Three NW Phila. groups awarded with Knight Arts Challenge grants

Organizations based in Mt. Airy, Manayunk and Chestnut Hill have made a strong showing in 
Philadelphia’s second Knight Arts Challenge, now in the midst of a three-year, $9 million initiative to nurture the arts in Philadelphia.

The matching grants, worth a total of $2.76 million, were awarded Monday to 35 different initiatives from a wide variety of individuals and organizations with arts proposals that will benefit the Philadelphia region. Recipients have one year to match the given dollars through their own fundraising.

Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra 

The Mt. Airy-based Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra received a $50,000 grant – its second Knight Arts win – for its Black Pearl Pops! proposal, which will offer a symphonic pops concert series with a cutting-edge world-music twist.

“I really wanted to create an organization where diversity was one of the founding principles,” Music Director Jeri Lynne Johnson says of founding Black Pearl to celebrate classical music for musicians and audiences of all races and cultures.

Inspiration for a pops program at Black Pearl that would incorporate different genres of world music struck Johnson, an award-winning conductor, as she was driving her car to a night on the town last summer. She was listening to an Arab-style house mix melded with a string orchestra, “and I thought that would be really cool if we could take Black Pearl to a club scene,” she says.

The whole idea blossomed right then and there – Johnson was so excited she had to pull off the road. “This could be like a whole twist on a traditional pops concert,” she says, envisioning a series of orchestral concerts that would feature contemporary music with Arab, Latino or African roots. “It brings our diversity to the forefront, and brings a classical touch into the pop world.” Instead of a pops show featuring movie show-tunes or the 1812 Overture, Black Pearl will bring “a whole new non-traditional classical audience into a symphony orchestra.”

Inspired by her recent experience conducting the 40-piece orchestra which joined The Roots for rapper Jay-Z’s debut at Carnegie Hall, she wanted to find a way to blend pop and classical music “in a unique way that brings out the best in both.”

“We’re not switching our format,” she emphasizes. “Black Pearl is still strictly classical, but we’re just adding on a pops series to our regular concerts.”

In addition to hosting some internationally-known performers, Johnson is looking forward to collaborating with nearby groups like Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture and Spoken Hand Percussion Orchestra, for Arab and Afro flavor.

“We really view Black Pearl as a fulcrum around which different communities can interact,” she says. “This is going to be a great way for people to learn about these cultures.”

COSACOSA Art at Large 

Manayunk-based COSACOSA Art At Large, dedicated to artistic and cultural collaboration among diverse city residents, is another winner. It received $75,000 for a proposal to expand its existing project in Nicetown-Tioga, known as the Healing Garden.

The Healing Garden site began in 2007 as a visual project, but interested residents asked if the lot could be further improved as a garden. Since then, the site has become the regular host of community events, art projects and memorials.

“The garden has been a seminal work for the community,” says COSACOSA Executive Director Kim Niemela. “It’s had a great trickle-down effect for the community.” Ensuing improvement efforts won a beautification award for most improved block in the whole city.

“We’re small but mighty,” Niemela says. “We make model programs that are scalable and replicable. We decided to see how this could be done again.”

The result is a brand-new plan for two more Nicetown-Tioga garden sites, one west of Broad Street and one right alongside Broad: the Hope Garden and the Unity Garden. In addition to plantings, sculpture and visual art, the new gardens will also include a sound element thanks to solar-battery-powered, motion-activated speakers that will offer songs from neighborhood school-kids and real-life stories from neighborhood residents. The Healing Garden will be updated with a temporary sculpture exhibition to match those at the new gardens, as well as retrofitted with the new “sound garden” feature. With the ongoing help of COSACOSA, all three gardens will host monthly community art events.

This “creative place-making” sparks civic engagement and collaboration between residents of different ages, abilities, races and cultures. “It’s important to bring people together and get them to work together and build that community ownership,” Niemela says.

Chestnut Hill Friends Meetinghouse Project 

A third northwest winner is the Chestnut Hill Friends Meetinghouse Project, which received an $80,000 matching grant to incorporate a meditation “Skyspace” designed by world-renowned Quaker artist James Turrell in the existing plans for its brand-new meetinghouse slated for the border of Chestnut Hill and Fairmount Park.

Turrell devotees make pilgrimages to his Skyspaces across the world. These are specially-designed chambers with a ceiling aperture and complimentary lighting calibrated to interact with natural light.

It “seems to bring the sky into the room,” explains Jon Landau, meeting member and chairman of fundraising efforts for the new meetinghouse, which breaks ground on May 15. “As part of the experience, you feel like you’re a part of the universe, sort of touching the sky. It’s a wonderful meditation experience.”

According to Landau, a meetinghouse with a brand-new Turrell piece will serve two purposes.

“One, we’re very interested in service, in helping our community, and we feel like this is going to be an important part of the community in the Chestnut Hill Area,” he says. But the inclusion of Turrell’s work also meant broader fundraising opportunities for the meetinghouse.

Ultimately, the Skyspace will be open to the community at dawn and dusk several days a week. Everyone is welcome: Landau looks forward to providing an oasis of meditative calm for locals of any (or no) religious affiliation. And because of Turrell’s notoriety among art and architecture enthusiasts, the new facility will make Chestnut Hill a destination for Turrell fans worldwide.

The grants are a thrilling affirmation for all of the artists and fundraisers involved. But they’re also a signal for the recipients to get to work. “To celebrate the grant, we are kicking off our fundraising campaign!” Johnson says.

The Knight Foundation’s awards are about more than generosity in supporting the arts. “It’s really about getting people to go out and be these arts entrepreneurs and seek new funders as well,” she says.

She wants everyone to know that you don’t have to be financially rich to make a difference as a donor – just five or ten dollars is a worthwhile way to help the organizations meet their goals. “You need to be rich in your desire to share the arts with your friends.”

A full list of Knight Arts Challenge winners is available through their website.

Disclaimer: WHYY/NewsWorks receives funding from the Knight Foundation. 

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