Knight Foundation to invest $20M in Detroit arts, culture

Leonard Slatkin conducts the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. About half of the money from the Knight Foundation is expected to be endowment gifts to such Detroit cultural groups as the DSO.
Leonard Slatkin conducts the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. About half of the money from the Knight Foundation is expected to be endowment gifts to such Detroit cultural groups as the DSO. / Mandi Wright/Detroit Free Press

By Mark Stryker
Detroit Free Press Staff Writer


The Miami-based John S. and James L. Knight Foundation will be making about $20 million in new investments in arts and culture in Detroit. The windfall, scheduled to be announced Tuesday, represents one of the largest single gifts to Detroit culture in memory.

About half the money will be endowment gifts to such groups as the Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Michigan Opera Theatre and Sphinx Organization to support community-engagement programs. The rest of the money is earmarked for other community-based projects.

It comes at a crucial transitional moment for Detroit’s arts community as it regains its post-recession financial equilibrium. Detroit has earned a national reputation in recent years as a hotbed for urban creativity and as a haven for young artists. Culture has been a key driver in the revitalization of the city.

At the same time, many of Detroit’s major arts institutions — including the DIA, DSO and MOT — nearly collapsed under the weight of deficits, real-estate debt and long-term budgetary imbalances during the recession. All three have taken significant steps toward sustainability, but the Knight gifts mark another step forward.

Knight’s multimillion-dollar commitment also italicizes the role that culture can play in remaking Detroit.

“It absolutely is an affirmation by a funder with a national lens on art, on cutting-edge art and community art, that Detroit warrants attention and warrants investment,” said Katy Locker, vice president of programs for the Hudson Webber Foundation of Detroit.

“I think that’s an evolution for Knight, which has invested a lot in the city of Detroit — I believe it’s in excess of $70 million. But for them to be recognizing our arts scene is a great nod and follows the national press we’re getting about being a home for arts.”

The broad outlines of the Knight investment were confirmed by two sources with direct knowledge of the gift. Officials at the DIA, DSO, MOT and Sphinx — the latter is devoted to promoting minorities in classical music — all confirmed they were receiving gifts of $1 million or more but declined further comment pending Tuesday’s announcement.

Knight Foundation Vice President of Arts Dennis Scholl declined to comment. Scholl and Knight President Alberto Ibarg├╝en are to announce the investments at a reception Tuesday evening at the College for Creative Studies’ Taubman Center in Detroit.

The Knight Foundation, which focuses on the communities nationwide in which the Knight brothers once owned newspapers, including Detroit, has been paying close attention to Detroit’s evolving cultural scene.

The foundation has funded a wide range of recent projects devoted to expanding arts audiences, from the DSO’s live webcasts from Orchestra Hall to the DIA’s Inside/Out program that takes high-quality reproductions of the museum’s masterpieces into the suburbs.

But a $20-million commitment dramatically ups the foundation’s ante.

“I think Detroit is potentially the most interesting city in America when it comes to the arts,” Scholl told the Free Press in a 2011 interview.

“It’s like Berlin — a city where artists go because studio space is inexpensive. But Detroit also has significant cultural assets like a symphony, opera and major museum, and you have people creating organic grassroots organizations that are young and lively and that draw the creative class.”

The Knight Foundation has also been known for creating unique arts initiatives. In 2008, for example, the foundation launched a $40 million program in South Florida in which three major institutions were awarded endowment gifts totaling $20 million. The remaining $20 million seeded an open-invitation, challenge-grant program designed to promote creative thinking; Knight dollars had to be matched by other funders.

As corporate and individual support for the arts fell off the table during the recession and stock market losses took a big bite out of endowments, foundations emerged as a critical lifeline for Detroit’s cultural community. Most notably, the Troy-based Kresge Foundation has granted more than $27 million to local arts institutions and individual artists since 2006.

The fledgling William Davidson Foundation this year gave $1 million each to the DIA, DSO and MOT. Other major gifts to the arts from individuals in the last decade include a $15-million bequest to the Detroit Jazz Festival from Gretchen Valade and a group gift to the DIA worth $45 million from Richard Manoogian, Josephine Ford and A. Alfred Taubman.

Outside the arts, the General Motors Foundation announced a $27.1-million gift to help the United Way restructure a number of Detroit-area high schools and boost graduation rates.


About Mark Stryker

Contact Mark Stryker: 313-222-6459 or

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Knight Foundation to invest $20M in Detroit arts, culture

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