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Ellis Barstow, the protagonist in Nick Arvin's most recent novel, is a reconstructionist—an engineer who uses forensic analysis and simulation to piece together, in minute detail, what happened at a car crash site and why.

The novel is based on Arvin's own experiences in the field of crash reconstruction: Arvin thus leads an unusual double-life as a working mechanical engineer and a successful author of literary fiction. Following an introduction to Arvin's work from writer, friend, and fellow explorer of speculative landscapes Scott Geiger, Venue sat down with Arvin on the cozy couches of the Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver for an afternoon of conversation and car crash animation viewing.

Flipping open his laptop, Arvin began by showing us a "greatest hits" reel drawn from his own crash reconstruction experience. Watching the short, blocky animations—a semi-truck jack-knifing across the center line, an SUV rear-ending a silver compact car, before ricocheting backwards into a telegraph pole—was surprisingly uncomfortable. As he hit play, each scene was both unspectacular and familiar—a rural two-lane highway in the rain, a suburban four-way stop surrounded by gas stations and fast-food franchises—yet, because we knew that an impact was inevitable, these everyday landscapes seemed freighted with both anticipation and tragedy.

The animations incorporated multiple viewpoints, slowing and replaying the moment(s) of impact, and occasionally overlaying an arrow, scale, or trajectory trace. This layer of scientific explanation provided a jarring contrast to the violence of the collision itself and the resulting wreckage—of lives, it was hard not to imagine, as well as the scattered vehicles.

As we went on to discuss, it is precisely that disjuncture, between the neat explanations provided by laws of physics and the random chaos of human motivation and behavior, that The Reconstructionist, takes as its territory.

Our conversation ranged from the art of car crash forensics to the limits of causality and chance, via feral pigs, Walden Pond, and the Higgs boson. The edited transcript is below.

• • •

Nicola Twilley: How do you go about building car crash reconstruction animations?

Nick Arvin: In the company where I worked, we had an engineering group and an animation group. In the engineering group, we created what we called motion data, which was a description of how the vehicle moved. We fed the motion data to the animators, and they created the imagery. The motion data was extremely detailed, describing a vehicle’s movement tenth of a second by a tenth of a second. At each of those points in time we had roll, pitch, yaw, and locations of vehicles. To generate such detailed data, we sometimes used a specialized software program⎯the one we used is called PC-Crash⎯or sometimes we just used some equations in Excel.

A screenshot from the PC-Crash demo, which boasts that the "Specs database contains vehicles sold in North America from 1972 to the present," and that "up to 32 vehicles (including cars, trucks, trailers, pedestrians, and fixed objects such as trees or barriers) can be loaded into a simulation project."

When you’re using PC-Crash, you start by entering a bunch of numbers to tell the program what a vehicle looks like: how long it is, where the wheels are relative to the length, how wide it is, where the center of gravity is, how high it is, and a bunch of other data I’m forgetting right now.

Once you’ve put in the parameters that define the vehicle, it’s almost like a video game: you can put the car on the roadway and start it going, and you put a little yaw motion in to start it spinning. You can put two vehicles in and run them into each other, and PC-Crash will simulate the collision, including the motion afterward, as they come apart and roll off to wherever they roll off to.

A screenshot of PC-Crash's "Collision Optimizer."

As the demo promises, "in PC-Crash 3D, the scene can be viewed from any angle desired."

Often you have a Point A and a Point B, and you need the animation to show how the vehicle got from one to the other. Point A might be where two vehicles have crashed into each other, called the “point of impact.” The point of impact was often fairly easy to figure out. When vehicles hit each other—especially in a head-on collision—the noses will go down and gouge into the road, and the radiator will break and release some fluid there, marking it. Then, usually, you know exactly where the vehicle ended up, which is Point B, or the “point of rest.” But connecting Points A and B was the tricky part.

Twilley: In real life, are you primarily using these kind of animations to test what you think happened, or is it more useful to generate a range of possibilities that you can then look for evidence of on the ground? In the book, your reconstructionists seem to do both, for example, going back and forth between the animation and the actual ground, generating and testing hypotheses.

Arvin: That’s right. That’s how it works in real life, too. Sometimes we would come up with a theory of what happened and how the vehicles had moved, and then we’d recreate it in an animation, as a kind of test. Generating a realistic-looking animation is very expensive, but you can create a crude version pretty easily. We’d watch the animation and say, “That just doesn’t look right.” You have a feel for how physics works; you can see when an animation just doesn’t look right. So, very often, we’d look at an animation and say to ourselves: we haven’t got this right yet.

Screenshot from a sample 3D car crash animation created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video.

One of the challenges of the business is that when you’re creating an animation for court, every single thing in it has to have a basis that’s defensible. An animation can cost tens of thousands of dollars to generate, and if there is one detail that’s erroneous, the other side can say, “Hey, this doesn’t make sense!” Then the entire animation will be thrown out of court, and you’ve just flushed a lot of money down the toilet. So you have to be very meticulous and careful about the basis for everything in the animation.

Which is all to say that you have to look at every single mark on the vehicle and try to figure out exactly where and how it happened. In the novel there is an example of this kind of thinking when Boggs shows Ellis how, when looking at a vehicle that has rolled over, you literally examine each individual scratch mark on the vehicle, because a scratch can tell you about the orientation of the vehicle as it hit the ground, and it can also tell you where the vehicle was when the scratch was made, since asphalt makes one kind of scratch, while dirt or gravel will make a different type of scratch.

For one case I worked on, a high-speed rollover where the vehicle rolled three or four times, we printed out a big map of the accident site. It was so big we had to roll out down the hallway. It showed all of the impact points that the police had documented, and it showed all of the places where broken glass had been deposited as the vehicle rolled. We had a toy model of the car, and we sat there on the floor and rolled the toy from point to point on the map, trying to figure out which dent in the vehicle corresponded to which impact point on the ground.

I remember the vehicle rolled through a barbed wire fence, and there was a dent in one of the doors that looked like a pole of some kind had been jammed into the sheet metal. We figured it had to be one of the fence posts, but we struggled with it for weeks, because everything else in the roll motion indicated that, when the car hit the fence, the door with the dent in it would have been on the opposite side of the vehicle. We kept trying to change the roll motion to get that door to hit the fence, but it just didn’t make sense.

Finally, one of my colleagues was going back through some really poor quality police photographs. We had scarcely looked at them, because they were so blurry you could hardly see anything. But he happened to be going back through them, and he noticed a fireman with a big crowbar. And we realized the crowbar had made the dent! They had crowbarred the door open.

Which is all to say that you have to look at every single mark on the vehicle and try to figure out exactly where and how it happened.

Screenshots from sample 3D car crash animations created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video.

Sometimes, though, even after all that meticulous attention to detail, and even if you believe you have the physics right, you end up playing with it a little, trying to get the motion to look real. There’s wiggle room in terms of, for example, where exactly does the driver begin braking relative to where tire marks were left on the road. Or, what exactly is the coefficient of friction on this particular roadway? Ultimately, you’re planning to put this in front of a jury and they have to believe it.

Twilley: So there’s occasionally a bit of an interpretive leeway between the evidence that you have and the reconstruction that you present.

Arvin: Yes. There’s a lot of science in it, but there is an art to it, as well. Pig Accident 2, the crash that Ellis is trying to recreate at the start of my book, is a good example of that.

It’s at the start of the book, but it was actually the last part that was written. I had written the book, we had sold it, and I thought I was done with it, but then the editor—Cal Morgan at Harper Perennial—sent me his comments. And he suggested that I needed to establish the characters and their dynamics more strongly, early in the book.

I wanted an accident to structure the new material around, but by this time I was no longer working as a reconstructionist, and all my best material from the job was already in the book. So I took a former colleague out for a beer and asked him to tell me about the stuff he’d been working on.

He gave me this incredible story: an accident that involved all these feral pigs that had been hit by cars and killed, lying all over the road. And then as a part of his investigation, he built this stuffed pig hide on wheels, with a little structure made out of wood and caster wheels on the bottom. They actually spray-painted the pig hide black, to make it the right color. He said it was like a Monty Python skit: he’d push it out on the road, then go hide in the bushes while the other guy took photographs. Then he’d have to run out and grab the pig whenever a car came by.

But there wasn’t any data coming out of that process that they were feeding into their analysis; it was about trying to convince a jury whether you can or can’t see a feral pig standing in the middle of the road.

Twilley: That’s an interesting analogy to the craft of writing fiction, related to the question of what is sufficient evidence for something to be believable.

Arvin: Exactly. It’s so subjective.

In that case, my friend was working for the defense, which was the State Highway Department—they were being sued for not having built a tunnel under the road for the wild pigs to go through. In the novel, it takes place in Wisconsin, but in reality it happened in Monterey, California. They’ve got a real problem with wild pigs there.

Monterey has a phenomenal number of wild pigs running around. As it turned out, the defense lost this case, and my friend said that it was because it was impossible to get a jury where half the people hadn’t run into a pig themselves, or knew somebody who had had a terrible accident with a pig. The jury already believed the pigs were a problem and the state should be doing something about it.

Screenshot from a sample 3D car crash animation created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video.

Geoff Manaugh: In terms of the narrative that defines a particular car crash, I’m curious how reconstructionists judge when a car crash really begins and ends. You could potentially argue that you crashed because, say, some little kid throws a water balloon into the street that distracts you and, ten seconds later, you hit a telephone pole. Clearly something like a kid throwing a water balloon is not going to show up in PC-Crash.

For the purpose of the reconstructionist, then, where is the narrative boundary of a crash event? Does the car crash begin when tires cross the yellow line, or when the foot hits the brakes—or even earlier, when it started to rain, or when the driver failed to get his tires maintained?

Arvin: It’s never totally clear. That’s a grey area that we often ended up talking about and arguing about. In that roll-over crash, for example, part of the issue was that the vehicle was traveling way over the speed limit, but another issue was that the tires hadn’t been properly maintained. And when you start backing out to look at the decisions that the drivers made at different moments leading up to that collision, you can always end up backing out all the way to the point where it’s: well, if they hadn’t hit snooze on the alarm clock that morning

Twilley: Or, in your novel’s case, if they weren’t married to the wrong woman…

Arvin: [laughs] Right.

We worked on this one case where a guy’s car was hit by the train. He was a shoe salesman, if I remember right, and he was going to work on a Sunday. It just happened to be after the daylight savings time change, and he was either an hour ahead or an hour behind getting to work. The clock in the car and his watch hadn’t been reset yet.

He’d had this job for four years, and he’d been driving to work at the same time all those years, so he’d probably never seen a train coming over those tracks before—but, because he was an hour off, there was a train. So, you know, if he’d remembered to change his clocks…

Screenshots from sample 3D car crash animations created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video.

Twilley: That reminds me of something that Boggs says in the book: “It’s a miracle there aren’t more miracles.”

Arvin: Doing that work, you really start to question, where are those limits of causality and chance? You think you’ve made a decision in your life, but there are all these moments of chance that flow into that decision. Where do you draw a line between the choices you made in your life and what’s just happened to you? What’s just happenstance?

It’s a very grey area, but the reconstructionist has to reach into the gray area and try to establish some logical sequence of causality and responsibility in a situation.

Twilley: In the novel, you show that reconstructionists have a particular set of tools and techniques with which to gain access to the facts about a past event. Other characters in the book have other methods for accessing the past: I’m thinking of the way Ellis’s father stores everything, or Heather’s photography. In the end, though it seems as though the book is ambivalent as to whether the past is accessible through any of those methods.

Arvin: I think that ambivalence is where the book is. You can get a piece of the past through memory and you can get a piece through the scientific reconstruction of things. You can go to a place now, as it is physically; you can look of a photograph of how it was; you can create a simulation of the place as it was in your computer: but those are all representations of it, and none of them are really it. They are all false, to an extent, in their own way.

The best I think you can hope to do is to use multiple methods to triangulate and get to some version of what the past was. Sometimes they just contradict each other and there’s no way to resolve them.

Screenshots from sample 3D car crash animations created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video.

Working as a reconstructionist, I was really struck by how often people’s memories were clearly false, because they’d remember things that just physically were not possible. Newton’s laws of motion say it couldn’t have happened. In fact, we would do our best to completely set aside any witness testimony and just work from the physical evidence. It was kind of galling if there was not just enough physical evidence and you had to rely on what somebody said as a starting point.

Pedestrian accidents tended to be like that, because when a car runs into a person it doesn’t leave much physical evidence behind. When two cars run into each other, there’s all this stuff left at the point where they collided, so you can figure out where that point was. But, when a car runs into a person, there’s nothing left at that point; when you try to determine where the point of impact was, you end up relying on witness testimony.

Screenshots from a PC-Crash demo showing load loss and new "multibody pedestrian" functionality.

Twilley: In terms of reconciling memory and physical evidence—and this also relates to the idea of tweaking the reconstruction animation for the jury—the novel creates a conflict about whether it’s a good idea simply to settle for a narrative you can live with, however unreliable it might be, or to try to pin it down with science instead, even if the final result doesn’t sit right with you.

Arvin: Exactly. It sets up questions about how we define ourselves and what we do when we encounter things that conflict with our sense of identity. If something comes up out of the past that doesn’t fit with who you have defined yourself to be, what do you do with that? How much of our memories are shaped by our sense of identity versus the things we’ve actually done?

Twilley: It’s like a crash site: to what extent, once the lines have been repainted and the road resurfaced, is a place not the same place where the accident occurred, yet still the place that led to the accident? That’s what’s so interesting about the reconstructionist’s work: you’re making these narratives of crashes that define it for a legal purpose and yet the novel seems to ask whether that is really the narrative of the crash, whether the actual impact is not the dents in the car but what happens to people’s lives.

Arvin: I always felt that tension—you are looking at the physics and the equations in order to understand this very compressed moment in time, but then there are these people who passed through that moment of time, and it had a huge effect on their lives. Within the work, we were completely disregarding those people and their emotions—emotions were outside our purview. Writing the book for me was part of the process of trying to reconcile those things.

Screenshot from a sample 3D car crash animation created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video.

Manaugh: While I was reading the book, I kept thinking about the discovery of the Higgs boson, and how, in a sense, its discovery was all a kind of crash forensics.

Arvin: You’re right. You don’t actually see the particle; you see the tracks that it’s made. I love that. It’s a reminder that we’re reconstructing things all the time in our lives.

If you look up and a window is open, and you know you didn’t open it, then you try to figure out who in the house opened it. There are all these minor events in our lives, and we constantly work to reconstruct them by looking at the evidence around us and trying to figure out what happened.

Manaugh: That reminds me of an anecdote in Robert Sullivan’s book, The Meadowlands, about the swamps of northern New Jersey. One of his interview subjects is a retired detective from the area who is super keyed into his environment—he notices everything. He explains that this attention to microscopic detail is what makes a good detective as opposed to a bad detective. So, in the case of the open window, he’ll notice it and file it away in case he needs it in a future narrative.

What he tells Sullivan is that, now that he is retired, it’s as though he’s built up this huge encyclopedia of little details with the feeling that they all were going to add up to this kind of incredible moment of narrative revelation. And then he retired. He sounds genuinely sad—he has so much information and it’s not going anywhere. The act of retiring as a police detective meant that he lost the promise of a narrative denouement.

Arvin: That’s great. I think of reconstruction in terms of the process of writing, too. Reconstruction plays into my own particular writing technique because I tend to just write a lot of fragments initially, then I start trying to find the story that connects those pieces together.

It also reminds me of one of my teachers, Frank Conroy, who used to talk about the contract between the reader and the writer. Basically, as a writer, you’ve committed to not wasting the reader’s time. He would say that the reader is like a person climbing a mountain, and the author is putting certain objects along the reader’s path that the reader has to pick up and put into their backpack; when they get to the top of the mountain there better be something to do with all these things in their backpack, or they are going to be pissed that they hauled it all the way up there.

That detective sounds like a thwarted reader. He has the ingredients for the story—but he doesn’t have the story.

Screenshots from sample 3D car crash animations created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video.

Twilley: In the novel, you deliberately juxtapose a creative way of looking—Heather’s pinhole photography—and Ellis’s forensic, engineering perspective. It seems rare to be equipped with both ways of seeing the world. How does being an engineer play into writing, or vice versa?

Arvin: I think the two things are not really that different. They are both processes of taking a bunch of little things—in engineering, it might be pieces of steel and plastic wire, and, in writing a novel, they’re words—and putting them together in such a way that they work together and create some larger system that does something pleasing and useful, whether that larger thing is a novel or a cruise ship.

One thing that I think about quite a bit is the way that both engineering and writing require a lot of attention to ambiguity. In writing, at the sentence level, you really want to avoid unintentional ambiguity. You become very attuned to places where your writing is potentially open to multiple meanings that you were not intending.

Similarly, in engineering, you design systems that will do what you want them to do, and you don’t have room for ambiguity—you don’t want the power plant to blow up because of an ambiguous connection.

But there’s a difference at the larger level. In writing, and writing fiction in particular, you actually look for areas of ambiguity that are interesting, and you draw those out to create stories that exemplify those ambiguities—because those are the things that are interesting to think about.

Whereas, in engineering, you would never intentionally take an ambiguity about whether the cruise ship is going to sink or not and magnify that!

Screenshot from a sample 3D car crash animation created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video.

Twilley: I wanted to switch tracks a little and talk about the geography of accidents. Have you come to understand the landscape in terms of its potential for automotive disaster?

Arvin: When you are working on a case—like that rollover—you become extremely intimate with a very small piece of land. We would study the accident site and survey it and build up a very detailed map of exactly how the land is shaped in that particular spot. You spend a lot of time looking at these minute details, and you become very familiar with exactly how lands rolls off and where the trees are, and where the fence posts are and what type of asphalt that county uses, because different kinds of asphalt have different friction effects.

Twilley: The crash site becomes your Walden Pond.

Arvin: It does, in a way. I came to feel that, as a reconstructionist, you develop a really intimate relationship with the roadway itself, which is a place where we spend so much time, yet we don’t really look at it. That was something I wanted to bring out in the book—some description of what that place is, that place along the road itself.

You know, we think of the road as this conveyance that gets us from point A to point B, but it’s actually a place in and of itself and there are interesting things about it. I wanted to look at that in the book. I wanted to look at the actual road and the things that are right along the road, this landscape that we usually blur right past.

The other thing your question makes me think about is this gigantic vehicle storage yard I describe in the novel, where all the crashed vehicles that are in litigation are kept. It’s like a museum of accidents—there are racks three vehicles high, and these big forklift trucks that pick the vehicles up off the racks and put them on the ground so you can examine them.

A vehicle scrapyard photographed by Wikipedia contributor Snowmanradio.

Manaugh: Building on that, if you have a geography of crashes and a museum of crashes, is there a crash taxonomy? In the same way that you get a category five hurricane or a 4.0 earthquake, is there, perhaps, a crash severity scale? And if so, then you can imagine at one end of it, the super-crash—the crash that maybe happens once every generation—

Arvin: The unicorn crash!

Manaugh: Exactly—Nicky and I were talking about the idea of a “black swan” crash on the way over here. Do you think in terms of categories or degrees of severity, or is every crash unique?

Arvin: I haven’t come across a taxonomy like that, although it’s a great idea. The way you categorize crashes is single vehicle, multiple vehicle, pedestrian, cyclist, and so on. They also get categorized as rollover collision, collision that leads to a rollover, and so on. So there are categories like that, and they immediately point you to certain kinds of analysis. The way you analyze a rollover is quite a bit different from how you analyze an impact. But there’s no categorization that I am aware of for severity.

I only did it for three years, so I’m not a grizzled reconstructionist veteran, but even in three years you see enough of them that you start to get a little jaded. You get an accident that was at 20 miles an hour, and you think, that’s not such a big deal. An accident in which two vehicles, each going 60 miles an hour, crash head-on at a closing speed of 120 miles an hour—now, that’s a collision!

Screenshot from a sample 3D car crash animation created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video.

You become a little bit of an accident snob, and resisting that was something that I struggled with. Each accident is important to the people who were in it. And, there was a dark humor that tended to creep in, and that worried me, too. On the one hand, it helps keep you sane, but on the other hand, it feels very disrespectful.

Twilley: Have you been in a car accident yourself?

Arvin: I had one, luckily very minor, accident while I was working as reconstructionist—around the time that I was starting to work on this book. I heard the collision begin before I saw it, and what I really remember is that first sound of metal on metal.

Immediately, I felt a lurch of horror, because I wasn’t sure what was happening yet, but I knew it could be terrible. You are just driving down the road and, all of a sudden, your life is going to be altered, but you don’t know how yet. It’s a scary place—a scary moment.

Twilley: Before we wrap up, I want to talk about some of your other work, too. An earlier novel, Articles of War, was chosen for “One Book, One Denver.” I’d love to hear about the experience of having a whole city read your book: did that level of public appropriation reshape the book for you?

Arvin: That’s an interesting question. There were some great programs: they had a professional reader reading portions of it, and there was a guy who put part of it to music, so it was reinterpreted in a variety of ways. That was really, really fun for me. It brought out facets of the book that I hadn’t been fully aware of.

The whole thing gave me an opportunity to meet a lot of people around the city who had read the book. I did a radio interview with high school students who had read the book—this was when we were deeper into the Iraq war and there were a lot of parallels being drawn with that war. And these were kids who were potentially going off to that war, so that was very much on their mind.

You had this concentrated group of people looking at the book and reading it and talking about it, and everybody’s got their own way of receiving it. It helped me see how, once a book is out there, it isn’t mine anymore. Every reader makes it their own.

Manaugh: Finally, I’m interested in simply how someone becomes a reconstructionist. It’s not a job that most people have even heard of!

Arvin: True. For me, it was a haphazard path. Remember how we talked earlier about that gray area between the choices you made in your life and what’s just happened to you?

I have degrees in mechanical engineering from Michigan and Stanford. When I finished my Masters at Stanford, I went to work for Ford. I worked there for about three years. Then I was accepted into Iowa Writer’s Workshop, so I quit Ford to go to Iowa. I got my MFA, and then I was given a grant to go write for a year. My brother had moved to Denver a year earlier, and it seemed like a cool town so I moved here. Then my grant money ran out, and I had to find a job.

I began looking for something in the automotive industry in Denver, and there isn’t much. But I had known a couple people at Ford who ended up working in forensics, so I started sending my resume to automobile forensics firms. It happened that the guy who got my resume was a big reader, and I had recently published my first book. He was impressed by that, so he brought me in for an interview.

In that business, you write a lot of reports and he thought I might be helpful with that.

Screenshots from sample 3D car crash animation created by Kineticorp; visit their website for the video.

Twilley: Do you still work as an engineer, and, if so, what kinds of projects are you involved with?

Arvin: I work on power plants and oil and gas facilities. Right now, I am working on both a power plant and an oil facility in North Dakota—there’s lots of stuff going on out there as part of the Bakken play. It’s very different from the forensics.

Twilley: Do you take an engineering job, then quit and take some time to write and then go back into the engineering again? Or do you somehow find a way to do both?

Arvin: I do both. I work part time. Part-time work isn’t really easy to find as an engineer, but I’ve been lucky, and my employers have been great.

Engineers who write novels are pretty scarce. There are a few literary writers who started out in engineering but have gotten out of it—Stewart O’Nan is one, George Saunders is another. There’s Karl Iagnemma, who teaches at MIT. There are a few others, especially in the sci-fi universe.

I feel as though I have access to material—to a cast of characters and a way of thinking—that’s not available to very many writers. But the engineering work I’m doing now doesn’t have quite the same dramatic, obvious story potential that forensic engineering does. I remember when I first started working in forensics, on day one, I thought, this is a novel right here.

While in Denver, Colorado, Venue had the pleasure of making a childhood fantasy come true: an all-day backstage pass to the city's public library, complete with a private introduction to room after room full of maps, books, paintings, photographs, architectural drawings, and other collections documenting the people, places, and events that shaped the settlement and growth of the western United States.

The Denver Public Library building, designed by Michael Graves & Associates.

From a meandering tour of the new Postmodern library building, designed by architect Michael Graves in the 1990s, to a covetous browse through the city's old fire-insurance maps produced by the Sanborn Map Company, via a quick mention of the Denver Police Intelligence Files and a thorough bibliography of reference materials related to Denver's saloon cats, it was an exhilarating day of flipping through card catalogs, stepping behind closed doors, following off-limits stairways up to archives not usually open to the public, and learning more not only about the history of Denver and the West, but also about library science, more generally, and about our guide for the day, Senior Special Collection Librarian Wendel Cox, more specifically.

Venue's vote for best card catalog entry ever—a Franz Feneon-worthy novel in two lines, filed under "Horses. Biography."—was brought to our attention by Wendel Cox.

There's no real way, however, without writing our own Ulysses of the Denver Public Library—describing every unexpected turn of conversation, every artifact, every cross-connected historical reference (rabies to quarantine to the library's medical collections) and every other thing seen, read, or pored over in nose-to-paper levels of detail during the day—to encapsulate all that took place during Wendel's enthusiastic introduction to the collections; so, instead, we'll just focus on a few particular highlights, cartographic in emphasis and origin.

Senior Special Collection Librarian Wendel Cox shows us a hand-drawn map of New Mexico and Utah.

First, the fire maps.

The Sanborn Map Company produced, between 1866 to 2007, some of the most extraordinary and historically useful maps of the urban United States available in any collection today.

Almost all major municipal libraries in the country maintain voluminous back-stocks of them, their heavy pages over time thickened past the point of bendability by endless glued layer after layer of property updates, infrastructural upgrades, new construction, and the entire re-routing of streets and whole neighborhoods at a time.

Peeling, partially unstuck, and warped into curling waves like oceans, the pages play host to a century or more of built structures, renovations, and replacements, keeping close tabs on what can be insured, for how much, and under what circumstances.

These Sanborn maps are as near-total a catalog of the city's development over time as can be cartographically imagined, with almost every square inch built up into thick scabs of structures upon structures, upon even more structures.

Every pasted edge conceals a preserved strata of earlier revisions and additions, all but daring us to pick at it (we resisted), tempting us to pull ever so slightly at the looser corners, to lift up the surface layer and reveal the other city—there is the city and then there is the city, as novelist China Miéville might describe it, the two, surreally, existing in the same place at the same time—that lies beneath today's Denver, with its competing but complimentary property lines, a city out of synch with itself as you peel away the layers of history.

Each page, as Wendel showed us, turning carefully through the old volumes, is like a plank of wood at this point, archaeologies of layers laminated into something almost more like furniture.

These are books as Kafka might imagine them: enormous, absurd, and so preposterously heavy with the details of local history as to be physically unmanageable. They are books that could wound the librarians who handle them, slipping discs and offsetting spines, causing even historians to second-guess turning their pages.

But this (exaggerated) sense of physical threat is, of course, echoed in the book's content: as we navigated Denver's neighborhoods, we developed a sense for the city as a place of fire risks and dangerous proximities, a city of escape-assisting back alleys counter-balanced by wood-framed meeting halls, its spaces rated for their performance during events of conflagration.

And, in the process, we saw the city as a series of surfaces built up over time, fractally expanding across the Front Range.

The second thing—of many things—worth mentioning was a decidedly less antique item from the collection: a map and pamphlet, produced by the U.S. Geological Survey and compiled by Glenn R. Scott between 1972 and 2004, called Historic Trail Maps in Eastern Colorado and Northeastern New Mexico (you can download the accompanying 45mb PDF here).

As the map's introduction, written by former USGS Director Charles G. Groat—who recently resigned from the University of Texas in a controversy over financial ties to the fracking industry—explains, many of the "historic trails that were the primary pathways used by pioneers to open the Western United States" have been forgotten or erased entirely.

These trails, he continues, "have names that remain familiar today—Santa Fe, Overland, Cherokee, Trappers, Republican Fork, and Smoky Hill Trails. Some of those historic trails have long-since vanished or are now only faintly visible on today’s landscape."

Scott's map and pamphlet are thus an act of preservation, the USGS explains, saving for future generations the wide range of "historic marks left on the land by Native Americans, trappers, prospectors, early road builders, and settlers from about the 1820s to about 1900."

Put another way, Scott made a map of lost roads.

A long slice of the Glenn R. Scott's USGS map, showing lost roads, trails, and camps to the south and east of Denver, Colorado.

As Groat writes in his introduction to Scott's work, the routes and place-names gathered on the map tell the human history and usage of the Coloradan landscape:

Features of the maps include trails used by Native American tribes and trappers before the arrival of European settlers. As the westward movement continued, trading posts, immigrant and prospector trails, stagecoach lines and stage stations, wagon roads, and railroads marked that expansion, and those features are shown on the maps. From the cattle trails and trails over mountain passes to the towns and military camps and forts, the settlement and use of these lands are captured for posterity. Routes taken by prospectors during the great 1859 Gold Rush to the Pikes Peak gold fields are portrayed, as are the world-famous mining camps that followed, including Central City, Blackhawk, Idaho Springs, Georgetown, Fairplay, Aspen, Breckenridge, Leadville, and Cripple Creek. In addition, the routes traversed by early explorers such as Zebulon M. Pike, Stephen H. Long, and John C. Fremont are shown on the maps. The maps reflect the Hispanic and French heritage of much of the region, and the rich history of New Spain, Mexico, and France are imprinted in the names of numerous mountain ranges, prominent peaks, valleys, rivers, and towns.

Scott's own story, meanwhile, is fascinating—equal parts folklore and geological survey of the American West:

Beginning in 1964, Scott realized that in addition to relating the geologic record there was an entirely different story he also wanted to tell. He was fascinated by the historic trails he encountered during his geology fieldwork—trails used by Native Americans and by pioneers and prospectors who settled in Colorado and New Mexico. He resolved to document those trails before they forever vanished. Using aerial photographs, long forgotten historical archives, and other historical texts, he located historic trails all over eastern Colorado and northern New Mexico, and in 1972 he published the first of his 11 historic trail maps.

Indeed, in a nicely circular reference, Scott himself writes that "most of the information I used came from the Denver Public Library, where I was a volunteer in the Genealogy and Western History Department." At the risk of over-using the analogy, he was a kind of James Joyce of the eastern Rockies, going back through deeds of sale, acts of incorporation for now defunct road-building companies, and, no doubt, Sanborn maps, in search of old ways across the landscape.

In a much longer pamphlet listing the sources used for his map, Scott gives some examples of the sorts of narrative coordinates that are all that remains of certain trails:

Starting at Bergen's house and down the gulch southeastward by the Hendershott's house to Myer's Mill on Bear Creek thence by the most practicable route by Luther's place and Parmalee's sawmill to the Turkey Creek Road at the mouth of the gulch opposite Parmalee's water mill on Turkey Creek.


From Boulder City, Boulder County, up and along north side of North Boulder Creek as far as practicable and best route to Central City, Gilpin County.

To which he occasionally adds his own surreal story-form updates, as if the information presented is now that much clearer:

Route was changed as follows: from American Avenue on the west bound- ary of Empire City extending 3 miles up the south bank of Clear Creek, then crossing and extending 3/4 mile up the north bank, recrossing and then 700 feet up the south bank, recrossing and then continuing up the north bank on the route designated in the original article, then up to and thru Vasquez Pass, then on the original route to Bangs or Corral Creek, the western terminus in the original article, then outside the area.

Perhaps most evocative of all, there are also entries that simply read:

Route unknown.

These are the "old ways," as author Robert Macfarlane describes the similarly forgotten trails and routes that spider the landscape of the United Kingdom. In his book of that name, Macfarlane writes that, "once you begin to notice them, you see that the landscape is still webbed with paths and footways—shadowing the modern-day road network, or meeting it at a slant or perpendicular. Pilgrim paths, green roads, drove roads, corpse roads, trods, leys, dykes, drongs, warns, snickets—say the names of paths out loud and at speed and they become a poem or rite—holloways, bostles, shutes, driftways, lichways, ridings, halterpaths, cartways, carneys, causeways, herepaths."

The incantatory geography that Macfarlane refers to is in Britain, but, as Glenn R. Scott's map shows, the prairies, hills, and mountains of the American southwest have their own slowly eroding memory bank of old ways seamed into the ground by human feet, horses, and post wagons.

Briefly, Scott's labyrinthine explorations of trail folklore and historical cartography in Colorado also brings to mind a story published nearly five years ago in The New York Times, on an effort by Vermont's towns and cities to catalog their "ancient roads."

As the Times explained, a 2006 state law had given Vermont residents a strong incentive to rediscover their state's buried and forgotten throughways by allowing municipalities to claim them as official town lands (thus ensuring that they remain as public lands, unable to be claimed by private landowners). As a result, the Times reported, "citizen volunteers are poring over record books with a common, increasingly urgent purpose: finding evidence of every road ever legally created in their towns, including many that are now impassable and all but unobservable."

These "elusive roads"—many of them "now all but unrecognizable as byways"—are lost routes, connecting equally erased destinations. In almost all particular cases, they have barely even left a trace on the ground; their presence is almost entirely textual. They are not just lost roads, in other words, mere unstable geographies flashing in and out of county land registers. They are road that have been deterrestrialized: scrubbed from the surface of the earth.

As the Times acknowledges, "Even for history buffs, the challenge is steep: evidence of ancient roads may be scattered through antique record books, incomplete or hard to make sense of." Accordingly:

Some towns, content to abandon the overgrown roads that crisscross their valleys and hills, are forgoing the project. But many more have recruited teams to comb through old documents, make lists of whatever roads they find evidence of, plot them on maps and set out to locate them.

Like something out of the geography-obsessed poetry of Paul Metcalf—part map, part deep social history, part regional etymology for re-reading place names as the myths that they are—the descriptions found in these old municipal documents are narrative, impressionistic, and vague, perfectly in tune with what Glenn R. Scott found in Colorado.

Returning to The New York Times, for instance, these descriptions "might be, 'Starting at Abel Turner’s front door and going to so-and-so’s sawmill,' said Aaron Worthley, a member of the ancient roads committee in Huntington, southeast of Burlington. 'But the house might have burned down 100 years ago. And even if not, is the front door still where it was in 1815? These are the kinds of questions we’re dealing with.'"

As Wendel told us, these sorts of cryptic references to lost byways are not only of interest to local historians—attorneys form another interest group who consult the Denver Public Library's archives with some frequency. In Vermont, too, the Times reports that these acts of perambulatory interpretation came to be part of a much larger, although fairly mundane, attempt to end "fights between towns and landowners whose property abuts or even intersects ancient roads."

In the most infamous legal battle, the town of Chittenden blocked a couple from adding on to their house, saying the addition would encroach on an ancient road laid out in 1793. Town officials forced a showdown when they arrived on the property with chain saws one day in 2004, intending to cut down trees and bushes on the road until the police intervened.

The article here goes on to refer to one local, a lawyer, who explains that "he loved getting out and looking for hints of ancient roads: parallel stone walls or rows of old-growth trees about 50 feet apart. Old culverts are clues, too, as are cellar holes that suggest people lived there; if so, a road probably passed nearby." Think of it as landscape hermeneutics: peeling back the layers in the map to reveal a vanished landscape.

"Botanical Profile representing the Forest Trees along the route explored by Lieut. A. W. Whipple, Corps. of Top. Eng., near the Parallel of 35º North Latitude, 1853-1854." Prepared by J. M. Bigelow, M.D., Botanist to the Expedition. U.S. Pacific Rail Road Exploration & Survey, War Department.

Wendel led us on through the archive's sedimentary record of human movement across the Coloradan landscape, from a filing cabinet stuffed full of railroad timetables and accident records to an overflowing folder of newspaper clippings on Denver International Airport conspiracy theories. A mournful subsection focused on anticipatory documentation of future erasures: a gorgeous 1854 botanical profile of a proposed U.S. Pacific railway route and the business-like binders of the much more recent I-25 environmental impact assessment.

Our day in the Denver Public Library was itself a kind of lost trail, as we noted with amusement that various quirks of the building made it hard to remember which stairwell we had taken to get to a certain floor—and, thus, whether we could even access that floor or the collections Wendel Cox had in mind for us—and it became abundantly clear that even libraries have their own kind of curatorial folklore, a personal but by no means written down knowledge of where to find certain books, objects, files, or collections, what those artifacts, in turn, mean for other things encountered in the archive, and how certain narrative strands tie a library, and a landscape, together from within.

Many thanks to Myra Rich for suggesting that Venue should meet with Wendel Cox, and for making the introduction, as well as to Wendel himself, for sharing his time and knowledge so generously. This post contains a few paragraphs previously published on BLDGBLOG.
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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