While you were sleeping, Dennis Scholl was thinking about art. The inveterate collector keeps a stack of auction catalogs on his nightstand, always looking for his next piece of art to buy.
“Art collecting is ingrained into me after 43 years of doing it,” he said. “You spend all of your time obsessing over it. I get pretty obsessive about the things that I am passionate about. I have a bad art jones.”
Scholl, 65, has had enough careers for three people: attorney, real estate developer, wine maker and most recently arts grants maker as vice president/arts for the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, where he oversaw during his seven-year tenure the distribution of nearly $100 million to organizations and nonprofits such as the New World Symphony, the Frost School of Music, the O, Miami poetry festival and the Borscht Film Festival.
His love of art has been the through line of his career. Scholl bought his first piece at the age of 23, and today, on average, he and his wife, Debra, have acquired a work of art every week for the last 43 years. They’ve been generous philanthropists, donating 300 pieces to the Pérez Art Museum Miami and another 200 pieces of contemporary aboriginal art to the Patricia & Phillip Frost Art Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno.
But gradually, another passion has been taking up more of Scholl’s time: making, producing and facilitating movies. On his imdb.com page, Scholl has 40 credits as either producer or director, including such Miami Film Festival hits as “Deep City: The Birth of the Miami Sound,” the 2014 documentary about Miami’s first Black-owned record label, and “The Queen of Thursdays,” a 2016 portrait of the famed Cuban ballerina Rosario “Charin” Suárez.
“I’ve learned something from each project, and at my age you don’t have the luxury to wait until the next project comes along,” Scholl said. “I wanted to learn as much as I could in the shortest amount of time. I immersed myself into dozens and dozens of shorts and played every role you could play in those shorts. whether as a producer or a director. The idea of having a creative practice at this late point in my life is an incredible gift.”
A switch to film
In his current role as president and CEO of Oolite Arts, formerly known as ArtCenter/South Florida, Scholl has broadened the organization’s sweep to include cinematic arts, residencies and video. Their first finished film, “Ludi,” the story of a woman struggling to make ends meet in Little Haiti co-written and directed by Haitian-American filmmaker Edson Jean, served as the opening night selection of this year’s Miami Film Festival.
“Dennis is a force of nature,” said Jaie Laplante, executive director of the Miami Film Festival, which screened another film and held two workshops this year produced by Oolite Arts. “His enthusiasm is bountiful, and his energy is unflagging. What’s important about Dennis’ work is the vitality of the subjects that he chooses to work on, whether as producer or director. He has an acute intuition for choosing stories that resonate with our times, our community and our world.”
Scholl said he was intrigued by the possibility of cinema when he left the Knight Foundation to become head of the ArtCenter in 2017. He has already served as executive producer on dozens of short films through his association with the foundation, but what he saw inside the Miami Beach studio gave him an idea.
“I walked the halls and spoke to the 14 artists who were in residence and asked them how many of them were using video in their work,” he said. “Eleven of the artists in residence were using video in some way. That told me there was an opportunity there for the ArtCenter to amplify that opportunity in our community. That’s why we started to develop our film programs, the cinematic arts residency and the cinematic arts program.”
The yearlong residency, which grants $50,000 to a filmmaker to make a micro-budget movie, has three other features in production. “Ludi” director Jean said he was allowed to use Oolite’s existing Lincoln Road studio as well as its newer, state-of-the-art facility under construction at 75 NW 72nd St. (due for completion in early 2023) for the production of his film.
“Although they’re known for the big cash grant to do cinematic residencies, I was really surprised
to see how far the residency extended beyond that,” Jean, 32, said. “They are really flexible in gauging how the artist wants to be supported. I’ve had experiences where organizations mean well but they are heavy-handed and want to be involved. Oolite was incredibly flexible with my process.”
A natural progression
Aside from helping other filmmakers, Scholl got the bug for filmmaking himself — what he calls a natural progression from going to collector and philanthropist to a creator.
“Being a maker is like starting all over again,” he said, sounding effusive. “I always wanted to be a maker, but I would see so much good work that I didn’t want to do it unless I could achieve at a high level. I’m not sure that I have achieved that yet, but I love the idea of having creative practice.”
So far, the reviews from his co-workers (and critics) have been raves.
“Dennis is very collaborative as a filmmaking partner,” said O Cinema co-founder Kareem Tabsch, who first met Scholl when he was trying to launch the theater through a Knight arts grant. The two have since co-directed “The Last Resort,” the affectionate 2019 documentary about Miami Beach’s Jewish community in the 1950s and ’60s that was purchased by Netflix, and are currently directing another documentary about the life and times of former pinup idol Bunny Yeager.
“He comes in with his own opinions of how things should be done, and we often come at things from completely different perspectives,” Tabsch said. “It is when we meet in the middle that the magic happens. The best thing about him is that he wants you to push back and win him over to your side. He’ll give you all the time in the world to convince him, and when he buys into an idea it’s with the zealousness of a convert. He can be relentless in his pursuit of convincing you and he likes to win — it’s why he was so successful as a venture capitalist — but at the end of the day he’s fair. I genuinely think what he likes best is the collaborative process — the making of the thing even more so than the thing itself.“
Alberto Ibargüen, president and CEO of the Knight Foundation, who hired Scholl in 2008 to develop the nonprofit’s arts grants program, believes that Scholl’s art background has played a critical role in his transition to filmmaking.
“Dennis has a collector’s artistic temperament,” Ibargüen said. “He can as easily walk into a gallery as an artist’s home in the Australian bush and pick out the two or three pieces he wants for his collection. As an arts grant-maker, he did the same, except he picked and chose programs in eight different communities where Knight Foundation worked, confident he was choosing the best at any given point in time. Filmmakers, faced with limitless choices, need that kind of eye, training and confidence to tell the story their way. He does.”
Another influence of Scholl’s collecting background on his films: He gravitates toward making movies that are about artists, whether it’s the late photographer Andy Sweet in “The Last Resort” (whose sad story was a subplot in the film) or the forgotten musicians of “Deep City.”
Riding a wave
Scholl also believes Miami is riding a wave of homegrown, world-class filmmaking that has yet to reach its crest — the next incarnation of a city that, in the 1990s and 2000s, was known for luring big-budget Hollywood productions through its tax incentives program that has since expired.
“Miami is very open and welcoming creatively,” he said. “We have a wonderful arts ecosystem here, and all it takes is to show up and be enthusiastic. If you do that, people are willing to meet you halfway. I happen to be interested in filmmaking at a time when it is surging in Miami. I’ve been able to surf the wave of heightened interest with other people. [Local filmmaker] Keisha Rae Witherspoon won the goddamn Golden Bear at Berlin! That’s ridiculous! We helped them with their post-production costs so I feel like I get a little pinky of the bear.
“Miami isn’t a commercial filmmaking town; it’s an indie filmmaking town. It’s about making art, not about making something that is guided by profit first. That’s critical for people to understand this. People lament the lack of tax credits and lack of employment here. I don’t disagree with any of that. If we had more tax credits, there would be big productions here. But we wouldn’t have what we have. “Ludi” is going to play at the SXSW festival [in Austin, Texas]. The first film we funded is going to SXSW. Edson deserves that but it seems to be happening over and over again. Our films are being elevated to a national and international level. How exciting to be part of that, even just peripherally.”
Rene Rodriguez: 305-376-3611, @RodriguezRene