Miami collector brings innovative ideas, energy to Knight Foundation’s arts program

Collector, advisor to some of the world’s top museums, and, lately, the Midas touch for arts groups: Miami native Dennis Scholl may be one of the most powerful people in the contemporary art world, but he’s not going to flaunt it.

Scholl and his wife, Debra, have amassed more than 1,000 works of print, photography, sculpture, drawing and other art over 30 years, building a private collection that establishes the Scholls as formidable figures in the international art community, which turns its attention to South Florida this week for Art Basel Miami Beach.

Since April 2009, though, Scholl’s cultural profile has exploded as vice president of arts programs for the Miami-based John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, where he oversees the distribution of millions of dollars each year. His mandate: inspire public dialogues, and create shared experiences that forge a sense of community — and do this all through the arts.

Challenging goals, even for the Knight Foundation, an organization with more than $2 billion in assets and nearly $100 million total giving in 2010. But for Scholl, a successful entrepreneur with the optimistic spirit of one accustomed to beating the odds, failure is part of success, and surrender is out of the question.

“Life is too short not to do something you’re completely passionate about,’’ he said, seated inside World Class Boxing, the Wynwood warehouse where the Scholls exhibit works from their collection. “I’m passionate about art. And I’m passionate about this community.’’

The passion that propels Scholl is the same one that drives many public and private groups: how to engage and increase audiences for the arts. What sets Scholl apart, however, is his willingness to experiment with new ideas, and the personal experience and connections to execute them well.

“He’s one of the people that I turn to for advice and guidance about what we’re doing,’’ said Rocco Landesman, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.

Landesman said Scholl is key to numerous partnerships between the NEA and Knight Foundation. Among them is Landesman’s signature effort as the NEA’s 10th chairman: ArtPlace, a partnership between the NEA, six additional federal agencies, six financial institutions, and 11 private foundations, including Knight, that will provide more than $20 million in loans and grants to 34 nonprofit arts projects, with the aim of revitalizing their surrounding communities.

As chair of the operations committee for ArtPlace, Scholl stands out as an “innovative thinker,’’ Landesman said. “He’s a charismatic and passionate and knowledgeable guy who’s fundamentally a generalist. He’s not afraid to become an expert fast, but he doesn’t come in with a lot of preconceived expertise.’’

A serial career-changer, Scholl, 56, possesses a Renaissance man’s resumé. He has, at various times in his life, worked as a certified public accountant, attorney, real estate developer, venture capitalist in technology and pharmaceutical industries, TV correspondent, Emmy Award-winning film producer, and vintner.

He also has volunteered as founding chairman of new acquisition committees for Britain’s Tate Museum, New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and Miami Art Museum, where he currently serves on the board of directors. In those roles, Scholl has worked to raise money for those institutions to acquire art, primarily from artists whose work wasn’t already inside a museum’s walls.

In New York, home to the nation’s most prestigious art museums, Scholl dived in as a volunteer from 1997 to 2001 when the Guggenheim set out to build a photography collection.

Lisa Dennison, a past director of the Guggenheim, recalled that the museum had two goals at the time: to create a photography collection with its own identity, apart from New York’s other art institutions; and to build public support and raise money for it.

Scholl is “a philanthropist, but he’s a worker bee at the same time, which I really like,’’ she said.

At MAM, Scholl played a similar role when he launched the Collectors Council, an acquisitions committee in 2005.

“He used his community connections, all of his buddies, and said, ‘Look, you have to give $5,000 a year, and we’ll put together a bunch of this money, and once a year we’ll buy a work and give it to the museum,’ ’’ said Fredric Snitzer, a Miami gallery owner. “That’s been an unbelievable project, and it was done independently of the museum.’’

In six years’ time, the Collectors Council has spent more than $1 million and contributed 39 artworks to MAM.

Similarly, Scholl has brought an entrepreneurial appreciation for risk and reward to the somewhat reserved world of charitable foundations.

“In organizations that already have the money, you need people who will create a sense of urgency, and Dennis certainly does,’’ said Alberto Ibargüen, president and chief executive of Knight Foundation.

Ibargüen hired Scholl to run the foundation’s Miami programs in 2009, and soon after promoted him to vice president of the foundation’s $14 million arts program. For much of its history, Knight Foundation, which was founded in 1950, has funded arts in the communities where the Knight brothers published newspapers, including a $10 million grant toward the construction of the symphony hall at Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, and $20 million in endowments for the New World Symphony, Miami Art Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami.

After a three-year survey examining Knight Foundation’s arts strategy, Ibargüen announced a new type of grant, one that would tap the wisdom of the crowd and leverage Knight’s dollars through matching-grant partnerships.

The Knight Arts Challenge was an open call for art proposals from everyone in Miami, regardless of their status as an artist or organization. The rules were simple, to foster inclusivity: the proposal could not exceed 150 words; the art project had to take place in the community; and it had to receive matching funds from a second source.

Although not yet employed at Knight Foundation when the challenge began, Scholl volunteered as chair of the committee that reviewed the more than 1,600 pitches for arts projects in search of funding that year. Ultimately, Scholl helped award nearly $8 million to 31 winners. Since then, the challenge has received more than 7,000 proposals for funding.

This week, Knight Arts Challenge awarded $2.9 million to 31 winners — bringing the foundation’s total giving through the program to $19 million, an amount doubled through local matching funds.

One of Scholl’s brightest ideas at Knight Foundation was to adopt a guerilla marketing campaign for Spanish opera, which created a viral hit on with video of an unannounced opera performance in the middle of a market in Valencia, Spain.

Scholl’s idea, dubbed Random Acts of Culture, was to replicate this experience, with Knight’s funding and cooperation from community arts groups, about 1,000 times by the end of 2013.

Since launching Random Acts in May 2010, Knight has sponsored 570 of these seemingly spontaneous performances in cities such as Miami, Philadelphia, Detroit and San Jose. Video of Random Acts, which can be found on, have received more than 10 million views online, Scholl said.

To be sure, Scholl uses other measures for success. Some metrics are apparent, such as attendance at a ballet or opera program that receives foundation funding. Others may be less tangible, such as recent community-wide cultural achievements that Knight Foundation helped to foster with $15 million in endowment grants in 2008: $5 million for the New World Symphony, which recently opened a new concert hall designed by Frank Gehry; and $10 million for the Miami Art Museum, which recently broke ground on a new home in Bicentennial Park.

“Do you feel the difference in this community over the last five years,’’ Scholl said. “How do you quantify that? … What’s happened in this community in a short amount of time is amazing.’’

Still, he acknowledges, “It’s very easy to make grants. It’s very difficult to make grants work well.’’


Source: Miami Herald