Why is the Knight Foundation Pouring Money into St. Paul?

We live in a country with no shortage of vibrant arts communities. Very rarely do philanthropic organizations publicly state that one is better than another. Yet it occasionally happens, and when a rep from a powerhouse like the Knight Foundation makes such a statement, it's doubly newsworthy. In this case, we're talking about Dennis Scholl, vice president of arts for the Knight Foundation. The quote in question: "The thing I see in St. Paul that I don't see as much in other communities is a real sense of collaboration."

Scholl's comment comes on the heels of a recent announcement that the Knight Foundation allocated $8 million to "engage and enrich the city of St. Paul through the arts." Of course, the foundation has invested heavily in other cities, namely Detroit, Miami, and Philadelphia. But there's something about St. Paul that has them especially excited. So what, exactly, is it?

It's the idea of collaboration, the notion that local arts organizations can support and promote each other across disciplines. And while the foundation surely sees this phenomenon in other cities, the depth and breadth of collaboration in St. Paul is unprecedented. In fact, Scholl posits a theory as to why this is, musing, "Maybe it's from the winter where everybody has to work together to survive."

But there's another subtle detail buried in the foundation's announcement that other arts organizations looking to attain funding should see. Almost half of the total $8 million allocated — $3.5 million — will be distributed over five years to five "anchor arts institutions": Penumbra Theatre, Springboard for the Arts, St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, TU Dance, and the Arts Partnership. In other words, much like downtown revitalization efforts hinge on "anchor businesses" to attract visitors and shoppers, Knight identified and funded five organizations that can uniquely drive collaboration and arts awareness across the city. 

While we don't know if these five organizations explicitly presented themselves as "anchor arts institutions" when applying for funding, the takeaway is nonetheless clear. No arts organization is an island, and the more an applicant can emphasize ways in which funding will boost exposure and collaboration with other local groups, the better.

Knight's funding of these anchor organizations is a prelude to the main event: allocating the remaining $4.5 million across three years as part of the foundation's Knight Arts Challenge, a community-wide contest looking to find and fund innovative arts ideas. (If this sounds familiar, it's because the foundation recently rolled out a challenge in Detroit.)

The bottom line? St. Paul is emerging as one of the most innovative and, yes, collaborative art communities America, thanks in no small part to the Knight Foundation. Maybe it's the weather.