Knight Foundation grants $8 million to arts in St. Paul

The national foundation decided to throw its support behind the city because of the “organic momentum” of St. Paul's growing arts scene.


Among the arts projects in St. Paul is the Palace Theater, shuttered for 30 years but now the subject of a restoration plan.

Photo: Brian Peterson, Star Tribune

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Long viewed as the sleepy counterpart to glitzier Minneapolis, the St. Paul arts scene is ready for its close-up. The city was granted $8 million in arts funding Wednesday evening by the Knight Foundation.

The “organic momentum” of St. Paul’s cultural growth spurt over the past few years led to its selection as the fourth city to receive the national foundation’s two-tiered grant, said Dennis Scholl, Knight’s vice president of arts giving.

“The city is led by a mayor who is committed to the value of the arts as a way of creating a sense of community; of belonging,” Scholl said. “A healthy arts ecosystem needs both the anchor groups and the grass-roots efforts. What we’re seeing in St. Paul is a lot of activity at that smaller level. Our goal is to help those projects get bigger and better.”

Money will go not just to big institutions but to any individual who can pitch a good idea in 150 words or less.

St. Paul was not in competition with Minneapolis for the grant, which is several times greater than the amount the Knight Foundation has invested in the city before. The Miami-based foundation focuses its philanthropy on cities in which its founders, the Knight family, owns or has owned a media outlet, in this case the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

But while St. Paul leaders don’t see the arts scenes of the two Twin Cities as divided, they do have different personalities — in part because of St. Paulites’ strong sense of neighborhood affiliation.

“It’s like Manhattan and Brooklyn,” said Mayor Chris Coleman, who has made the arts a top priority since taking office eight years ago. “Both are cool and happening, but in St. Paul people define themselves by where they grew up. People don’t say they’re from Linden Hills. But here you say, ‘I’m from Frogtown.’ ”

Five established organizations — the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, TU Dance, Penumbra Theatre, the Ordway Center’s Arts Partnership and the artists’ support nonprofit Springboard for the Arts — will split $3.5 million of the money.

The remaining $4.5 million will go to winners of “challenge grants,” for which anyone can apply, over the next three years.

“Something really special is happening right now,” said Springboard director Laura Zabel, pointing to “a collaborative spirit from city government, businesses and non-arts neighborhood people who don’t see the arts as a separate, siloed thing but part of everything we do.”

Zabel cited a current project between Springboard and Project for Pride in Living, which is building low-cost housing on a stretch of University Avenue. Instead of leaving the construction site empty over the winter, artist Oskar Ly animated the space with brightly colored, temporary snow houses, and invited area residents to an on-site craft-making event.

St. Paul’s government structure has helped to grease the skids on arts projects as well. St. Paul’s mayor has more power than Minneapolis’s does, and a system of district councils has been a boon to integrating artists into neighborhoods.

Burst of arts activity

A burgeoning number of arts projects can be found throughout the city, from the music festivals in downtown’s Mears Park to the streetwise efforts of Irrigate, a Springboard program that used the arts to attract people to University Avenue businesses during construction of the new light-rail line.

As the Ordway prepares to open a new concert hall under the aegis of the Arts Partnership — which also includes Minnesota Opera, the Schubert Club and the SPCO — two abandoned theaters, the Palace at West Seventh Place and the Victoria in Frogtown, are both the subjects of restoration plans.

Penumbra Theatre has regained success after financial setbacks, and Park Square Theatre is building a new stage and adding plays to its season.

“St. Paul has always had a strong art scene, but right now we’re seeing an explosion,” said John Francis Bueche, director of Bedlam Theatre, which has a new Lowertown venue that’s still under construction. “We’re here because St. Paul has an irresistible get-your hands-dirty, get-it-done spirit.”

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