Wine maker, art lover Dennis Scholl brings varied background to task of elevating diverse programs of Knight Foundation
Between changing technology and a rough economy, the journalism industry is seeing growing pains. Artists and arts organizations are working to hold their own and continue innovating. And the education system could always use a boost. As the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation's new program director for South Florida, Dennis Scholl is on the job.
He's been active in Miami for decades wearing various hats: accountant, lawyer, art collector, venture capitalist and others. Now, as head of programming for the locally based national foundation, he's at the helm of initiatives such as the Knight Arts Challenge, providing opportunities to local artists and arts groups as well as large cultural institutions. He's working to develop programs in the education arena, focusing on issues such as teacher performance and principal leadership training.
And coming from a venture capital background, "I'm really going to be focused on the kinds of things that I can feel, touch and see and that show me that the funds that we might invest, that the partnerships we might create, are going to yield tangible benefits," Mr. Scholl says.
Also in the works: helping to create universal Internet access in the community. "It's critical," he says. Especially as the journalism industry — the Knight Foundation's cornerstone — changes.
"When people think about newspapers, they think about journalism versus the delivery of journalism, and we are concerned about making sure that everybody has access to news and information," Mr. Scholl says. "That's our dog in the fight."
In his spare time, Mr. Scholl remains an active player in the local art world. He has a hand in the wine business and works as a cultural correspondent for Plum TV. Mr. Scholl shared his colorful professional past and plans for the Knight Foundation's programmatic future with Miami Today staff writer Risa Polansky.
Q: Tell us about the mission, the purpose and the role of the Knight Foundation.
A: The Knight Foundation really seeks to help create transformation in journalism in communities. That is really our mission. The Knight Foundation was started by the Knight brothers when they put their fortune from the newspaper business into a foundation that reaches out both in the journalism community and the 26 communities in which the Knight brothers had newspapers.
Q: What's your connection to journalism and media and the mission of the Knight Foundation?
A: My involvement is on the community side. Because we have local roots in each of the communities, each of the communities has a program director.
Q: What was your professional background leading up to this role?
A: I started as a CPA. I went back to law school. When I graduated law school I worked for a couple of law firms in downtown Miami, and then in 1995 I started doing venture capital with a group of friends. We started a number of companies in the pharmaceutical area and a couple of [other] areas. More recently I've actually been making wine for a living.
Q: What from your professional background and personal experience is your connection to journalism and other elements of the Knight's mission?
A: I think that one of the reasons that Alberto IbargŁen asked me to come and be the Miami program director is because I have very deep roots in the cultural community. I have been active in the cultural community for over 30 years. The Knight Foundation's focus in Miami is art and education.
I've been involved in a national level with the Guggenheim and the Tate Modern. I've been involved in Locus Projects, an alternative arts space down here. I participated in bringing Art Basel to Miami Beach. I've opened my home every year of Art Basel. I have a significant art collection. We've opened our home to 15,000 people in the last 10 years to come and see. I have a public space in Wynwood that is called World Class Boxing in which we do exhibitions.
Q: How does that tie into your new role as program director?
A: I think that, given that our focus is arts and education, one of the things that we have become very well known for in Miami is something called the Knight Arts Challenge. The Knight Arts Challenge basically reaches out to everybody in the community and says "just tell us your best idea," and that has triggered a huge response from the community because it is not asking traditional grantees, big non-profits who have boards and patrons and things like that. This says to everybody in the community, "If you have a great idea, tell us."
Last year I was the volunteer chair of the Knight Arts Challenge. We got 1,600 ideas submitted. I read every one of them, as did the rest of the readers group that was part of the decision-making process. We narrowed the 1,600 ideas to 77 finalists. Of those 77 finalists, we selected 32 winners and we distributed to those 32 winners $8 million.
I really wasn't looking for a job, but I had a wonderful time doing this. Alberto IbargŁen is a friend, but also a guy I respect tremendously. He's an amazing, accomplished visionary leader in our community. So when he calls you up and says: "Hey, you better think about this," you pretty much say "OK, I'm going to think about it."
I made it very clear when I came here that I was only going to stay for a little while and I was just a consultant. I came home one day and I said to my wife, Debra, "This is the best job in the world, this is the best job that I've ever had," and she tells me "Great, because they are advertising it." I stopped and thought about it, because I made a big deal about not wanting to stay, and I went back the next day and sat down with Alberto and said that this is an amazing place, an amazing opportunity, and if you'd have me, I'd stay for a while. I'd come and do it as a real job.
It's hard to describe how wonderful this place is. We get to get up every morning and make transformative gestures. We get to wake up every morning and try to change the face of journalism. We get to get up every morning in 26 communities and try to make them a better place. It's a really joyful thing.
It's different than a for-profit enterprise. It really is — you can't behave the same way, you can't think the same way. You are trying to change behavior. You are trying to change how a community perceives itself. Miami is a very diverse place, and one of the things that we think about in the Knight Foundation is, how do we get a place where 75% of us aren't from here… how do you connect with people.
The reason that we are focusing on arts in particular, for example, is because the arts are a way everybody can connect.
This is the time when Miami is a cultural destination. Who would have thought we'd ever say this? We have the greatest ballet companies in the world. We have a visual arts moment that has kind of been recognized around Art Basel, but we have a visual arts moment where Miami is the third most important city for visual arts in America behind New York and LA.
We have growing museums. What we're trying to do with the arts challenge is, we are trying to give those institutions that go out there and go after it every day — they are out there trying to make it, whether it's the visual arts, the ballet, the opera or the symphony, every day they are trying to make this a community that connects better — we are trying to encourage that. We are trying to encourage this moment in Miami as being a moment of cultural vitalization, cultural discovery.
Q: Other than the arts challenge, what programs do you oversee in you role?
A: We are working on a number of programs in education. We think in Miami we have to find a way to fund the educational system down here. It's underfunded. It's difficult. The classroom sizes are getting bigger again. We are looking for ways to help with that.
When it comes to education, some of the things that I'm very interested in are ways to improve teacher performance in the classroom. I've been looking at a lot of things. I'm very interested in principal training, particularly in the area of leadership, because the more research I've done, the more I find that a principal that is a great leader just doesn't impact his or her teachers or his or her school, but they impact their neighborhood.
For me, coming from a venture capital background, I'm always interested in what are called addressable metrics. Can you show me that the average child advances half a year of reading in a year in a lower income or disadvantaged school? Can you show me that applying this program has that child advancing a year or a year and half? That to me is something that I'm very interested in.
When it comes to education and the programs that I'm looking at, I'm really going to be focused on addressable metrics. I'm really going to be focused on the kinds of things that I can feel, touch and see and that show me that the funds that we might invest, that the partnerships we might create, are going to yield tangible benefits.
Q: Is grant-making part of your area of responsibility as well?
A: Yes. I'm very involved with the grant-making in South Florida. We view our community here as going from Palm Beach to Monroe County, with a particular focus in Dade County.
We are getting bombarded with the best ideas when it comes to the areas of focus that we look at in a community. People in the community that are potential grantees know a lot about the Knight Foundation, but I think for example the Knight Arts Challenge, given that we got 1,600 applications last year and we just finished looking at 1,600 applications this year, I think that it's kind of lifted the profile of the Knight Foundation a little bit in the community
One of the great things about the challenge last year was there were a number of people that were winners in the challenge and got significant dollars who weren't a 501(C)(3), they weren't a not for profit — it was just a guy with an idea.
We had a guy named Gene Moreno who is an artist in town and wanted to start an artist book publishing company, and of the 1,600 ideas, that was one that got funded. We looked at it and thought it was good idea — artists can paint and they can sculpt, but here's a chance that lets artists make an artist book, take their ideas and put it in book form, and so we funded that idea.
Chris Chrebet submitted an idea called Leggo my Demo, and he's all about electronic music. He's developing a Web site where people will be able to submit their electronic music samples and people can listen to them, and they'll have a contest with them and people will vote as to which one is the best. It's a way of getting stuff heard. We are starting to hear of producers starting to listen to the music.
I will submit to you that in the past people would not have equated the Knight Foundation with electronic music or with an artist book publishing company.
I'm thrilled that we are opening the door for people to allow just the best idea — we're really not focusing on where you come from or who you are or how big you are. If you have a great idea, just bring it to us. That says a lot.
Q: What's your take on the future of journalism and arts organizations, the two cornerstones of what the Knight Foundation supports?
A: We were very fortunate [recently] to have Alberto IbargŁen go before a Senate subcommittee on the future of journalism. It was him and Arianna Huffington, Dave Simon, who co-produces and wrote the TV show "The Wire," and the publisher of the leading Dallas newspaper.
The newspaper folks and Arianna kind of talked to each other about certain things, but Alberto just stood up and said what's really important, and it's the third thing that we are involved in here. What's really important is universal access. You can't get a job anymore at Burger King or Wal-Mart without applying online. Universal broadband, universal access in the community, that is the other thing I'm going to be working on here. It's critical.
We have a big library initiative going right now, because libraries have been revitalized. If you go to a library right now, they are packed, but they are packed with people who want to be online. So we have to find a way for people — if journalism is going to change, if information in a democracy is going to be delivered to everybody — we have to find a way to make sure they have universal access. It's a critical component of what we do as a society.
When people think about newspapers, they think about journalism versus the delivery of journalism, and we are concerned about making sure that everybody has access to news and information. That's our dog in the fight.
Q: How about the arts side and not-for-profit side? We're seeing a lot of changes and some struggling in this economy. What's the Knight role there?
A: At the end of this Knight Arts Challenge, we will have put out $20 million. We will have put out $20 million more, $10 million to the Miami Art Museum to make sure that every fifth grader that comes through the public schools here gets to go to the museum, $5 million to the New World Symphony for technology. This is such a cool idea, that Michael Tilson Thomas can be in San Francisco and the horn section can be in Miami and the string section can be in Cleveland, and he can conduct them all simultaneously.
We also gave to the Museum of Contemporary Art up in North Miami, where I was a founding board member, $5 million for what they do best, which is amazing, cutting-edge, conceptual art shows. We are putting out the other $20 million over the next five years, and of course since it is a matching program, $20 million more will be kind of wrung out of the community. We feel like that plays some part.
The other thing is that we just don't give our winner money. We spend a lot of time with them looking for ways to help them, connect them. As a venture capitalist, again, when we fund somebody, you just don't give them the dollars and walk away.
We are also working on a couple of other ideas that we haven't announced yet.
We're trying also to, while I'm reluctant to call what is happening a crisis, help in a time of crisis. I can't avoid it. The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts has set up this hotline called "arts in crisis," and if you are a performing arts institution, you can call up there and talk to them and say, "What do I need to do?" Michael Kaiser is the head of the Kennedy Center up there, and he's a really well-known not-for-profit leader. He's done a good job. We are having some discussions with them about possibly finding a way to work with them on some things. It's tough out there.
Q: How is it affecting the Knight Foundation itself?
A: Without going into specific numbers, we've been impacted similarly to what you've been reading about in the paper as far as reductions and the value of our foundation dollars. That of course has cost us to not be able to continue to grow the program commitments as much as we would like to. You could tell times were difficult when we actually had to make a press release that said "We are fine, and we are living up to all of our commitments."
Q: Can you tell us a little bit more of the other ventures you are involved in now? Do you still have your hands in the wine business?
A: Yes I do. In my spare time, I am still making wine in four countries. We make wine in Australia, Napa, Italy and France in a place called Hermitage. We also just started a company where we are making our first spirit. We're making mezcal in Oaxaca. That is still a lot of fun. It's an amazing lifestyle business to be in for somebody like me who likes to eat and drink a lot. I'm enjoying it very much with my partner Richard Betts, who is a master sommelier.
Q: What about your involvement with Plum TV?
A: Also in my spare time, I continue to be the cultural correspondent for Plum TV. My role there is to primarily interview visual artists about their work and practice.
Q: Any other community involvement?
A: I have a lot of community involvement. I started the Miami Art Museum Collectors Council, which raises money for acquisitions for the museum. We've acquired close to $2 million of art for the museum over the last four and a half years. That committee now is in the hands of a really able leader.
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