Knight Foundation Steps Up and Promotes Detroit's Rich Cultural Heritage

Detroit's tragic deterioration from one of the largest, most vibrant American cities to financial mismanagement, economic ruin, and bankruptcy is well documented. Yet the tide is starting to turn, thanks to innovative partnerships between private and public organizations. Downtown Detroit is experiencing a renaissance, anchored by the home of the Tigers, Comerica Park. Razed lots are being transformed into urban gardens. And philanthropic organizations such as the Kresge Foundation are plugging the funding gaps left by the cash-starved city treasury.

Another case in point: a recent, multimillion-dollar gift from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.  Dubbed the Detroit Knight Arts Challenge, the organization allocated funds to 56 different artists and local organizations to help expand the city's rich cultural legacy. (See Knight Foundation: Grants for Visual Arts.) The projects are unique, diverse, and inspiring, ranging from a free after-school program for Arab music to the launching of the Hyper Interactive Hip-Hop Mardi Gras Parade.

What's also intriguing about this program is its refreshingly simple application process. In place of an intensive and time-consuming process — which can necessitate the assistance of paid consultants — the foundation simply asked applicants to adhere to three basic rules. One, the idea must be about the arts. Two, the project must take place in or benefit Detroit. And three, the recipients must find funds to match the foundation's commitment within 12 months. (Read Knight Vice President of Arts Dennis Scholl's IP profile.)

This streamlined application process creates two powerful outcomes. First, it opens up the funding to small groups that would normally be shut out or intimidated by greater process complexity. Sure enough, that logic yielded impressive results and more than 1,400 organizations applied. And second, since the process encourages more organizations to apply, it also, by extension, ensures greater program diversity while simultaneously engaging younger artists. Awards went to programs that promote Detroit's jazz history, modern puppetry, and community art projects in blighted neighborhoods. Meanwhile, some of the grant recipients were as young as 16.

We, as Americans, like to think that most of us are protected by a social "safety net." And in many cases, we are. However, in certain drastic instances, the safety net isn't enough (if it's there at all). Bankrupt and left for dead, Detroit turned off traffic lights and laid off police officers. Would anyone really notice if the city had one less arts program? Yet it is precisely during times like these that philanthropic organizations step in and fill the void. Earlier this year, for example, private donations kept Detroit's parks open when public money ran out. And now comes news that, thanks to a generous gift from the Knight Foundation, the city's rich cultural legacy will continue to grow.