Knight Arts Challenge winners to split $1.3 million

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News
The theater troupe A Host of People won $45,000 in the 2019 Knight Arts Challenge. The picture is from their most-recent production, "Cleopatra Boy."

Thirty-six promising arts-and-culture projects won grants in the 2019 Detroit Knight Arts Challenge totaling over $1.3 million.

Launched here in 2013 by the Miami-based Knight Foundation, the Arts Challenge aims to stimulate the local creative economy, and has become a significant force in maintaining the city's emerging reputation as a haven for artists. 

Winners in the competitive program include a photo documentary on Detroit's low-rider culture, creation of "freedom quilts" to preserve Detroiters' oral histories, and a project exploring what it means to be a contemporary Arab artist.

Over time, the Arts Challenge has developed a reputation for funding the edgy and the unconventional.

"The Arts Challenge is cool because you end up with projects that bend genres and wouldn't necessarily get funded with a theater or new-media grant," said Liza Bielby of The Hinterlands, an experimental theater ensemble that won $40,000 this year. 

The Hinterlands grant will help underwrite a performance and public events looking at white Appalachian migration to Detroit, a journey Bielby's grandmother made decades ago. "It's a way for us to look at cultural identity and one's own history," she said, "and how you deal with that." 

These are matching grants, so winners have to raise an equivalent amount before collecting the Knight funds. 

Another winner, Sherrine Azab of the theater troupe A Host of People, called their $45,000 grant downright thrilling. 

"It’s so great to get support for a project we’re really excited about," she said, "and to know we'll have money to put behind it once we make that match."

She and her partner Jake Hooker will use their winnings to mount "Fire in the Theater!", a community-sourced project that will look at the difficulties this new era presents for that staple of American democracy, free speech.

"We're really interested in the challenges of free speech today in the age of social media," Azab said, "and the use of anonymous hate speech on the internet." 

The shape of the project will be teased out over two years through a series of community dinners bringing together diverse groups to discuss the issue.  

From 2013-2018, the Knight Arts Challenge funded 275 different projects. The only requirements are that a  proposal must be about the arts, and take place in or benefit Detroit. 

The 2019 winners will be honored tonight at a party at Detroit's Garden Theatre.

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Twitter: @mhodgesartguy