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With Scholl donations, Pérez Art Museum’s collection grows by hundreds

It was love at first sight for Debra and Dennis Scholl and the giant pair of birdhouses-as-art.

The longtime Miami art collectors saw the 400-square-foot piece by Simon Starling in a New York gallery, complete with two live finches, and reacted this way: “We know we can’t live with this,” Dennis Scholl recalled. “But we can’t live without it.”

Now, nearly 10 years later, the couple has decided to part with that and hundreds of other works collected over the last 30-plus years. The Miami Art Museum will announce Tuesday the donation of about 300 pieces from the Scholls’ collection worth millions of dollars.

“This is a huge, important and really I think catalytic gift, and I expect that we’ll have more announcements to make over the course of the next few months along these lines, in part because of Dennis and Debra’s generosity,” said museum director Thom Collins. “They are the leading edge of the wedge, as it were.”

Collins said an annual artist and curator lecture series will be named in honor of the gift, the total value of which is still being appraised. Scholl and Collins both estimated it would be worth millions, though Scholl added “probably not tens of millions.”

Dennis Scholl, vice president/arts at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, said he and his wife reached the decision as they pondered the December grand opening of the Pérez Art Museum Miami, as the new bayside venue will be called. Longtime residents of Miami-Dade who met on their first day of law school at the University of Miami, the couple said the community has treated them well — and they were honored to give back.

“It’s a wonderful time for the museum and we felt like it was a time when we could make a difference,” said Scholl, 57, who has worked as a lawyer and entrepreneur in ventures ranging from wine to real estate.

The $220 million project will be finished nearly three years after breaking ground at the 29-acre Museum Park overlooking Biscayne Bay and two years after developer Jorge M. Pérez gave $35 million in a naming gift of cash and art from his collection.

Dennis Scholl said he and Debra were inspired by the gift from Pérez as well as other large donations, including $35 million from Phillip and Patricia Frost for the under-construction science museum and $30 million from Adrienne Arsht to the county’s performing arts center. The Scholls hope their gift will motivate other collectors.

“We can’t speak for other collectors in the community; we think that people with collections ought to be able to decide what to do with them,” said Scholl, the Knight Foundation’s representative on the board of trustees. “We feel that this is a wonderful place to support with our collection.”

The Scholls collect works from the 1960s “to last Tuesday,” Dennis said, with an emphasis on cutting-edge pieces — especially photography — from emerging artists. They have founded initiatives devoted to building contemporary art collections at London’s Tate Modern and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York as well as MAM, and work from the couple’s collection have been featured in eight museum exhibititions, including at the Nevada Museum of Art and Baltimore’s Contemporary Museum.

The gift, made in late December, is meant to answer the question that some former supporters raised after the controversial decision to name the building after Pérez: Would potential donors be turned off if the museum were named for a person and not a city?

“We just want people to know that we think the Pérez Art Museum of Miami is a wonderful place,” Scholl said. “ I think we’ve made it clear with this gift how we feel about this institution as a repository for great art.”

Dede Moss, an executive committee member of the museum’s board, said she was “thrilled” to hear about the gift.

“It’s generous and it’s wonderful to fill in our collection,” said Moss, who made a million-dollar challenge grant intended to make sure the museum can “open this gorgeous building with equally gorgeous works.”

MAM started collecting in 1996; before the Scholl gift, it had acquired about 1,000 pieces for the permanent collection. The Scholls launched the Collectors Council there eight years ago, an initiative that is credited with amassing more than 100 works.

Their donation includes installations, such as Ólafur Elíasson’s sculptural installation Your Perfect Lovers and Plexiglas and aluminum screens from Liam Gillick; video from several artists including Raymond Pettibon and photographic work from Zoe Strauss and Anna Gaskell.

“It extends our holdings in a really interesting way,” said chief curator Tobias Ostrander. “The video is really, really exciting.”

Inverted Theme, USA (A House of a Song Bird) —

Debra Scholl, 56, chair of alternative art space Locust Projects, said deciding what to donate was “a major discussion.”

“It was tough to let some pieces go,” she said. “We never had children; some of them are like our children in a way.”

Dennis Scholl said the couple still has something like 500 pieces of art; he has been especially interested in the last couple years in contemporary aboriginal works. The Scholls’ Miami Beach condo is full of their art, and they show work from their collection at World Class Boxing, an exhibition space in Wynwood that they opened after acquiring the Starling piece.

He said the donation came with no requirements, so he’s not sure how or when it will appear in the new building.

Collins said the works will be put to good use.

“They gave us work that’s truly meaningful in terms of what we can present to the public,” he said. “You’re going to get to see all of it at some point. There are things we were just salivating about.”