Knight Blog

The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

The five best - and worst - moments from 1,000 Random Acts of Culture™

Sept. 14, 2012, 10:03 a.m., Posted by Dennis Scholl

For the past two years two years, we’ve been hiding baritones in shoe departments, and rolling xylophones down supermarket aisles, surprising people across the country with Random Acts of Culture™.

It all started as an experiment. With audiences for traditional performances declining, at Knight Foundation we were looking for a way to remind people of how important the classical arts are to their lives.

About the same time, a friend sent me a video from a market in Seville, Spain, where a guy selling ham behind a counter bursts into an aria at the top of his lungs. The audience was captivated as six people came out of the crowd to join him. I must have played it a thousand times as I thought, we need to recreate moments like these across the U.S.  by bringing classical performers into people’s everyday lives.

At first, we weren’t exactly sure how to go about it, to make sure it was more of a bold surprise than the pleasant background music you expect at the mall on a given Saturday.

With a little trepidation, we did our first one by putting a quartet in the middle of Miami’s County Hall. When we saw a man walking by, waving his hands as if playing the conductor, we knew we were on to something.

Since then, we’ve learned a lot through trial – and a few errors. As we celebrate our benchmark 1,000th performance, we wanted to share the best and worst moments of Knight Foundation’s Random Acts of Culture™ program.

Best: The Messiah goes viral: The biggest hit was pulling off a surprise performance in Philadelphia at a Macy’s. Each Saturday, people gather there to hear the world’s largest pipe organ. But they didn’t expect more than 600 choristers to start singing Handel’s Messiah. There were goosebumps and tears. The video went viral, with now close to 8 million views on YouTube, and thousands of comments like this one: “Sheer delight, I wanted to forget my broken hip and dance.”

Worst: Copy cat creates havoc: After that Philadelphia performance was viewed around the world, we were inundated with calls from people wanting to do Random Acts in their communities. Copy cats sprung up everywhere. In Sacramento, Calif., a group tried to pull off a rendition of Handel’s Messiah at the mall food court. When throngs of people showed up, and concerns grew that the floor would collapse, someone called the fire marshal and the mall was evacuated.

Best: Afro-Cuban meets Beethoven: To celebrate the 1,000th Random Act, we’ve been putting on large-scale performances in four cities, including Miami. There, we knew we wanted an iconic venue, so we chose the palm treed pedestrian mall of Lincoln Road. Conductor Sam Hyken, in partnership with the Arsht Center, adapted Beethoven’s Ode to Joy into several formats, starting with jazz, then gospel. When the drums heated up into an Afro-Cuban version, the crowd ate it up. Heyken made this 19th century piece music feel like a hometown favorite.

Civic Data Challenge winners make data useful to field of civic health

Sept. 14, 2012, 9:28 a.m., Posted by David Smith

Today live from its Annual Conference, the National Conference on Citizenship (NCoC) is celebrating the winners of the Civic Data Challenge. David B. Smith, NCoC’s executive director, blogs about the challenge and its winners.

We have used civic health data for years to understand civic life in communities across the country, and to take an evidence-based approach to inform policies, programs, and initiatives that advance civic engagement.

This year, through the Civic Data Challenge, and along with our partners at Knight Foundation, we decided to make this trove of community insight even more valuable and accessible to decision makers and the public. The goal of the challenge was to turn the raw data of “civic health" into beautiful, useful applications and visualizations, enabling communities to be better understood and made to thrive. Our hope was that in doing so we could bring new eyes, new minds, new findings and new skill sets to the field of civic health.

Today, we are honored to announce the winners of the challenge at the 67th Annual National Conference on Citizenship and to say that our hope was met with amazing enthusiasm, energy and response. More than 170 members joined the challenge community, and our team of outstanding judges reviewed entries that came in from more than 60 participants. Winning teams spanned the country, representing communities from San Francisco to Philadelphia, and Los Angeles to Burlington, Vermont. Participants included undergraduate students and nonprofit leaders, financial analysts and graphic designers, coders and even an astrophysicist. And they all engaged with civic data to bring its implications to life in new and powerful ways.

Eager to know what they came up with? First place winners include:

Exploring what’s next in local news

Sept. 13, 2012, 10:37 a.m., Posted by John Bracken

Photo credit: Flickr user Eole 

This evening, we’re gathering 19 leading journalists, technologists and civic innovators in New Orleans to explore what’s next in local news. We’ll be focussing on what a local news organization designed today for 2013 would look like.

This meeting builds on convenings we held we held each of the last two years.  In 2010, we brought together the growing group of startup news organizations and we gathered a smaller group last year.  Over time, we’ve all learned a good deal about what does and does not work with local projects in the digital age.

We’ve organized this meeting because we see an opportunity to step back and focus more broadly on what’s missing, the needs and opportunities, and what we can build. Evan Smith, the founder and editor of the Texas Tribune, will kick things off with a talk Thursday night. Katie Zhu will be reporting on the proceedings. We plan to share some of what we learned later this month. We hope to emerge from the meeting with a set of ideas for future exploration, and with blueprints around which someone could build a local news initiative.