Dennis Scholl began collecting contemporary art at age 21, when he was short on money but long on curiosity about the cutting edge of the art world. The first two pieces he bought, he recalled, were a Robert Motherwell print and a Roy Lichtenstein silkscreen on a shopping bag.
“My father said, ‘Son, you have lost your mind,’” Scholl recalled when he showed off the Lichtenstein. “The only time he thought I wasn’t out of my mind was when I sold it for 10 times more.”
Anderson Ranch this week is honoring Scholl and his wife, Debra, with its annual Service to the Arts award, for the couple’s innovative work as art collectors over the last four decades. Groundbreaking Chicago-based installation artist Theaster Gates, who has used art as a means of urban redevelopment, is the recipient of the Ranch’s National Artist award.
The Scholls, who are part-time Aspenites, will speak about their art world experience Thursday at Anderson Ranch, in a free public conversation with Dean Sobel, the former Aspen Art Museum director who now runs the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver.
Thursday’s art talk kicks off a series of events —public and private — running through the weekend, which Dennis Scholl described as an “art-apalooza.”
Scholl is vice president of arts for the Knight Foundation, as well as a lawyer, accountant, winemaker and documentary filmmaker whose subjects have included Gates.
With the Knight Foundation, Scholl has spearheaded the Knight Arts Challenge, which funds projects that use the arts for community engagement, and the Random Acts of Culture, an initiative that stages flash mob-style performances in public places. Many of the Random Acts have turned into viral videos online, like a 650-member choir singing the “Hallelujah” chorus from Handel’s “Messiah” in a Philadelphia Macy’s store during holiday shopping season.
The Scholls’ massive contemporary art collection today rivals many museums. Over the last 37 years, they’ve bought an average of one piece every 10 days. Last year, the Scholls gave more than 300 works from their collection to the new Perez Art Museum in Miami, and through the years have helped build the collection of contemporary museums throughout the U.S.
“It’s been the only constant in our lives, and a joyful one,” said Scholl. “I’ve changed jobs, houses, everything else — and it’s the one thing that’s maintained my intellectual curiosity.”
Collecting as a form of investment, he said, has never been the Scholls’ approach, and rarely works.
“If you’re collecting on an intellectually curious basis and trying to find things you’re interested in, then if you’re part of the zeitgeist, the economic stuff will take care of itself,” said Scholl.
In Miami, the Scholls regularly share their collection with the public. They converted an old boxing gym into a gallery, where they’ve hosted 35 shows. And once a year, for the last 15 years, they’ve handed over their home to a prominent curator and allowed that curator to hang anything from the Scholl’s collection anywhere in their home.
“The covenant that we make with them is that we will live with it for the next year,” Scholl explained.
They then open their house up to the public. Over the last decade and a half, Scholl said, they’ve had more than 15,000 guests in their home for their domestic shows. The process, Scholl said, has helped make contemporary art less intimidating for people who aren’t necessarily connoisseurs.
“It allows people to see sometimes difficult, conceptual, challenging contemporary art in a domestic setting,” he explained. “That helps people understand it, seeing it outside of the big white box of a museum. It helps them understand how you can live with contemporary art, how one art object has dialogue with another.”
Over the last five years, the Scholls have embarked on what Dennis calls a “new collecting adventure.” They’ve amassed a collection of 240 abstract paintings by aboriginal Australians, and are next year taking the pieces on a tour of the U.S. Scholl discovered the work — many by senior aboriginal law men - while traveling Australia looking for grapes for his wine company.
“I came home and I said, ‘Oh my, we’ve found the next big thing we’re going to do,’” Scholl recalled.