He Brought an Artistic Flair to the Knight Foundation’s Philanthropy

Large philanthropic organizations are generally known for their safe choices. For decades, the Miami-based Knight Foundation, whose endowment has swelled to $2.56 billion since its 1950 founding, was no exception. Its funding was primarily focused on respectable, often staid, journalism and education efforts in the eight cities where its namesake founding brothers, John S. and John L. Knight, had owned newspapers: Akron, Ohio; Charlotte, N.C.; Detroit; Macon, Ga.; Miami; Philadelphia; San Jose, Calif.; and St. Paul, Minn.

It’s a safe bet that neither Knight brother envisioned funding a helicopter dropping a sea of poems onto hundreds of Miami rock-festival concertgoers, which the Knight Foundation did in 2011; or, as it did in 2017, a series of Detroit techno and punk shows as part of a cultural re-examination of that city’s 1967 civil unrest.

The shift in tone is because of Alberto Ibargüen, who became Knight’s president in 2005, following his tenure as publisher of The Miami Herald and its Spanish-language sibling, El Nuevo Herald. While Knight continues to support journalism programs, Ibargüen has added the arts as an increasingly prominent part of its funding mix — from essentially an afterthought to nearly a quarter of its $115 million to $130 million in annual grants.

A total of $466 million has been committed to the arts since Ibargüen joined Knight — most dramatically in Miami, which has received $214 million not only for flagship institutions like the Pérez Art Museum Miami and the Miami City Ballet, but also for scrappy artist-run venues like Swampspace and the Bas Fisher Invitational. (Letter16 Press, a nonprofit publisher of photography books co-founded by this reporter, is also a past Knight grant recipient.)

Ibargüen, 79, has just announced his retirement, with a successor to be named by Knight’s board of trustees — following a national search — in about six months. He spoke with The New York Times about the transformational power of the arts and why the Knight brothers absolutely would have approved of funding those punk rock shows. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Why did you move Knight into the arts world? And of the eight cities that Knight focuses on, why has Miami been the main laboratory for that shift?

Miami is a place that isn’t finished. None of these cities are, of course. But Miami is still so new, it’s still so young, that I thought this allows for this late teenager to become a brilliant 20-something.

“This” meaning a full-court press with the arts?

When I came here from The Herald, I came from the community, not from philanthropy. And if the foundation was started to inform and engage the community toward a more effective democracy, it seemed to me that we really needed to find better ways to do it — easy common denominators that touch everybody. We thought about public education, we thought about the environment, we thought about sports. I would have loved to have bought the Marlins [baseball team]. I would’ve! But the arts have the capacity to touch everybody, regardless of language, regardless of background.

Some would argue that culture has now become a dividing line within communities.

The idea is to say to the arts community, “Hey, we love you, we think you do a major, major thing in building community here, in engaging people and making people feel like this is their city, this place was made for people like me.” I want your soul to soar because you heard Beethoven’s Sixth at the New World Symphony or because you heard a rapper that really spoke to you at a concert. Doesn’t matter which. It’s all art and culture.

I’ve heard from some folks at longstanding organizations, where budgets are stretched thin and they’re fighting for every dollar, who are resentful that Knight is also funding unproven start-ups.

I’ve always felt strongly about going directly to small organizations, to people who were coming up with ideas that maybe weren’t quite museum-ready, but that were moving people, that said, for example, “This is a new narrative for Detroit. This is not the narrative of the crumbling building and the former Ford plant.” We wanted to encourage that kind of creativity, which was not being done institutionally. The new works that we supported there reinterpreting the riots of 1967 were authentic voices of a city saying let me tell my own story.

In the case of O, Miami — the poetry festival — you didn’t wait for those new voices to knock on your door.

I was in the car [in 2010] and the news came on the radio: the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation was thinking of ending its annual poetry festival [in New Jersey]. I immediately picked up the phone, called [the poet] Scott Cunningham and said, “If I can get you some money, could you gin up a poetry festival?” I told him Thursday night, we have local poets. Friday night, we have the poet laureate, whoever that is at the time. Then Saturday night, as long as Seamus Heaney is still alive, we’ll medevac him over from Ireland, and he’ll read his poetry.

I take it Scott immediately signed on.

[Laughing] Absolutely not! He said, “You’re just going to be talking to the same old crowd. Let’s do something different. Let’s go after everybody in the county during the month of April. Everybody in April gets hit with a poem.” Scott’s idea was to drop poems from a helicopter onto a music festival crowd, written on biodegradable paper with vegetable ink; to have an artist sew poems into the lining of clothes at Goodwill; and he brought the poet laureate. He’s brought several poet laureates. He’s built O, Miami into one of the most interesting arts organizations anywhere. That’s why this last December, we gave them an additional $2.5 million grant.

So why are you retiring?

Because it’s time. Honestly, there are two answers.

The Knight brothers were directional, but they weren’t prescriptive. They said, “We don’t have a crystal ball. We leave it to future generations of trustees to decide what will keep the foundation relevant.” I’ve had my turn for almost 18 years. And the world has changed marvelously, radically — some of it awful, some of it beyond wonderful. I think it’s somebody else’s turn now.

The other thing, just on a personal note, is my life has changed. [My wife] Susana and I were married for 53 years. After her demise, I think I need to step back. I’ve been so grateful to have this great job, this great opportunity, through her illness with A.L.S. and after. But now, almost two years after her death, I think it’s time for me to say, “OK, where else can I contribute?”

Do you have a successor in mind? I’ve been hearing whispers about Knight hiring an art museum director who would continue your pivot toward the arts.

The tradition at Knight is the president does not participate in the selection of his successor.

But you must have some feelings about it! You’ve put 18 years into steering Knight.

You’re being cruel, of course I have feelings about it! But I really hope they continue to have somebody who appreciates the genius of the way the Knight brothers set this up. They did not say, “Do this, do that, we want to cure A.L.S., we want to fly to the moon.” They said, “These are the things we’re interested in, and that’s why we’re setting up the foundation.”

So the next Knight president could say, “We’re moving into sports as a way to build community — we’re buying the Miami Marlins”?

Be still my heart!

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