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A chat with alumnus and art collector Dennis Scholl
The Nevada Art Museum installation. Photography by Chris Holloman

A chat with alumnus and art collector Dennis Scholl

July 27, 2020 at 3:45pm

Alumnus Dennis Scholl—the president and CEO of Oolite Arts, a 35-year-old organization dedicated to supporting visual arts in Miami —is a filmmaker and major collector of contemporary art. His willingness to experiment and encourage artists and curators to push boundaries is well known in the art world. 

Over the last 20 years, Scholl has created a series of initiatives dedicated to building the contemporary art collections of museums; served on the boards and executive committees of various museums and art organizations; and received numerous awards and accolades for his work.

Lesser-known fact: he and his wife Debra have one of the largest private collections of Aboriginal Australian art in the country and have decided to share that passion with as many people as possible.

“The Inside World,” a show made up of Aboriginal Australian memorial poles, is completing a four museum tour and the couple recently donated 200 works from this collection in a joint gift to The Met, the Nevada Museum of Art and the Frost Art Museum FIU.

We recently chatted with the FIU alumnus about the exhibition, which is currently on view (virtually) at the Frost Art Museum FIU.

Q. Tell me about The Inside World and how it came together?

A. People ask me all the time: 'what’s a memorial pole?' The show is a contemporary art exhibition that takes a time-honored tradition in the Aboriginal Australian community of preparing a vessel for people after they pass and decorating it with clan designs and symbols that are important to the community. A couple of years after that person is buried, they dig up the bones; they take the hollow painted log; they drop the bones inside of the pole; and then they are deemed buried, in their tradition.

That isn't done anymore. We went to a place called Arnhem Land and asked artists if they would make us memorial poles. Some of the communities were making the poles for artistic expression and others had stopped, and we had managed to get the communities and the art world excited about it again. Most of the memorial poles were commissioned from artists in various communities in Arnhem Land.

Q. I understand that you and your wife are collectors of the largest private collection of Aboriginal Australian art in the U.S. Why is this collection important to you?

A. We have been collecting art together for 43 years. We view our collecting as a series of ongoing projects. When we started, we started collecting prints because frankly, it’s all we could afford and then subsequently we built a photo based collection, and every decade we tend to change…about 13 years ago, we got a little disinterested in the contemporary art world…but I can’t not collect. I went to Australia because I make wine there, and a friend suggested that I go see Aboriginal and Australian contemporary art…I didn't think it was for me but I went to an art gallery of New South Wales, and it was an epiphany. I was blown away and couldn't’ believe it.

It was an opportunity that I saw to bring a lot of light to some of the world’s greatest art that has not received much attention previously.

Q. At the end of this show the memorial poles will be dispersed to The Met, The Nevada Museum of Art and the Frost Art Museum FIU. How did you choose these three institutions as the recipients of the poles?

A. We chose each of these museums to share in this gift for very specific reasons. The Met because it’s an important center of this kind of work in the world; the Nevada Museum of Art made a huge commitment to the project and are logistically running it; and we wanted to have the work in Miami because that’s where we live and the obvious place to have it was a teaching museum. FIU is my alma mater, and we thought the Frost would be a great place for it so that students could interact with the collection.

Q. Why is this an important exhibition for South Florida?

A. I think that everywhere we have sent the work, the community response has been the most rewarding. To   bring them together in a critical mass and then to find a permanent home for the work means that the Frost now has one of the best collections of Aboriginal Australian art in the country. FIU President Mark Rosenberg always points to excellence, and we think that by putting this gift together, and putting it in the museum, it's really compelling.

Q. What advice would you give to a new collector?

A. People say to me all the time: 'I want to begin collecting art, but I don’t have the resources.' I don’t agree with that. You can start with any amount of money. One way to start, is by looking around your community and start collecting art at various entry points…there are a lot of entry points for collecting. Now you have the added benefit of being in Miami –there are 22 art fairs [in] a week—a cornucopia of opportunity. The Untitled Art Fair (12th and Ocean on Miami Beach) and NADA are great places for young collectors.