Oolite CEO Dennis Scholl leaves to focus on creating his own art full time
A large part of Dennis Scholl’s success as an arts leader, collector, documentary filmmaker, and every one of his endeavors from attorney to entrepreneur is that when he commits to something, he does just that – commit.
For the past six years, he has been devoted to Oolite Arts as the president and CEO of the Miami-based non-profit artist support organization. Prior to that, from 2009 to 2015, he was vice president for arts at John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, where he oversaw the foundation’s national arts program, directing the giving of grants to artists and arts organizations.
Now, after years of being a supporter of artists and leaving the art-making to artists, Scholl says it is time to turn his attention to his own creative practice.
“I was a patron and a collector and a fan,” says Scholl. (For context, in 44 years of collecting, he’s amassed nearly 2,000 works and continues to purchase art.)
It was in 2009 when he made his first film, the six-minute short “Sunday’s Best,” a documentary that highlighted the African-American custom of wearing extraordinary hats to church services. He co-directed it with two other filmmakers, Marlon Johnson and Chad Tingle, and he felt what having his own creative practice was like.
“I enjoyed the process and the collaborative part of filmmaking,” he says. “And (the film) received a lot of attention.”
Since then, he’s made 100 short films and seven feature-length documentaries about art and artists.
And while he loves filmmaking and will continue, Scholl says that about eight years ago he felt he wanted to expand his practice. “I wanted to try and do something that didn’t take 15 people to make a piece of art. Films are collaborative and you need so many people – a photographer, a sound person . . .”
He began focusing on the question: “What is it that I know and do that I can bring to an art practice?”
Then, as someone who has been “collecting things almost since birth,” he began “poking around in that.”
The poking unearthed an interest he has always had in collecting historical ephemera, which has led to where he is now. It brings together his desire to create original art with his penchant for collecting.
Scholl began to look for historical and branded original objects, some that he already obtained from bidding at auctions and others that he would and will continue to acquire to create his original works.
“I generally reassemble the individual objects creating a dodecagon, a 12-sided figure,” he says.
In March, he exhibited his first solo show, titled “The Texture of Memory,” in Berlin, featuring nearly 20 works.
One of the pieces in the Berlin show was created with ephemera purchased from Yankee Clipper Joe DiMaggio’s estate, which included film footage and newspapers.
“I bought footage of him on his honeymoon with Marilyn Monroe and then I bought the New York Daily News’ newspapers from the week that Marilyn died and I put them together,” says Scholl.
There’s a Miami Beach connection to the inspiration for “Untitled (DiMaggio honeymoon), 2022,” Scholl recounts.
“Every day I’d go to breakfast at a place called Arnie & Richie’s (525 Arthur Godfrey Road). In fact, I still do. But back in the day, Joe DiMaggio would be there almost every morning. He was taciturn. You couldn’t approach him, you couldn’t ask him for an autograph or a picture, you couldn’t smile, you couldn’t even look at him. I would think, ‘Why is he like that, he’s one of the greatest baseball players ever, so why is he so unhappy.’ Then I made this piece about him and about Marilyn dying.”
Another one of the pieces is made up of royalty statements Scholl acquired at an auction for songs written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney.
He told ARTNews that taking “objects of desire,” like the DiMaggio footage and the Beatles’ original ledger sheets, “draws you into this collective memory we all share.”
Scholl says as much as the work resonates with him personally, it has with others. After the show in Berlin, he got offers to have shows in England and France. “I’m going to Poland in July to see if I might do a show there, and a gallery wants to keep working with me and do a show in Beijing,” he says.
Stepping away from all that’s happening with Oolite wasn’t an easy decision. He was at the forefront of Oolite’s major modern transition – a move from Lincoln Road to a sprawling new urban village, its $30 million headquarters in Little River, designed by Spanish architectural firm Barozzi Vega.
And, as anyone might do when considering a significant career change, he thought aloud to a trusted colleague.
“I called Franklin Sirmans (the director of the Pérez Art Museum Miami). And I said, ‘Franklin, I have all these opportunities,’ ” he told Sirmans referring to what was coming to him with the interest in his art practice. ” ‘But you know at Oolite, I want to finish up the building, which is going to be another two years. So, I think I’m going to defer the opportunities.’ ”
He remembers Sirmans’ response: “He laughed. And he said, ‘Dennis, that’s not how the art world works. Somehow you have gotten all these opportunities out of your first show and you have to keep going now if you want to keep the momentum.’ ”
Scholl says that in the same month, he received offers to do two films with good budgets.
“You can’t do all that and have a full-time job,” says Scholl. He consulted with his wife, Debra, and made the decision. “I’m going to go for it.”
He’ll continue to consult for Oolite and won’t officially leave his position until later this year. Oolite has already announced it will conduct a national search for his replacement who will open the new campus with an expected completion in 2025.
And while Scholl says he never says never – “I’m not someone who forecloses any opportunity down the road” – he believes that what he calls his “third act” will be making films and art for the next 15 years.
“How exciting it is for me to have the opportunity to be part of an artist community that I embrace and that I revere and now can be a part of it in a different way,” he says.