Here's Why Knight's Commitment to Akron is Paying Impressive Dividends

It's a good time to be an Akronian. Prodigal son LeBron James returned home to Ohio in the off-season and the Knight Foundation is doubling down on its commitment to the city with $2 million in new grants to local arts institutions, as well as a three-year, $3 million Knight Arts Challenge to fund the best new arts ideas from the community.

So how did it all come to pass?

For an answer, let's first step back and examine the foundation's relationship with the city. As anyone who has followed the foundation's work in Akron knows, the bond is deep. Akron is the birthplace of Knight Newspapers and the foundation itself, and its work in the city extends beyond the arts to include regional economic transformation, urban renewal, and public library modernization. Our point is that it's not a fly-by-night relationship by a long shot. Knight's in it for the long haul.

But it takes more than a checkbook and a storied history to revitalize a city's arts scene and boost audience engagement. Enter the anchor institutions. Some of the recipient anchor institutions from this latest round of funding include:

  • The Akron Civic Theater, who will spend half of its $100,000 grant in each of five years to cover the rental costs of small and medium-sized groups to perform at the theater.
  • Akron Art Museum, now in the third year of its $1 million grant that funds six exhibitions accompanied by public programming that seeks to draw in new audiences.
  • Tuesday Musical, recipients of a $500,000, five-year endowment, which will enable it to expand its master classes, residencies, and community engagement through its concert series.

Clearly these groups are doing something right. This round of grants is at least five times larger than those received by grantees in the past.

So to summarize thus far, money, coupled with effective and fiscally responsible anchor institutions, is fantastic. But to truly engage your audience, you need to, well, engage your audience. Hence, the final piece of the puzzle — the $3 million Knight Arts Challenge — which, to quote foundation president Dennis School, "invites everyone in Akron to give us their best arts idea."

Incidentally, Akron is the fifth Knight city chosen for the Knight Arts Challenge, after Miami, Philadelphia, Detroit and St. Paul, Minn. Those four previous cities generated a total of 15,000 arts applications. Akron is the smallest community that has been chosen for the Arts Challenge so far.

The logic behind the challenge is simple, yet powerful. Its aim is to directly engage the community in order for them to be able to have a personal interest in their city's arts scene. And guess what? It's working. A 2013 survey commissioned by the Knight Foundation and the GAR Foundation found that 75 percent of respondents in Akron had attended an arts or cultural event in the past year.