"We'd still be in our living room if it wasn't for Knight," Allen said recently. "We had the vision. We needed the jet fuel."
All it took, initially, was 150 words. That brief proposal led to a $75,000 grant (which, according to Knight rules, had to be matched with other fund raising - a hurdle that seems much easier when you can say you're a Knight recipient).
Since the Challenge was launched in 2010, the Knight Foundation has awarded $5.4 million to 71 Philadelphia ideas, selected from more than 3,000 applications. Now the deadline is approaching for a third and possibly final round. The seductively simple application - it encourages the hesitant - can be submitted until Oct. 15.
Tell them in 150 words about your idea. Requirements: It must be arts-related, it must be based in or benefit Philadelphia, and you must raise money to match the grant within a year.
Donna Frisby-Greenwood, the Knight program director, said Fresh Artists exemplified what the Challenge is looking for in that it was an innovative idea in the arts that engaged the community and made the art widely available.
Like the walls of the local corporate offices with which Fresh Artists executes its philanthropic trades, the walls of its new studio are covered with striking blow-up reproductions of children's art.
There are plans for a Memory Game based on the student artwork to hit a national retailer this fall (Allen won't say which one), and for installations at more places outside Philadelphia (there reportedly is big interest in Washington, D.C.). Roger Allen is a paid Fresh Arts staffer, and a full-fledged apprentice program is humming along. Chandler Allen is hitting the big time.
"We put out the call - put out your best ideas in 150 words," said Frisby-Greenwood. "We make the barrier for entry really low."
Some of the Challenge grants go to established groups - $400,000 to the Center City District to establish new public art at Dilworth Plaza, for example.
But Knight is most proud of its little winners.
Erica Hawthorne won a $60,000 grant to establish Small But Mighty Arts, a micro-grant arts program that offers artists sums as small as $100 and will fully launch in spring.
"I thought it was too small, I thought it was too simple, maybe even a little impossible," Hawthorne wrote in an e-mail of gratitude. "But I also thought it was needed, and something that could change the lives of others."
Do what I did, she urged: "Pull together your 150 word idea, and apply! A few small words can make a big difference!"
Another winner, Darla Jackson, received a $20,000 grant to establish a "Philadelphia Sculpture Gym" where artists can "use heavy-duty tools, have storage space, and get one-on-one help with projects."
A $25,000 grant to Tiny Dynamite productions helped the company, founded by Brit Emma Gibson, springboard its "A Play, a Pie, a Pint" theater concept - a short play, a slice of pizza, and a beer in an after-work pub setting - into the recent fully staged production of Martin Crimp's play The Country at the Walnut Street Theatre's Studio 5.
So you end up with Chandler Allen seeing her idea - turning young artists into philanthropists (someone else will have to dream up the idea that makes them entrepreneurs who themselves profit from the artwork that ends up on corporate walls) who make donations that end up helping a worthy cause - result in a fully funded nonprofit juggernaut.
Now she has a studio that allows teachers like Sonya Smith of Cayuga Elementary to sit down at a computer with Fresh Artists staffer Lauren Gutierrez. Smith is trying to bring the mini-masterpiece program Fresh Artists runs to her school, and they are helping her write up a budget to secure outside funding.
In addition, the studio has state-of-the-art large-format HP printers that were donated; it's a tremendous resource. And the program continues to install children's artwork in corporate offices - the type of children's artwork, simple, bold, and colorful, that when cropped a certain way and enlarged many times over looks sensational.
There's a gift at all points of the spectrum - the artist gets credit on the walls (the digital image of his or her art is licensed to Fresh Artists by the child), the corporations get the title of philanthropist, and Philadelphia public school art programs get money for supplies.
All made possible by the über-philanthropic Knight organization, which is back looking for another round of 150-word ideas, with millions more bucks to spare (
go to www.knightarts.org/knight-arts-challenge/philadelphia).
Dennis Scholl, Knight's vice president for arts, said the foundation is "evaluating whether to continue" the Challenge grants. "One thing won't change, and that's Knight Foundation's commitment to the arts in Philadelphia," he said. "We will continue to seek out the best ways to bring the arts into Philadelphia's neighborhoods and into people's everyday lives."
Contact Amy S. Rosenberg at 215-854-2681 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on twitter @amysrosenberg.