It seemed like an ordinary Saturday at the department store. Thousands of shoppers crowded the Macy’s in downtown Philadelphia. The marble floors in the historic Wanamaker department store buzzed with activity. It was late October, and the holiday shopping season was beginning to pick up. As customers navigated the grand courtyard, the famed Wanamaker Organ—the world’s largest organ, weighing 287 tons, with 12,800 pipes—played in the background. At noon, it intoned the first notes of the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah.
Suddenly, a chorus of more than 650 members burst into song. It wasn’t clear who was singing, or why. This impromptu choir, interspersed throughout the crowd, seemed to appear from nowhere. Just moments before, all of the people now singing had looked like ordinary shoppers, dressed in street clothes, sipping coffees, eyeing merchandise, chatting with friends. And now the massive hallways reverberated with song.
Shoppers were amazed. Some burst into tears. Many whipped out their smart phones to take pictures or make recordings. As the chorus ended, the crowd cheered wildly. A few individuals held up signs that said, “You’ve just experienced a Random Act of Culture.” Since then, video of the event has gone viral; at this writing, it has been seen 7.3 million times on YouTube.
Random Acts of Culture is a project of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The Knight Foundation has as its mission the goal of helping create informed and engaged communities by supporting transformational projects in journalism and media innovation, community engagement, and the arts. These “random acts of culture” accomplish all three goals: by supporting public performances, by integrating the arts into everyday community life, and by sharing the results online through professionally edited video.
The Knight Newspaper Empire
John S. and James L. Knight—Jack and Jim—were sons of Charles Landon Knight, or “C. L. Knight,” as he was known. Born in 1867, the elder Knight went to Vanderbilt University and Columbia Law School. He practiced law briefly, but soon turned to journalism. In 1903, he bought the Akron Beacon Journal, where, for many years, he made a name writing scorching editorials. In 1920, he was swept into the House of Representatives in a Republican tidal wave. He served just one term, leaving Congress to run for the Ohio gubernatorial nomination in 1922. He lost that one, and then returned to newspapering. He died in 1933, leaving the Beacon Journal to Jack.
Jack was the older brother by 15 years. Born in 1894, he went to Cornell University, but had his education interrupted by the Great War. “Upon his return,” according to one biography, he “traveled to California with $5,000 won in crapshooting to contemplate going into the cattle business.” His father, however, wanted him to pursue journalism, so he did. He worked as a sportswriter, but used a pseudonym. The reason, he later recollected, was that he was “ashamed” of the copy he produced. “I didn’t write well enough.” He persevered, though, and for 40 years, he penned a weekly column, “The Editor’s Notebook,” which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1968.
The paper was in bad shape when the Knight brothers took over. The Great Depression threatened to take down their business, but Jack and his brother were able to turn this one around, struggling daily to build a mighty newspaper empire. The key to the brothers’ success was a clean-cut division of labor. Jack ran the editorial side of things; Jim ran the business side. Jim once said, “As a combination, I think we were most unusual, and this has been partly responsible for our success. My interest was the nuts and bolts, and his was the product.”
Starting in the 1930s, the Knight brothers acquired newspapers beyond Akron: the Miami Herald, the Detroit Free Press, the Charlotte Observer, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and so on. By 1973, the Knights had 15 newspapers, and the next year they would merge with Ridder Publications, to form Knight-Ridder. By 1981, Knight-Ridder had 32 newspapers in 17 states, employing 15,000 people and having a combined circulation of 3.6 million. (Knight-Ridder was bought by the McClatchy Company in 2006.) The Knight papers were a chain, but “chain” is not quite the right word—the Knights themselves preferred the word “group.” They believed in a great deal of local autonomy. Each paper should have its own flavor and style.
National Foundation, Local Roots
That strong sense of local autonomy informed the Knights’ philanthropy, as well. The Knight Foundation began in 1940, as the Knight Memorial Education Fund. Focused largely on Akron, it was a way for the boys to honor their father, who had often helped poor students pay for college. In 1950, the monies in that fund—totaling $9,047—were transferred to a new Knight Foundation, which was funded for two decades by contributions from Knight newspapers and personal gifts from the brothers.
In the mid-1970s, Jack made a crucial decision, one that would dramatically reshape the foundation. The president of the new Knight-Ridder was Lee Hills, a longtime friend and associate of the Knights. Hills realized that the newspaper empire was in danger. If the Knight brothers—by far the corporation’s largest stockholders—were to pass away unexpectedly, their heirs would almost certainly have to sell an enormous amount of stock in order to pay the estate tax. Hills began quietly urging Jack Knight to bequeath his stock to the foundation. Jack finally agreed, changing his will in 1975. After his death in 1981, the Knight Foundation received $428 million. When Jim died in 1991, the foundation received another $200 million. In 2009—the most recent year for which such information is available—the foundation had assets of $2 billion.
In its mission statement, Knight declares itself “a national foundation with local roots.” In 1998, the trustees decided that the foundation would concentrate its philanthropy on 26 cities—the cities in which Knight newspapers were operating at the time of Jim’s death. These 26 are the “Knight cities” or “Knight communities.” That intense local focus informs a great deal of Knight’s grantmaking.
Consider, for instance, the Knight-sponsored Arts Challenge, a “five-year contest to fund the best local ideas for the arts.” The challenge began in South Florida four years ago; so far, Knight has spent about $36 million on this South Florida challenge.
“It’s very simple,” explains Dennis Scholl, director of the Knight Foundation’s arts programs. “Give us your best art idea.” There are only three rules. First, the idea must, indeed, be an art idea—an idea about, or for, the arts. Second, it must pertain to the particular community. And third, it must be matched dollar-for-dollar with outside funding. “We’ve gotten about 5,500 ideas from the South Florida community,” says Scholl, who notes that 78 of those ideas have been chosen as winners—and that the program has since spread to Philadelphia.
“Joy Comes In”
In November 2009, opera singers staged a “pop-up performance” in the Central Market of Valencia, Spain. A pop-up performance bears some resemblance to a flash mob, a group of people who coordinate by social media or email, gather at some specific place and time, perform some predetermined action, and then disperse quickly. For about five minutes, the Valencia performers sang excerpts from Verdi’s La Traviata. By the end, shoppers were literally dancing in the streets (or, as the case may be, in the market). And someone held up a sign that said, ¿Ves cómo te gusta la ópera? (“See how you like opera?”).
When Scholl saw video of the performance, he decided that the Knight Foundation should sponsor many such spectacles, many such episodes: a thousand “random acts of culture.” (The name, coined by Scholl, echoes a popular phrase, “random acts of kindness.”) Knight has defined its Random Acts of Culture as “performances that appear unexpectedly in community gathering spots, injecting art into everyday life.” Elsewhere, the foundation has said, “We’re bringing short, spontaneous bursts of classical music, theater, dance, and opera to the streets.”
Scholl’s first effort, his test run, was a string quartet at the Miami-Dade Government Center. On May 14, 2010, during the lunch hour, a violinist removed her fiddle from its case and began to play from Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. In short order, she was joined by another violinist, walking toward her from some distance. Then came a violist. Finally, a cellist took a seat near them and started to play. People reacted in various, and often amusing, ways. One man, cigar tucked in mouth, conducted along. At the end of the performance, a woman held up the sign informing people that they had experienced a Random Act of Culture sponsored by the Knight Foundation.
Scholl says that the foundation had two filmmakers present, but, in reality, “there were 22 filmmakers there, because everybody took out a smart phone and began to record what was happening. Before we could get back to the office, edit the video, and put it up on our fancy website, two people had already shipped their videos directly to YouTube. So we knew we had something”—a hot, or at least a promising, idea.
Since that day, Knight has sponsored over 300 Random Acts of Culture. They are on track to achieve their 1,000th in 2013. The acts occur in eight of the Knight cities. They are (in alphabetical order) Akron, Charlotte, Detroit, Macon, Miami, Philadelphia, San Jose, and St. Paul. The acts have taken place in stores, atriums, museums, airports, and office buildings. Often you have singing—singing from opera in particular. The “Brindisi” from La Traviata—heard in the Valencia market—is especially popular. It is a rollicking, festive, hard-to-resist number. There have also been brass ensembles, dancing, poetry reading, and choruses of all sizes. The Philadelphia “Hallelujah Chorus” seems (so far) to be the granddaddy of all Random Acts of Culture.
Scholl says that the musicians and other performers love these random acts, these gigs in unexpected places: Seldom are they so close to an audience. And the audiences love them too, he says. The videos show many, many delighted faces. But surely some people are bothered, aren’t they? They have not asked for these performances. They were merely shopping, dining, or what have you. The performances are sort of imposed on them—they indeed just “pop up.”
Scholl has an answer: Just as there are Kübler-Ross’s Five Stages of Grief, there are Scholl’s Three Stages of Random Acts of Culture. At first, people may be angry. You’re going about your business, or minding your own business, and all of a sudden the person next to you bursts out in an aria. Your peace has been disturbed. Then you get kind of curious: Something is going on—something other than a crazy person’s disturbance—but what is it? In the third stage, you realize that you are in the middle of a genuine artistic performance. A crowd is gathering. “Now it’s a party,” as Scholl says. “The joy comes in.”
(Remember, too, that these are “short bursts,” to quote Knight again. On average, they last a little over three minutes. Even the most curmudgeonly people ought to be able to put up with that.)
So far, the Knight Foundation has spent something like $200,000 on the initiative—this is not an expensive program by Knight standards. And “almost 100 percent of the money goes to the performers,” Scholl explains. “They should not be expected to perform for free. They are professionals, and they have to eat, too.” He further points out that a Random Act of Culture takes considerable planning: You have to figure out where you’re going to do it, where the performers are going to stand, what will be performed; you have to obtain permits, insurance, and so on. “The only thing that’s random about these performances is how they’re perceived by the audiences.”
The Knight Foundation wants people to know that art is not something for special occasions only, but something for everyday life. The arts are part and parcel of community life, and injecting the arts into everyday life is one way to strengthen communities. One thing the random acts may do is encourage people to seek out the arts for themselves: to buy a ticket to an orchestra concert or a ballet. After all, you can’t always count on singers or dancers to show up at an airport lounge.
There is a phrase used by the historian Paul Johnson: in appraising some figure, some personality, of the past, he might say, “He added to the sum total of human gaiety.” It seems an apt description of the Random Acts of Culture project. The Knight Foundation has taken it upon itself to increase the amount of unexpected beauty in the universe.
Christopher Levenick is editor-in-chief of Philanthropy.