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Dennis Scholl is a former accountant and sometime casino card-counter turned Emmy-award winning documentary producer, as well as a boutique winemaker who now distils artisanal mescal in Oaxaca. He is also currently Vice President of Arts for the Knight Foundation, where his initiatives include “Random Acts of Culture,” a program that surprises passers-by with pop-up opera and ballet performances in unexpected spaces.



As someone who went to his first museum at the age of 22 and became an art collector six months later, Scholl is passionate about the ways in which arts and culture enrich our lives and communities, but he is equally committed to inserting them into the fabric of cities—bringing the arts to people where they are, rather than requiring people to come to arts.

His focus on the value of shared, transformative cultural experiences fits with the Knight Foundation’s own research findings on the most important reasons why people become attached to a particular city, in which social opportunities, aesthetics, and a sense of openness and inclusivity frequently rank above jobs, demographics, or amenities.

Venue caught up with Scholl at the end of the 2012 Aspen Ideas Festival to talk about the art world equivalent of farm shares and veg boxes, the hits, misses, and future of the “Random Acts of Culture” program, and the importance of field trips. The edited transcript of our conversation is below.

• • •




Nicola Twilley: You’re were invited here to the Aspen Ideas Festival to speak on a panel called “Making Cities Sing.” What does a singing city look—or, I suppose I should say, sound—like for you?

Dennis Scholl: I was joined on the panel by Rocco Landesman, the chairman for the National Endowment for the Arts, and Darren Walker, who is the head of culture for Ford Foundation. The moderator was Richard Florida, who wrote The Rise of the Creative Class, and the question that he put to us is, “How do you make a city sing?” Not sing in the literal sense, but rather, “How do you make a city have a kind of vibration where it’s in harmony and people are feeling good about it?”

Of course, all the panelists come from a cultural background, so we spent a lot of time talking about what we’ve each done in culture to try to create that particular environment in a city—to try to create engagement amongst citizens in communities.

For my part, I talked about one of the programs I started at the Knight Foundation, called “Random Acts of Culture.” “Random Acts of Culture” takes opera singers and puts them in the farmers’ market. It takes ballet dancers and puts them in the airport. And sometimes we take a 650-member choir and put them in Macy’s in the Wanamaker Building with a 20,000-pipe organ and get them to perform the “Hallelujah” chorus.



It’s all spontaneous to the public. It’s obviously very thought-through in terms of our behind-the-scenes organization, but the idea is to have a surprise performance in a very surprising place. Our goal is to reconnect people to the classics—so in one sense, we’re quite traditional. The performers are all professional artists and we pay every artist for every performance. But we feel that the model of an 8pm start at the Symphony Hall on a Saturday, where you either come or you don’t, just doesn’t fit today’s lifestyle that well. People’s attention spans, their free time, and their constant digital engagement all make our lives so much more fragmented.

So we decided to try to take the symphony out of the symphony hall and put it into the streets—and the response has been incredible. We have well over ten million YouTube views for the “Random Acts of Culture” that we’ve filmed so far. There have been many, many copycats, which we love, and if you include the YouTube views for those, the total is well over fifty million online views of spontaneous cultural, classical performances in very interesting places. Now we’re turning it into a documentary, too—I was actually up very late last night looking at a rough cut of a film we’re making about the program.

Twilley: How did “Random Acts of Culture” originally come about?

Scholl: Somebody sent me a video from Valencia, Spain. I clicked on it, and it was in one of those big, open marketplaces. There was a guy selling a piece of ham to somebody. I was very close to clicking it off. But, suddenly, he bursts out into song, singing opera. So I keep watching. Then he steps out from behind the counter, and across the counter from him is a woman selling something—coffee beans, I think. She begins to sing, and she comes out from behind her counter. They’re doing this beautiful duet and a crowd begins to gather. Suddenly more people step out of the crowd and begin to sing. And it goes on and on and on, and at the end of it, the crowd goes wild, people are bawling—crying is a very common occurrence when it comes to “Random Acts of Culture,” in person or on the web. At the very end, holds up a sign, in Spanish, that says, “So you think you don’t like opera, huh?”



I was just so taken by it. I wondered what would happen if we did it over and over and over again with lots and lots of disciplines in very unique places. We did one in Miami, where Knight is based, and the audience response was immediate and electric. So we went to our Knight Foundation Board of Trustees and told them that we’d like to do one thousand “Random Acts of Culture.” Now, that was a mistake, because I could have told them that I wanted to do one hundred “Random Acts of Culture” and they would have been just as happy! But I’m a “go big or go home” kind of guy, and once we committed, we had to deliver. Yesterday, we completed Random Act #943. [As of February 1, 2013, 1244 “Random Acts of Culture” have been completed.]

Twilley: That’s exciting—you’re nearly there.

Scholl: We’re in the home stretch. I believe we’ll be done by the end of the year. It’s been a wonderful project. We’ve gotten thousands of emails, and most of them begin with, “I’m sobbing as I type this.” It’s just been a joy.

We’ve now done them in eight different cities across America—the cities where the Knight brothers used to own a newspaper—as well as a few other places, like yesterday’s performance here at the Aspen Ideas Festival. I think we’ve really created a sense of community, and we’ve put a lot of artists to work in a way that has been profound for them, too. There’s normally this big separation between the people in the seats and the people up on the stage, and auditoriums have big lights so the performers can’t even see the audience for the most part, so for them to stand this close to somebody and sing opera is a trip.



Geoff Manaugh: What types of performances have you done so far? Is it only opera?

Scholl: We’ve done opera, we’ve done flamenco, we’ve done ballet, we’ve done gospel, we’ve done jazz, we’ve done classical—we’ve done all sorts of things. For the two performances here at Aspen, there were two unusual Chinese instruments played by Wu Tong, a Classical Chinese performer who is here this week. He played the sheng, which is almost like a panpipe. They’d probably kill me for saying that! [laughter] Then he played the bawu. I can’t even describe what that’s like. You’ve just got to see it. It looked like he was playing an octopus, basically; it’s a very unusual instrument. I’d never seen anything like it before. The crowd went crazy—there were 2000 people in the music tent, and they just went nuts.



Manaugh: Is there any particular place—or even a particular art form—that you’d like to use for a future “Random Act of Culture” but you haven’t quite figured out yet how to make it work?

Scholl: The biggest problem we’ve had so far is doing something within the visual arts. We’ve gotten a couple of good ideas, but we haven’t quite been able to crack the code there. In comparison, the performing arts are so immediate. However, we do have one good idea we’re working on from an artist in Miami who came to me and asked about it, so we might crack that one.

As for locations, we’d very much like to do something classical at a sporting event, and we haven’t pulled it off yet. We were going to try to do one in Akron, but, logistically, it’s very difficult. I don’t want to do it out in the halls when everybody goes to get a hot dog. I want to have people stand up in the stands and just begin to perform. We haven’t quite been able to conquer the logistics—maybe we need to wait for the seventh-inning stretch or something like that. But we won’t quit until we get one of those done, for sure.

Twilley: What happens after you reach one thousand?

Scholl: We have some incredibly big surprises coming for the last handful of them, in terms of scale, which will be exciting. I think it actually has a life of its own. In the eight cities that we focused on, the performers have formed strong partnerships. Venue-wise, Macy’s was our opening partner. They’ve been wonderful to work with, and you really haven’t lived until you’ve stopped traffic in Macy’s six times in a day during a Saturday shoe sale. Many of those partnerships will go on.



Twilley: I’m curious about how well such a physical, immediate project lives online, too. Was that the plan originally?

Scholl: Very much so. I knew that we couldn’t make the kind of investment we were going to make if only between 50 and 100 people were going to see these performances each time. By filming many of them—we’ve filmed close to 100 now—and putting them up on the web, we’ve touched millions and millions of people.

We did a big one in Philadelphia that got a lot of international media attention, and what was amazing was that, after watching it, people started clicking onto all the other ones we had online. People would literally sit there and go through all 30 of them that were on at the time, or all 50, or all 70. Even ones that we didn’t think were going to get much traction have 175,000 views now.

Manaugh: Aside from “Random Acts of Culture,” how else do you make a city sing?

Scholl: One of the things that happened here in Aspen this week is the thirtieth rendition of something called Community Supported Art. It’s a really beautiful project that was started by a woman named Laura Zabel in St. Paul, Minnesota, which is one of the Knight cities where we have the art program. She has an organization there called Springboard for the Arts that finds ways to increase artists’ value in and to their community.

I’m sure that you’ve heard of community-supported agriculture—the idea that you buy a farm share, and you get a box of whatever’s fresh throughout the year. For Community-Supported Art, Laura’s gotten a series of artists to each make an edition of 50 objects. Some of them go all out and make 50 originals; some of them make a print of 50; some of them will make a record or an mp3. Meanwhile, she sells shares for $350. The CSA supporters show up at a pick-up point, and the artists are there, and the subscribers get nine works of art. The idea is that it’s not for the cognoscenti of the art world. It’s for everybody. And the artists get paid—it’s a modest amount, but the artists get paid.

The real payoff is the connection between the people who are brave enough to buy a share, not knowing what they’ll get, and the artists. This helps demystify the process of collecting art, which is really important to us, because it can be a very elitist activity. It also introduces the artist to 50 new potential patrons. Many of the artists who have participated in Community-Supported Art have received subsequent commissions from people who really like the tiny object they received and want something more.


CSA "harvest" in St. Paul, MN. Photograph by Scott Streble.

It’s really a way of connecting artists with their community in a way that’s different than their current relationship. We’re not trying to get $350 for a CSA from art collectors, because that’s not what they pay for art. We’re trying to get $350 from people who are curious and who want to take a chance. Because once you’re in, and you have nine works of art, then all of a sudden, you’re a collector, too.

In St. Paul, they sell out in five minutes now after announcing it, every time they do it. We asked if we could help ramp it up to more cities. We funded the creation of a playbook. Now, if you want to do a Community-Supported Art program in your city, you just sign up and get the playbook. From there, it doesn’t cost anything to run, and there’s even a little money in the fee structure to cover your admin time.

It’s now been run thirty times across America, and there are fifty more CSAs pending. We actually did one here at the Ideas Festival as a demonstration project. I reached out to six very good Aspen artists, and they agreed to do six objects for a Community-Supported Art edition here. We did a small, twenty-person share, which was a mistake, because we probably could have sold one hundred. People loved it. So now the artists are very excited, and I bet you they’re going to do it again by themselves.

There’s an organic, grassroots element to it where, once you show somebody how to do it, it can be self-perpetuating.


CSA shares awaiting pick up in St. Paul. Photograph courtesy Knight Arts.

Twilley: There’s an interesting overlap between the Community-Supported Art and “Random Acts of Culture” in terms of the idea of surprise. In both examples, you don’t know what you’re getting in advance.

Scholl: Yeah, that’s my thing. It’s something that I care about greatly. I think you have to leave room in your life for happy surprises, and that’s something the arts are really good at delivering.

Another thing, though, that we have a lot of concern about at the Knight Foundation is community arts journalism. We don’t fear for New York or LA or Chicago. There will always be lots of arts coverage in those cities, because they’re dense in populations who care about those things. The New York Times had more than 400 dance reviews last year. But around the country, in some of the cities that the Knight Foundation works in, in terms of the traditional media covering culture, it ranges from not very much to none at all.

Working with the National Endowment for the Arts, we created a contest called the Community Arts Journalism Contest. We asked people in the eight Knight communities of Akron, Charlotte, Detroit, Macon, Georgia, Miami, Philadelphia, San Jose, and St. Paul, Minnesota, to give us their best idea for community arts journalism. We asked for ideas that we could fund that would create more community arts journalism in people’s communities—and better community arts journalism.


CriticCar Detroit. Photograph courtesy Knight Arts.

We thought we’d get just a few entries from each community and we’d fund the best one. We got 233 responses—long, deep, detailed responses—which blew our minds. We’ve chosen three to fund. One is called Critic Car, in Detroit, which is a mobile van that has a booth in it where you can film interviews. It will be parked in front of a dance performance or in front of a gallery, and you’ll be able to go in and give your thoughts about the show.

We’ve funded a joint venture in Philadelphia with Drexel University and the Philadelphia Daily News to create a lot more arts journalism using college students. And we have a really complicated and significant initiative in Charlotte, where the Charlotte Observer has, in essence, donated two additional pages for cultural coverage. They’re working together with an alliance of public TV and radio and online partners and the local state university.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of this is that Rocco was so impressed by the response that he has agreed to add it to list of things that the NEA will fund out of their regular grant program, starting in March. Then, we've committed that if people in Knight communities win, and there’s a match required, we’ll cover that.

Twilley: One of the things that’s really interesting about the Knight Foundation is that the cities in which you operate—cities in which the Knight brothers once owned newspapers—are quite varied in terms of geography, demographics, industries, and so on. Do your programs play out slightly differently in each of the different cities?

Scholl: It took me a while to figure out what they all had in common. What these communities all have in common is that they are all in states of significant transition. Detroit is going in one direction—which I believe is up. Some of the other communities are not fully developed in some cases, or have come off of their highs. They’re all in flux. There is a different level of cultural sophistication in each of them, and I found that very complex to work with, certainly.

We definitely tweak projects as we expand them, to make sure they respond to the particular community. For example, we started a project five years ago in Miami that we call the Knight Arts Challenge, in which we invite anybody in the community to give us their best art idea. If we like it, we’ll fund it. After three years, the project was so successful that we expanded it to Philadelphia. But that’s a project that we’ve continually managed and tweaked because the community’s gotten so engaged. One thing we found—and this shouldn’t have been a revelation, but it was—is that the best art ideas don’t necessarily come from 501(c)(3)s. For me, that was a Eureka moment, because so much funding goes to those kinds of organizations, but art comes from artists.

The latest twist to it is that, out of this year’s Miami finalists, we are picking five up-and-coming artists or organizations and offering them a separate prize based upon the community’s support. We’re going to give them an extra $20,000 just based on who votes for them. We think that this’ll be another way to really have the community be engaged in the selection process.


Microteatro Miami, a 2012 Knight Arts Challenge winner, is presenting a series of short plays in nine shipping containers. Photograph via the Miami New Times.

The Challenge—along with many other things, such as Art Basel—has had a really significant impact on Miami, in terms of how the community perceives itself as culturally. I’ve lived in Miami for almost fifty years, and it wasn’t exactly a cultural oasis when I was growing up there. But the recent achievements are dramatic: we have a Frank Gehry building for the New World Symphony, we have a brand new Herzog & de Meuron building coming out of the ground for the Miami Art Museum. We have a science museum underway with Grimshaw doing the design. We have a Herzog & de Meuron parking lot. We have a Zaha Hadid parking garage. We have an Arquitectonica parking garage.

We do things a little different down there when it comes to architecture, but we do them. It’s been a really incredible…you can’t call it a renaissance, because it never happened before. It’s been an incredible cultural awakening. And I think the Knight contest, with its open invitation to people to express themselves culturally, has been very meaningful.


Random Act of Culture in Miami; photograph courtesy of Knight Arts.

Manaugh: I’m curious about the idea of bringing the arts to people, and how that requires you to expand the toolkit of traditional cultural philanthropy. For example, could you have even more of a long-term impact on a community not by funding an arts performance but by paying, say, for free guitar lessons for every 15-year-old in town?

Scholl: Arts education is a difficult minefield to deal in, but we believe that one of the things that kids remember is field trips. That really sticks. We’ve done a couple of things in that direction. We have funded a ten million dollar grant to the Miami Art Museum to make sure that every single third-grader in Dade County—27,000 kids—will go to that museum every year in perpetuity.

The other thing we support is in very close cooperation with the superintendent of schools in Miami-Dade County, which is the fourth-largest school district in America, with 327,000 students. He has a plan called the Cultural Passport in which every grade, K through 12, gets aligned with a cultural institution in town. In kindergarten, you might go to the Miami Children’s Museum, and, in first grade, you might go to the Performing Arts Center, and, in second grade, you might go to the ballet, and, in third grade, you’re going to go to the Miami Art Museum. By fifth grade, you might go MOCA, the Museum of Contemporary Art. Each of the institutions gets assigned a grade, and it’s a pretty great experience. We’ve given well over a million dollars to support that, and we were able to take the number of kids participating in that program from 55,000 to 110,000.

It’s not guitar lessons, but it is universal!

A selection of works from Dennis and Debra Scholl’s personal art collection is currently on display at the Nevada Museum of Art, Venue’s parent institution. Featuring 40 works by 18 artists, Hook, Line & Sinker is “an exhibition of drawings construed in the widest sense, as an anthology of practices deployed by artists to configure the world,” and is on display through April 28, 2013.
 
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