03/21/2013 08:30 am ET

Knight Arts Challenge Awarding $9 Million Over 3 Years To Detroit Projects

  1. Do you have a great idea for an art project?
  2. Would it take place in, or benefit, Detroit?

If you answered yes to these two questions, write eight sentences describing the project by April 22 and you could win thousands!

This is not a scam. While the Knight Arts Challenge isn't quite as simple as sharing your idea and getting handed a check, it is entirely real and refreshingly straightforward in comparison to typical grant proposals.

Over three years, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation will award $9 million to Detroit arts projects that engage the community. They can come from anyone, from a student to a business.

"This contest is about ideas -– big ideas, inspiring ideas, authentically Detroit ideas. We want people to tell us what moves them, so that together we can help engage the soul of the community," Dennis Scholl, vice president of the arts for Knight Foundation, explained in a statement.

If that sounds slightly vague and expansive, it's not an accident. In Philadelphia, a recent winner is a group that runs several churches. They've paired up with theater groups to use a church as a space for the theater community to collaborate, work and store props. In Miami, an engineer by day and dancer by night will be adapting Western fairy tales in the style of Indian dance.

The Knight folks, who also fund work at larger cultural institutions in Detroit, didn't know there was a need for theater storage space or that someone could make Indian dance more accessible until they asked an open question.

"[The contest has] really helped us to a get a pulse of the city," explained Tatiana Hernandez, arts associate for Knight. "When you read [the applications] in bulk you get a feel for what disciplines are taking root in the city and where things are moving -- you get a macro view of things.

"It also gave us the opportunity to think beyond the things we were familiar with," Hernandez said.

For the first time in Detroit, dreamers and schemers can submit applications, just 150-word descriptions of project ideas, on the contest website beginning Monday and until April 22. A panel of readers involved in Detroit arts and culture will select finalists from the first round, who will then have to answer a few more questions and submit a budget proposal. Winners will be announced in October.

On April 4, Hernandez is hosting a forum at the Museum of Contemporary Art to answer applicants' questions.

Application materials are available in English, Spanish and Arabic (in Miami, Creole), and they can be submitted in English or Spanish. A bilingual, short application is one of the way Knight is striving to make the contest widely accessible.

"Philanthropy is traditionally a non-transparent and difficult-to-access institution," said Hernandez. "And we're trying to open up and say, 'we're here to help you engage and empower the community.'"

The contest is in its sixth year in Miami and its third in Philadelphia.

"We haven't felt like things have gotten repetitive in Miami," said Hernandez. "They've gotten more and more 'out there,' not only in originality of content but also in terms of where things are taking place."

One unique thing about the contest: Applicants agree to match any funds they are awarded. The grantees have a year in which to raise money before they are expected to begin their project.

Hernandez suggests interested participants look at past winners for an idea of size and scope of projects. Last year, 34 projects were awarded a total of $2.28 million in Miami, ranging from grants of $10,000 to $225,000.

She also shared some tips for applicants. Don't weigh down applications with grant jargon, she suggested, as readers will be looking at, they hope, hundreds of applications. Put your passion into it and don't think about the money yet, she added. Additionally, Hernandez said some artists have hurt their chances by focusing on how a project will further their own work without explaining the context of how it will impact a larger audience in the city.

She also said there was a fine line between social service projects that include art and arts project that have a social service component, and they were specifically looking for the latter, projects with arts at their core.

"What we're trying to do is help Detroit develop an ecosystem that allows artists and community to come together in conversation and help build the identity of the city," Hernandez said.

"We're looking for ideas that are really visionary … We think the most interesting things happen at intersections and in the spaces that are unknown. We're also fully aware that we as a foundation dont know whats best for a community, that the community itself does."

Get inspired with videos of work from past Knight winners in Miami:

Knights Art Challenge