With fatter wallets, St. Paul artists are preparing to creatively address hot-button issues in pockets of the city.

The Knight Foundation split $1.29 million Tuesday among 40 projects in the second round of its three-year St. Paul Arts Challenge.

The range of ideas is as contemporary as it is multicultural, spinning classics like "Pirates of Penzance" and "Romeo and Juliet" with gender-bending and Latino/Hmong casts, respectively.

One project will connect young black men with arts fellowships in the spirit of the late Gordon Parks, a renowned photographer, filmmaker ("Shaft") and writer whose breakthrough job came in St. Paul.

"I remember a time when we [in St. Paul] were leaders in the nation for transformative work and social justice, and, to an extent, racial equity," said Parks' grandniece, Robin Hickman, whose Soul Touch Productions received $50,000 for its fellowship proposal. "We don't have that stellar reputation anymore.

"I've shed many tears at funerals of young black men," she said. "I think it's time to shed some tears for the hope of young black men as they walk in the footsteps of Gordon Parks."

Winners must match their grants, which range from $5,000 to $115,000. The largest will go to Public Art St. Paul, whose campaign "Bee Real, Bee Everywhere" will install bee habitat environments throughout the city to highlight the insects' dwindling population.

The second-largest grant ($100,000) will expand the 2017 Northern Spark festival along the Green Line light-rail route.

"I think that the winners really do reflect the different communities, the different points of view" of St. Paul, said Victoria Rogers, vice president for arts at Knight Foundation. "Some take on serious issues, while some are incredibly whimsical and capture the true joy of art."

One project, for instance, would establish a "floating library" that would bring artist-made books to paddlers on Lake Phalen. Another, by noted composer Mary Ellen Childs, would translate signals and plays by the St. Paul Saints into a percussion piece.

Whittling the vision

The program is part of a three-year, $8 million investment in St. Paul by the Miami-based Knight Foundation, established in 1950 by newspaper executives John S. and James L. Knight, whose Knight-Ridder newspaper chain once included the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

In the age of 140-character tweets, the submission limit for entries was just 150 words. The prompt, too, was simple: "What's your best idea for the arts in St. Paul?"

There were 426 applicants — fewer than half of last year's total — with 61 finalists.

"I don't think it's unusual to see a dip in an arts challenge in the second year," Rogers said. "Our goal is to make sure that all 17 districts [of the city] are aware of the challenge and that they're submitting applications."

One of last year's winners was Mu Performing Arts, which pitched a play capturing the experience of 21st-century immigrants. The Asian-American theater company is still raising funds to match its $70,000 award and will begin storytelling and puppeteering workshops next month.

"As a nonprofit, we don't make our money on ticket sales," said Randy Reyes, the company's artistic director. "Especially as a culturally specific theater, our mission is about telling these untold stories. ... We don't do 'Mary Poppins.' We rely on grants to be able to do projects as large as this."

This year another theatrically driven winner is a gender-bending take on "Pirates of Penzance" by One Voice Mixed Chorus, slated for an outdoor show in summer 2017 on Raspberry Island.

"Mayor [Chris] Coleman has wanted to be on the forefront of LGBT acceptance and integration," said Josh Wise, executive director of the chorus, "and I hope this performance is part of that dialogue and how we can be inclusive of all gender identities."

For a full listing of grant recipients, go to startribune.com/stpaul.