Koch Cultural Trust expands artists’ horizons

Koch Industries
Koch Industries File/The Wichita Eagle

Wichita native Chris Mann has enjoyed success in entertainment, including a fourth-place finish on NBC’s “The Voice” and playing the title role for two years on tour in “The Phantom of the Opera.”

But what started the ball rolling, he said, was a $5,000 grant he received from the Koch Cultural Trust as a college student. He wrote a proposal for making his first album, and for the first time had to think about the expenses of recording in Nashville (where he was attending Vanderbilt University), including musicians, producers and others involved.

“I would have found a way, but there’s no question the Koch Cultural Trust allowed for that obstacle to be removed, so I could experiment and obviously confirm my passion,” Mann recalled in a phone interview from his home in Los Angeles. “To think now, all this time later, I’ve recorded so many songs and produced other people. It’s all second nature to me now.”

He still keeps the application binder that he and his parents filled out that for the first time laid out his music-recording dreams.

“I remember just being so clueless,” Mann said. “It made a big difference because it got me started and I obviously never stopped.”

Mann is one of nearly 800 artists with Kansas ties – either a resident or a student at a state school – to have received more than $2.3 million from the Koch Cultural Trust, which provides opportunities for artists to grow, learn and pursue their dreams.

“I don’t know of any similar programs (in Kansas), to assist young artists, visual and performing artists in pursuing their passions and their careers,” said Howard Ellington, who has been executive director of the Koch Cultural Trust since it was founded by Elizabeth Koch in 1986.

According to figures from the trust, 68 percent of the recipients have been instrumental musicians, 13 percent each for dancers and dramatic artists/voice students, and 6 percent in the visual arts.

Besides Mann, other recipients have included operatic soprano Rochelle Small Clifford, violinist Brian Lewis and Radio City Rockette Stevie Mack, all of whom have had success on the national stage.

But it has also helped keep the arts alive locally, including funding overseas training for Robert Elliott of Art Effects, a restoration and decorative painting company that has rejuvenated several downtown Wichita buildings.

Arts education is also supported through the grants, Ellington said.

A spectrum of talent has passed through the quarterly application process, Ellington said.

“We did have a bagpiper we sent to Scotland, which was not the normal,” he said. “He’s the only bagpiper we’ve had in 30-some years to apply.”

Ellington leads a panel of local arts leaders, representing various disciplines, in the selection process.

“We have a full-functioning, very passionate group of individuals who review the applications and makes recommendations,” he said.

Every application must include two to eight letters of recommendation and examples of the artist’s work, either through photographs or video. The application process also must include a budget and detailed plans of the project.

Catherine Consiglio, professor of viola at Wichita State University and artistic director of Chamber Music at The Barn, has seen the application process from both sides. She has been assisting her students in filling out applications in her 29 years at WSU, and since last year has been on the Koch Cultural Trust board for the grants.

“It’s been quite significant in their lives,” Consiglio said of her nearly 30 students who have received grants. “It’s really enabled them to perform and play at a much higher levels, because of festivals they’ve gotten to participate in.”

The grant application process, she said, gives her students real-world experience.

“One thing I learned 25 years ago was that my students weren’t very good at writing these grants. They didn’t have an idea of the kind of language and professionalism they needed to present when they send in an application,” Consiglio said. “I know that really helps them not only understand the process of writing a grant for the rest of their lives, but they get to write an organized budget and represent themselves well.”

First-time applicants, Consiglio said, don’t realize the impact of the impression that they are making.

“How they write the grant is very, very important. It’s good for young people to understand they need to have a representation of their work, of their performances they keep,” she said. “It’s just like building a resume. It teaches them on several levels. Of course, they’re extremely excited about the opportunities the trust is willing to support in them.”

Thanks to the grants, Colsiglio said, her students and others have been able to attend music festivals both in the United States and worldwide.

“Travel outside the United States always changes human beings and Americans’ perspectives,” she said. “What’s more valuable than that?”

Ellington agreed that the grants have expanded the horizons of its recipients.

“It’s one thing to read about art history in a book, but it’s another to be standing in front of the actual piece of art in Italy. It has a huge impact. It gives them self-confidence. It’s phenomenal,” he said. “We’ve had huge successes along those lines, and that’s something that continues with them for the rest of their lives.”