A few years ago, Dennis Scholl, the Vice President of Arts for the Knight Foundation, stumbled across a YouTube video of a spontaneous opera performance in an open-air market in Valencia, Spain.
"It was just a video of this guy selling a piece of ham, so I was about to click off," Scholl said. "But suddenly he began to sing. And across the aisle, on the other side of the market, this other woman began to sing. And they began to sing to each other. And more and more people came and watched."
The event was staged by a local Spanish opera company and has since garnered over 300,000 views on YouTube.
The video moved Scholl, a former attorney and lifelong art lover, to think outside the box when it came to promoting the classical arts for the Knight Foundation, especially at a time when, according to the National Endowment for the Arts, classical performances are more sparsely attended than ever.
Scholl wondered if the most modern way of promoting classical music and performance was to bring it directly to the people, rather than the other way around. "Instead of Thriller in the train station or the Sound of Music," Scholl thought, "What if we took incredibly well-trained artists -- musicians, dancers, singers -- we took them out of the symphony hall and into the streets?"
That mantra inspired Scholl to create "Random Acts of Culture," a sort of classical twist on contemporary flash mobs and groups like Improv Everywhere.
Partnering with arts organizations in 8 cities nationwide, the Random Acts of Culture program aims to bring public performances to unlikely locales -- Bizet’s “Carmen” in a Macon, Georgia grocery store, musical theatre at a staff meeting in Miami, or an incredible department store-wide version of "Hallelujah" at a Macy's in Philadelphia, their most widely-viewed performance to date. With 357 acts under their belt so far, Scholl says there are many more to come.
"After our first act, we knew we had something," he said, recalling the four string musicians who broke out a tune in the Miami-Dade Government Center back in 2010. "You see 20 camera phones pop out immediately, people are completely taken by it. This is a new society we live in."
The Knight Foundation also provides financial and production support to artists of various stripes. Under Scholl's guidance, the foundation established the Knight Arts Challenge, which has funded over $40 million worth of art projects in Miami and Philadelphia. This year, 1750 projects were submitted, and 36 were funded, among them a "portable dance floor" that can easily be moved throughout public spaces, contemporary art classes for at-risk teens and a cross-cultural summer classical music festival.
Scholl is also committed to bringing arts organizations and museums into the digital age. "People who view or listen to arts performances online are three times more likely to go and see an arts performance than those who do not," Scholl said, referring to the NEA's Participation 2.0 study released in 2009. "Organizations don’t want to put content online because they think people won't come to the museum or the concert hall to hear them play. But we've encouraged them to make digital platforms a meaningful part of how they're engaging their audience."
The Knight Foundation is committed to fostering communities through the arts, whether online or through development projects and grants. "If you think about it, community is not just about geography anymore," Scholl said. "We just want to remind people that these brilliant artists are out there."