed to boost the production of art in Miami that reflects the city in all its complexity, and also help set its relatively young arts groups on a path to longevity and sustainability by helping them expand their reach and hone managerial and business skills as well, he added.

“What we’re trying to create are sustainable community arts institutions that are run in a business-like way. They do have to be run to be able to continue offering art week in, week out, year over year,” Ibargüen said. “In all of this, we strive to fund really good, challenging, authentic art.”

At Monday’s ceremony, the foundation unveiled the first group of five New Work winners. The grants are:

* $50,000 to guitarist and composer Alvaro Bermudez, Seraphic Fire and New World Center for “Danzas del silencio,” a collaboration blending Bach and Colombian dance rhythms.

* $80,000 to choreographer Kevin Jenkins and Dimensions Dance Theatre of Miami for “Danzon of Eclectic Cultural Origin,” which blends salsa, tango, flamenco and contemporary ballet with scenic work by Edouard Duval-Carrié and costumes by Andrea Spiridonakos.

* $115,000 to actor, writer and director Teo Castellanos and Miami Light Project for “F/Punk Junkies,” a dance theater piece that incorporates Afropunk aesthetics and improvisation; in collaboration with choreographer Augusto Soledade and saxophonist Leo Casino.

* $75,000 to playwright William Hector for “G7: 2070: An Immersive Theatrical Summit,” a piece set in a flooded Miami 50 years from now that invites participation of actors and audience to determine the fate of the world.

* $150,000 to theater director Lileana Blain-Cruz and Miami New Drama for “The Edwidge Danticat Project: Create Dangerously,” a piece that will bring the Haitian-American author’s stories to life on stage with music and projections.

For the second year, the foundation also honored a group of Knight Arts Champions. Each honoree gets $10,000 to pass on to an artist or group of his or her choice.

This year’s 21 champions and the recipients for their gifts include:

* GableStage artistic director Joseph Adler, to Arts for Learning.

* Curator Ximena Caminos, to the Underline, the 10-mile park and trail beneath the Metrorail tracks.

* Art collectors Mera and Don Rubell, to Linda Mangual, Miami-Dade County Public Schools arts educator.

* WDNA-FM general manager Maggie Pelleyá, to Jazz Education Community Coalition.

* Miami Herald photojournalist Carl Juste, to Little Haiti Book Festival at the Miami Book Fair and Diaspora Vibe Cultural Arts Incubator.