By Jean Nayar | December 15, 2017 | People
Power couple Debra and Dennis Scholl open up about building a community and redefining a city though art and culture.
They may be long-standing pillars of the Miami community, but the lives of Debra and Dennis Scholl are in a constant state of change. They both started their careers as lawyers, then moved on to redeveloping property in South Beach. Over time they’ve also become passionate collectors and supporters of the arts, serving on the boards of world-class museums, such as the Tate, the Guggenheim and PAMM. Ardent oenophiles, they recently turned their attention toward wine-making and launched an award-winning label in Australia. And Dennis now makes documentary films, including the Emmy Award-winning Deep City: The Birth of the Miami Sound. He was also just appointed the president and CEO of the ArtCenter/South Florida, where he plans to bring to light the work of a new generation of artists in the Sunshine State. Before Art Week in Miami each year, the couple hosts an annual “Rehanging” event for which a well-known curator mounts an exhibition of works from their own collection in their home in South Beach. We caught up with them just after this year’s Rehanging was completed to dish about art, wine, movies and their extraordinary, ever-evolving lives in the Magic City.
Have you lived in Miami all your lives?
Debra: I’ve lived here since 1971, when my family moved to Hollywood, Florida, and Dennis has lived here since 1963, so we’re basically natives.
What appealed to you about your condo on Miami Beach as a place to settle?
Debra: We’ve lived here since August 2010. We moved from a really charming house on the Venetian Islands that was built in 1930, and we loved it, but it needed a lot of work. So we decided to try a condo and we found this one, which we liked because it has really high ceilings and a good layout for hanging art, and I particularly loved the light. So we purchased it, and then later we bought the unit next to us and we joined them. We also purchased another unit down the hall that we use to store some art.
Dennis: All we ever care about is whether it has good art walls.
When did you start collecting art?
Debra: Dennis and I met in law school and we started collecting then, in October of 1978. I’ve always had an art appreciation but never had that collecting gene. And Dennis never really had a background in art. He never really was exposed much until he was in college, but he had a passion for art, and so we started collecting limited-edition prints because that’s all we could afford when we were in law school.
Do you collect works from a particular group of artists?
Dennis: We have five different collections; we change about every 10 years. We have the print collection, the photo collection; we have a conceptual collection from the early 2000s, and we built a fairly large Aboriginal collection of contemporary art, which now is the largest in the country. But now we’re building a post-war and contemporary drawing collection.
You hosted a Rehanging event recently. Is that something you’ve been doing on a regular basis?
Dennis: Yes. About 17 years ago a curator came to our home, and he made a wisecrack about how we were the kind of collectors who hang the last thing we buy over the mantelpiece. That made me frustrated because I wanted the placement to look as good as the art. So we invited that curator to hang it himself. We were like, ‘Well, if you don’t think it’s good, you do it.’ And sure enough we came home after a couple of days and he had done an amazing job. His name is Douglas Fogle, and we knew right there we were onto something great. So the next year we invited a different curator, and we gave him the keys to where we live and the keys to our art storage and organized a bunch of art wranglers, and we left. We said, ‘Look, hang whatever you want—our deal is we’re going to live with it for a year no matter what you do.’
How extensive is your collection?
Dennis: Now we have probably 1,200 works in the collection. We gave 300 pieces to PAMM in 2013, and we’ve given work away before, but we’ve ended up with close to 1,200. So now there are about 80 pieces hanging.
How did you choose Diana Nawi to curate the art this year?
Debra: She used to work at the Pérez Art Museum, and we had a nice relationship with her and like her curatorial aesthetic, so we offered her the job. Dennis: We have invited some of the most important curators in the world to come and do this; they worked at museums like the Morgan and the Tate. Franklin Sirmans [currently director at PAMM] did it three years ago, so we’ve always looked out for up-and-coming curators in the contemporary art world. Last year, because we have so much Aboriginal art we had the leading contemporary curator in Australia, Rachel Kent, who’s a curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, hang the art.
Which are some of your favorite works in this particular hanging?
Dennis: I’m particularly excited about the drawings by Donald Judd and Fred Sandback.
Debra: My favorites are the eight drawings in the hall by Zarouhie Abdalian. The other artists I like are Sadie Barnette and Huma Bhabha.
Does your point of view change every year while you live amid a rarefied sphere defined by the works around you?
Dennis: There are works that we bought 38 years ago and there are works that we bought 38 minutes ago, but the curators don’t know when the work was bought, they don’t know what the relationship was between us and the artist or the dealer, and so they really look at it as pure art and it’s all about the aesthetics of the juxtapositions that they create. For us, we’re giving up control of the thing that we’ve spent our entire lives building for 40 years and we let somebody else come in and decide what we’re going to look at for a year.
Works of art are like good friends.
Debra: Yes, for many years most of ours are away, and when they come back it feels like a reunion.
In addition to collecting art in Australia, you also make wine there. Do you own a vineyard, or do you collaborate with someone?
Dennis: We have a contract to purchase all of the grapes from a specific vineyard in the Barossa Valley in south Australia. It is a property that has been in the same family since 1840, the Craft family. They have very old Shiraz vines, and we have contracted with them to take that fruit every year from now on and use it to make our new Shiraz, called Mother Tongue.