Jordan Levin

Dennis Scholl’s entrepreneurial vision shaped Knight Foundation’s arts programs

On Monday, April 20, 2015 Dennis Scholl, the art collector and entrepreneur who's leaving the Knight Foundation after 6 years heading its arts programs, where he's had a huge influence on Miami culture, is photographed at his Miami Beach home with one of the many pieces in his large art collection.
On Monday, April 20, 2015 Dennis Scholl, the art collector and entrepreneur who's leaving the Knight Foundation after 6 years heading its arts programs, where he's had a huge influence on Miami culture, is photographed at his Miami Beach home with one of the many pieces in his large art collection. THE MIAMI HERALD

The week after entrepreneur Dennis Scholl sold his wine company in 2008, he had so much free time that he asked his wife to lunch three times.

“You have to get a gig,” Debra Scholl, an attorney, told her restless husband.

And so when Alberto Ibargüen, president and CEO of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, called Scholl early that Sunday to ask him to recommend someone to temporarily head the Foundation’s recently launched Miami arts funding programs, Scholl suggested himself.

“He said no,” Scholl says, sitting in a conference room at Knight’s offices overlooking downtown Miami late last month. “He said you’re an entrepreneur. This is an office job. You gotta show up for meetings. You gotta wear ties.”

But Ibargüen quickly saw that the restless ambition and trend-spotting instincts that had fueled Scholl’s successful real estate and other ventures, as well as the passion that had made the Scholls major visual arts collectors, would serve Knight’s arts programs well.

“Dennis is as dynamic and enthusiastic a promoter of the arts as God ever made,” Ibargüen says. “He was constantly open to new ideas and the excitement of art.

“Another skill he has is this surefootedness — the ability to walk into town and say ‘yes, no, no, and yes.’ He’s always looking for what’s original, what’s interesting and what’s challenging.”

This week Scholl steps down from his position as vice-president/arts for Knight, where he’s had a transformative effect on culture not just in Miami but around the country. His tenure has been shaped by his experience and skills as an entrepreneur.

“The minute I got here and saw the opportunity, I like to think I treated it as a very entrepreneurial activity,” says Scholl, 59. “You see an opportunity in a community and you seek to take advantage of it. In Miami, what we were trying to take advantage of was this incredible cultural momentum. … We thought culture could matter in this community in a profound way that it never had before.”

Scholl came on at a crucial moment, when Knight was providing a vital boost to Miami’s rapidly growing arts scene just as the financial crisis threatened to derail its progress. The foundation has given $51 million in major grants to big institutions such as the New World Symphony, the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music, and Pérez Art Museum Miami. The funding was not only critical to those organizations but also helped steer them toward community-friendly programming, such as an arts education program for every third grader in Miami-Dade at PAMM, funded by a $10 million grant from Knight.

“Dennis has a fearlessness about taking chances, about experimenting with something he thinks worthy,” says Michael Spring, director of the Miami-Dade Cultural Affairs Council. “What Knight did was elevate the profile of giving to and investing in the arts, and it couldn’t have been at a more critical moment. They sent out a strong signal … that the arts are a way for our economy to recover, to promote the luster of Miami as a place to do business and to visit.”

Perhaps the most influential has been the Knight Arts Challenge Program, which since 2008 has given out $24 million in grants to 240 artists and groups in Miami. Many have been small, audacious outsiders such as alternative music and culture venue Sweat Records, unusual projects like artist-run gallery Bas-Fisher Invitational’s Weird Miami Bus Tours, or community ventures such as a summer art camp teaming Haitian artists with children at Homestead’s ArtSouth.

Almost as important as the money was the mindset behind it: to seek ideas no matter who they came from, to welcome people excluded or intimidated by traditional philanthropy, and to emphasize work that would have a far-reaching effect on the community.

Scholl says that inclusive attitude was central to Knight’s philosophy. “The ability to encourage individual artists, small collectives — to take the position that good art can come from anywhere.”

Another original Knight program has been Random Acts of Culture, which stages performances in unexpected public places. Those have included classical musicians and Afro-Cuban drummers playing Beethoven’s Ode to Joy on Lincoln Road, and the Opera Company of Philadelphia singing Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus to startled shoppers in Macy’s. The video of that event has drawn more than 8 million Youtube views and helped inspire similar Random Acts in 50 U.S. cities.

“We found that other people were willing to run with the ideas and they didn’t need the Knight Foundation’s help because we had created a template for them to follow,” says Scholl. “It’s about leverage and being very open-source about good cultural ideas.”

The Arts Challenge program, which has spread from Miami to five other cities where the Knight Foundation operates, has been crucial to programs like the recently concluded O, Miami poetry festival, and the Borscht Film Festival, which fosters independent Miami filmmakers and whose antic, open spirit that has become part of the city’s cultural character.

“Dennis and Alberto were our biggest champions,” says filmmaker and Borscht co-founder Lucas Leyva. The $150,000 grant they got from the Challenge program in 2010, their first from Knight, not only ensured the survival of the upstart event, it legitimized the once-absurd premise of filmmaking in Miami. Borscht paved the way for O Cinema and Filmgate Interactive (also funded by Knight), part of what has come a lively local film and media scene.

“The Knight grant changed everything for us,” says Leyva, whose group has been awarded a total of $900,000 from Knight. “Not just because we had a little bit of funds for the first time, but because they were the first people to take us seriously. And Dennis became a mentor, a sort of father figure to me and other filmmakers.”

Jovial, white-haired and ruddy-faced, Scholl was born in New Jersey but raised in Miami from age 8. His mother was a secretary, his father a steam fitter, and Scholl was the first person in his family to graduate from high school — Miami Norland Senior in Miami Gardens. He got an accounting degree from FIU and worked as a CPA, then went to law school at the University of Miami, where he met his wife.

“We sat alphabetically — I was Dennis Scholl, she was Debra Sue Schwartz,” he says. “There was an Ed Schwartz, and if Ed’s name had been Carl I never would have had a chance, because we would sit in the same seat every day. I wore her down.”

His passion for art collecting began when he was a child, with pennies and milk bottle caps (with a presidential portrait in each one, to be pressed into a chart over his bed). When he was 21, he walked into FIU’s small art museum and something clicked. Two years later, he bought his first piece of art.

“For me collecting is a way of bringing order to my world,” Scholl says. “When you have two of something that doesn’t mean much. But if you have a third that resonates with the first two, that’s a collection.”

His and Debra’s collection currently has about 1,200 pieces. When they gave 300 works to PAMM in 2013, she thought they’d be able to cut back on storage space. Instead, Scholl fell in love with contemporary Australian aboriginal art, quickly acquiring 350 pieces.

“Debra would tell you I’m obsessive,” he says. “I have a bad jones for collecting.”

They began their first business venture in 1987, buying and renovating apartment buildings in then-dilapidated South Beach, joining a handful of other prescient developers, including Tony Goldman and Craig Robins. Scholl quit his job as an attorney to manage the business, which grew to 100 buildings.

In the mid-’90s, as bigger players moved into South Beach, the Scholls moved on to Wynwood, then a rough area of industrial warehouses, buying 13 buildings. One became World Class Boxing, where they showcased their art collection. They were early visitors to Locust Projects, an exhibition space run by three young artists sharing the $600 rent. When the trio began to struggle with their growing effort, the Scholls stepped in, says Westen Charles, one of Locust’s founders.

“We said we don’t know if we can do this anymore,” Charles says. “So Dennis said stop right there, you can’t go away, because what you’re doing is too important.”

The Scholls helped the trio incorporate as a nonprofit organization and put together a board of directors (Scholl was the first chairperson) and showed them how to raise money. The couple stayed involved as Locust grew to become one of Miami’s leading visual arts organizations. For the past five years, Debra has been chairperson.

Thom Collins, who recently left his job as director of PAMM to head the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, says Scholl’s achievements stem from his character.

“Dennis made himself through this drive. He’s the quintessential self-made entrepreneur,” says Collins, who counts Scholl as a friend. “But he’s still very much in touch with his working-class background. He’s unpretentious, very straightforward — beyond candid. So much of what he does comes out of love for creative people, a love for youthful energy. He’s great with emerging artists and arts start-ups.”

Scholl’s history, from real estate on South Beach to the art scene in Wynwood, tracks the development of Miami, says Collins. “His chronology, his personal process of maturation corresponds with the growth of Miami,” Collins says. “He’s constantly on the move.”

Now Scholl is on the move again. in part because he believes that Knight would be better served by someone with different abilities. His successor is Victoria Rogers, the former executive vice-president of the New World Symphony Foundation.

“My best use is starting something from scratch and building it to a certain level,” he says. “Other people have the skill set of … refining it and making it run better.”

But he mostly seems eager to once again move on to new projects. He has a new business venture, Baroo, to provide pet services in apartment and condo buildings. He and Debra have bought a building in another artistically nascent neighborhood, on Northwest 54th Street in Little Haiti, to be the new World Class Boxing. His aboriginal art collection is touring museums around the U.S.; it will come to PAMM in September.

Perhaps closest to Scholl’s heart, however, is his new career as a documentary filmmaker, sparked by the short promotional films he oversaw for Knight. His first feature, Deep City: The Birth of the Miami Sound, on Miami soul music, played the Miami International Film Festival and the SXSW Film Festival. His film on a concert created by Wynton Marsalis for the 200th anniversary of Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church will air on PBS starting next month. And he is working on projects about groundbreaking Miami pinup photographer Bunny Yeager and on Madame C.J. Walker, an African-American woman who was the first self-made female millionaire in America. He calls his discovery of filmmaking another gift from Knight.

“I’ve always been a facilitator in the arts,” he says. “This turned me into a maker. That’s been a very hard transition ... being out there on the tightrope of making something and being responsible for it is a completely different experience.”