Flying Kite: Boosting Creativity at the Intersection of Art and Community

May 14, 2013

Alaina Mabaso | May 14, 2013

Some people look at the city and see possibility — a blank wall becomes an outdoor gallery, a boring bike rack becomes functional sculpture, a curated collection of films becomes a movement. Fortunately, the Knight Arts Challenge is there to offer a boost, helping turn these sparks of inspiration into projects the whole city can enjoy.

Launched in 2010, the Challenge (administered by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation) is a three-year initiative that whittled 114 winners out of over 4,000 proposals, awarding a total of $9 million to the most innovative and interdisciplinary ideas in the arts. And, since bringing new supporters to the arts is key to the Knight mission, victors must match the award through their own fundraising. Late last month, forty-three winners were crowned in the third and final round of this year’s grant contest.

Last week, Flying Kite caught up with three of those winners — artists at the forefront of what’s next for the city’s arts scene.

Film Noir

As a prominent venue for “genre-defying” independent black filmmakers, the BlackStar Film Festival features diverse stories of the African Diaspora. Last year, they showcased 40 filmmakers and drew a crowd of 1,500, at least a third of whom came from out of town.

Maori Karmael Holmes, founder and artistic director of the BlackStar Film Festival (launched in 2012), received a $50,000 matching grant that will dramatically expand her festival in its second year.

The Knight money will support the promotions, programming and operations of this year’s festival, slated for August 1 through 4 at venues across the city, including International House, the Barnes Foundation and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. In addition to screenings, workshops and discussion panels, BlackStar will debut work by teenage filmmakers and a special animated film for young children.

The festival will also spotlight emerging artists. Aspiring filmmakers can enter scripts in a short screenplay contest for a shot at a public reading. A professional jury will choose one winner, awarding a cash prize to produce the film.

What will jurors look for? In a word, “excellence,” says Holmes. “We want fresh stories that are not cliché, not dealing with stereotypes.”

“It makes me feel good,” she says of nabbing the highly competitive grant in her organization’s second year. “It makes me feel that I’m onto the right thing; that it’s clearly a need, and it’s being recognized not only by audiences, but also by the Foundation.”

En Plein Air

Holmes isn’t the only one being honored only a year after launching an organization.

Philadelphia native David Guinn, an artist, muralist and teacher, is hoping to change perceptions of public art by giving one standout painter or team the chance to create a temporary piece on a massive scale.

Last year, Guinn launched Freewall, a project that brings the sensibility of a gallery installation to mural making on a 55-by-28-foot wall at 1214 Sansom Street, the site of Fergie’s Pub.

For fifteen years, Guinn, who teaches mural painting at Moore College of Art and Design, has been doing wall paintings across the world. It was actually Fergie’s owner Fergus Carey who called Guinn to talk about his business’ massive blank wall. With funds from a Kickstarter campaign, Freewall’s inaugural artist, Robert Goodman, created a giant kaleidoscope of color titled “The Tumble.”

“Freewall is more like an organization idea,” versus a fully-formed entity, admits Guinn, noting that he was proud to have been selected as one of very few individuals to receive a grant. When he matches his $9,000 Knight award, a budget of $18,000 will sustain the Freewall project for its second year. Local artists looking to paint on a giant scale should keep an eye out for the upcoming RFP (request for proposals).

“Freewall is a space for artists to create their own projects in public,” explains Guinn, contrasting his concept with a traditional community mural. “You approach it the way an installation artist would approach a show in a gallery — knowing it’s temporary, and knowing it’s your baby.”

A Center City location is ideal for this kind of work — a host of locals, revelers and commuters stream down Sansom every day.

“There’s a public expectation of murals being community-based,” says Guinn. “But I just wanted to present another option…I like translating my work onto this large scale, and so I wanted to give other people that chance.”


A well-known Philadelphia non-profit is also testing the waters with an unconventional venue for artists.

The Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia (BCGP) triumphed with their very first Knight proposal, developed in partnership with the City’s Office of Arts, Culture and Creative Economy.

BCGP is receiving a $50,000 matching grant to recast the staid city bike rack as a one-of-a-kind piece of public art. The funds will sponsor a contest open to artists across the country.

“We’re calling it ‘art with a purpose,’ so the public will be interacting with the art,” says Leslye Abrutyn, BCGP board president. “Also, it will be promoting the benefits of cycling.”

The grant will allow for the selection, fabrication and installation of as many as nine new Center City bike racks, which will be a prime example of creative place-making, bike advocacy, sustainability, beauty and practicality, all rolled into a set of sturdy street-level sculptures.

For a full list of Philadelphia’s Knight winners and their projects, visit the Knight Arts Challenge website.

ALAINA MABASO, a Philadelphia-based freelance journalist, has landed squarely in what people tell her is the worst possible career of the twenty-first century. So she makes Pennsylvania her classroom, covering everything from business to theater to toad migrations. After her editors go to bed, she blogs at Find her on Twitter @AlainaMabaso.


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