From a food-inspired opera to a Latino radio novella to “The Smallest Museum in St. Paul” in an old fire-hose cabinet, St. Paul will be inundated next year with arts activities after the announcement Monday of nearly $1.4 million in Knight Foundation grants.
“The great thing is that a new generation of organizations and individuals is getting recognition and support from a national foundation,” said Joe Spencer, St. Paul’s director of arts and culture. “These are things that not just St. Paul, but the nation, is going to look to in coming generations.”
The 42 winners in Knight’s grass-roots “arts challenge” responded to a simple request: Pitch a great idea in 150 words or less. That simplicity appealed to such small organizations as Mizna, a 15-year-old Arab-American nonprofit that plans to use its $40,000 grant to do more events, including film screenings in parks, readings, workshops and perhaps literary picnics. With a part-time staff, Mizna struggles to reach audiences beyond the local Arab community.
“It’s very special to us that this is a national and not just a local grant,” said program manager Moheb Soliman. “There are organizations all around the country that focus on Arab-American content — writers in Detroit, filmmakers in Los Angeles. Bringing them here goes a long way toward making this a hub where Arab-American literature and film are thriving.”
Community outreach is at the core of plans for a Latino radio program, too.
With a $50,000 grant, producer Barry Madore and Teatro del Pueblo, a St. Paul theater company, plan to develop 20 episodes of a radio novella modeled on the popular Latin American soap operas known as telenovelas.
Each 15-minute episode will be written and possibly performed by residents of St. Paul’s Latino community. The programs will be broadcast on WEQY, a community radio station opening in October in the Dayton’s Bluff neighborhood.
“I hope the project will end up being a beacon for that station and a pilot for public programming there,” Madore said. “If we energize the community to do great radio rather than just more static on the dial — that’s really what I’m hoping for.”
‘Rich and diverse’
The Arts Challenge drew 868 entrants. Of those, 69 were invited to submit more detailed proposals.
The program is part of a three-year, $8 million investment in St. Paul by the Miami-based foundation, founded in 1950 by newspaper executives John S. and James L. Knight. It funds national journalism and media-innovation programs but also focuses on the 26 communities where the brothers owned papers (the Knights once owned the St. Paul Pioneer Press).
In January the foundation gave $3.5 million to five major 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.
The remaining $4.5 million will be distributed over three years to artists, smaller organizations and businesses who pitch new ideas.
“We love how diverse the applicants were, and the winners are — Latina, Hmong, Brazilians, Somali,” said Dennis Scholl, vice president for arts at Knight. “People who don’t know the new St. Paul don’t understand what an incredible rich and diverse community it is.”
The second-biggest grant ($70,000) went to the Asian-American theater troupe Mu Performing Arts, to create an original play about the 21st-century immigrant experience.
The largest grant ($125,000) will help the Twin Cities Jazz Festival expand its outdoor stages for the free summertime event in St. Paul’s Lowertown.
‘The Smallest Museum’
Culinary arts come into play in a plan by the new-music ensemble Zeitgeist to develop a “St. Paul Food Opera.”
Composer Ben Houge, a St. Paul native now based in Boston, is best known for video game music but he “really likes to eat,” said Heather Barringer, the group’s executive director. With its $10,000 grant, Zeitgeist plans to pick five St. Paul chefs with whom Houge will collaborate on a multicourse opera with gastronomy.
“The music Zeitgeist typically plays is quite adventurous and people who like it tend to like all types of adventure including food,” Barringer said.
And then there’s the proposed museum in a vintage fire-hose cabinet. The box — 3 feet wide and 2½ feet tall — is on an outside wall of the WorkHorse Coffee Bar, scheduled to open in January at University and Raymond Avenues.
“The first time I saw it, it struck me as a perfect little museum,” said Shannon Forney of WorkHorse, who plans to curate monthly mini-exhibitions suggested by artists, architects, historians and others from the neighborhood bordering the light-rail system’s new Green Line.
For now Forney is calling it “The Smallest Museum in St. Paul,” but to encourage community engagement “we’re considering running a naming rights competition through the coffee shop,” she said.