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The Minnesota Museum of American Art has nabbed a $1.5 million grant at a key moment as it works to complete its permanent home in St. Paul.

It's one of six St. Paul-based arts and business organizations and projects splitting a total of $2.15 million in funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The grants are meant to establish downtown St. Paul as "a lively, engaging urban hub," Jai Winston, Knight Foundation director in St. Paul, said in a statement.

They include $100,000 for the Minnesota Opera's creation of a new youth opera, "The Song Poet," based on a Hmong memoir and $200,000 to support the Creative Enterprise Zone, including its first-ever ChromaZone Mural & Art Festival, which runs through Saturday. There's also $200,000 for the St. Paul Downtown Alliance, $100,000 for the St. Paul Public Library.

But the grant for the Minnesota Museum of American Art, known as the M, is the biggest.

"It's an enormous vote of confidence," said Kristin Makholm, the M's executive director, "confidence in a museum which has had a long and sundry past, ups and downs. And here we are, surging back.

"To have an organization with a reputation like the Knight Foundation make this their leading gift in St. Paul and put their name in our lobby is ... just, oh my gosh."

The $1.5 million will go toward the M's $28 million capital campaign, bringing its current total to $25.2 million. That campaign, which the museum hopes to wrap up next year, will fund the expansion of the once-homeless museum's home in the historic Pioneer-Endicott Buildings on Robert Street. The first phase of renovation was opened in December. Phase two, scheduled for completion in 2021, will more than double the amount of gallery space.

Makholm hopes the investment will encourage other donors, locally and nationally. "It's timely — let's put it that way," she said.

The new grants build on the foundation's other big, recent awards, including $1 million for Springboard for the Arts, announced earlier this year. The Miami-based Knight Foundation invests in cities where the Knight brothers once published newspapers. Since 2000, it has put more than $40 million toward St. Paul.

The latest grants were revealed at a dinner in Rice Park on Sunday night.

"This was their coming-out party," Makholm said. "They're here to stay. That was definitely a message that came through loud and clear."

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