Sunday, July 15, 2012

Interview with the Knight Foundation's Dennis Scholl

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on ....................."

Dennis Scholl is the Vice President / Arts for the Knight Foundation.  He oversees the foundation's national arts program, including the Knight Arts Challenge and Random Acts of Culture.  He is well known as a collector of contemporary art for over three decades.  Dennis is also the founder of a series of initiatives dedicated to building the contemporary art collections of museums, including the Guggenheim, the Tate Modern and the Miami Art Museum.  He is a three time regional Emmy winner for his work in cultural documentaries.    Dennis is also the co-founder of Betts and Scholl, an award winning wine project.  He is currently a Harvard University Advanced Leadership Fellow, focusing on the role of culture in community engagement.  Previously he was a practicing attorney and CPA.  

BARRY:   The guiding principle of the Knight Foundation is to fund projects that foster the arts, promote more informed communities, and that engage the eight Knight communities in collective cultural experiences.  It seems to me that you have been very creative and out-of-the-box in fashioning projects that seek input from the field and which capture the imagination and interest of those within - and outside of - our field.   I refer specifically to the 1000 Random Acts of Culture, the solicitation of the best ideas from the field in Philadelphia and Miami, and the cross sponsored journalism project unveiled at last year's GIA conference.  What is the philosophy behind taking a more innovative approach to arts philanthropy and do you see what you are doing at Knight to presage what more funders might be doing in the future?

DENNIS:   With Knight’s overall focus on promoting informed and engaged communities, we look for ways to engage communities through the arts, to use culture to inspire people to be their best and their community’s best self. At the heart of that is looking at ways to engage audiences.

We think a lot about where arts audiences might be headed.  Our national demography is changing rapidly, the digital revolution finds us online more and more (the average 14 year old is online 53 hours a week!) and a plethora of choices creates an ever-fragmented audience.  These three challenges keep arts organizations and funders awake at night.

We are always looking for arts grantees who are not only about artistic excellence, but are willing to meet audiences where they are going – not where they used to be.  For example, in the orchestra world, Miami’s New World Symphony has 30 minute drop-in concerts for a modest ticket price and outside simulcasts on their permanent 90’ x 120’ screen, allowing for patrons to be spontaneous.  Both are extremely popular. Charlotte Symphony also just collaborated with internationally renowned visual artist Matthew Weinstein, to create an animated 3D film that is shown while they play Ravel’s Bolero on the stage.

Here’s a picture of the leading lady:   (Image from Matthew Weinstein’s video commission for Ravel’s Bolero. Provided by the artist)

It takes innovation and bravery to keep up with your audience today.

You also mentioned our arts challenges in Miami and Philadelphia, which are community-wide contests that seek the best ideas for the local arts scene. From our work in communities over 60 plus years, we’ve found that often the best answers to problems, and the most innovative ideas, come from within a community. We as a foundation don’t think we have all the answers and all the ideas. We don’t want to be prescriptive. So whether it’s in media innovation or in the arts, we’ve decided to tap the power of the crowd for new ideas. When we ask the community that simple question – “what’s your best idea for the arts?” - people find it empowering.  It engages them more in thinking about their cultural community, and about themselves as a creative person. We did the same when we worked with the NEA on looking for new models for strengthening arts journalism – we posed the question to communities about what they thought was the best way forward.  We’re never disappointed with the responses.

BARRY:   As a follow up to the first question, many foundations have expanded their efforts in working with local communities by partnering with community foundations in localized re-granting programs.  What is your assessment of this trend, where might it be refined and improved and what do your think are the measurable impacts that justify it?

DENNIS:   Knight works with community foundations in the 26 communities where we invest, because we’ve found they are valuable partners who have their finger on the pulse of the community. In the arts, though, our funding is concentrated in just eight of those communities where we actually have resident program directors. Each of them are community leaders themselves and work with us to seek out the most interesting, forward thinking cultural grantees.

We also have a Knight National Art Advisory Committee comprised of Mitchell Kahan – Director and Chief Executive Officer, Akron Art Museum, Scott Provancher – President, Arts & Science Council in Charlotte, Aaron Dworkin – Founder and President, Sphinx Organization in Detroit, Yolanda “Y-O” Latimore, Founder and Artistic Director, Poetic Peace Arts in Macon, Silvia Karman Cubiñá, Executive Director and Chief Curator, Bass Museum of Art in Miami, Gary P. Steuer – Chief Cultural Officer, City of Philadelphia, Laura Zabel – Executive Director, Springboard for the Arts in St. Paul,  Anjee Helstrup-Alvarez – Executive Director, MACLA/Movimiento de Arte y Cultura Latino Americana in San Jose, and Damian Woetzel - Jerome Robbins Foundation "New Essential Works" Program – Director, Vail International Dance Festival – Director.
They are all art innovators, both at a community and national level.

We don’t hesitate to call on them when we are looking at projects where they have geographic or discipline expertise.  The national arts team also spends a lot of time on the ground in each community looking at the cultural ecosystem.  As an example, we have had excellent success in Charlotte working with the Arts and Science Council, on a regranting program.  Our experience has been that designated local arts agencies are the best pipeline for this kind of effort.  They’re used to working with outside funders and have convening power in their communities, along with the ability to identify and drive collaborative opportunities.  The digital revolution allows good ideas to spread rapidly, and arts organizations have been quick to try projects like Community Supported Art, a great project that started in St. Paul based on the farm share/Community Supported Agriculture model. Instead of vegetables, residents buy boxes of locally made art. So far, 25 cities have picked it up.

BARRY:   Many foundations are restricted in their charters to local territorial investment.  Knight focuses on eight principal communities in its arts funding - a fairly representative national sampling.  To what extent do you think in terms of what national impact your localized funding will have across the sector, and / or the replicability of projects to address sector wide issues?

DENNIS:   It is rewarding to see a project take off like Random Acts of Culture, where we took performing artists out of the symphony hall and into shopping malls, airports and farmers markets to do spontaneous surprise performances.  While we launched it in the eight Knight resident cities, it has been replicated thousands of times, not just nationally, but internationally by people who have watched one of our videos and decided to independently produce their own.  We just completed our 935th Random Acts of Culture.  We’ve also received over 10 million views on the web.

Similarly, our efforts to expand St. Paul’s Community Supported Arts (CSA) program into the eight communities and Power2Give (P2G) from Charlotte to Miami has spawned numerous additional sites outside the Knight communities.  We have had a number of other funders look at our localized funding initiatives and launch them in their own communities.  We encourage this and are always available to help accomplish these expansions.  The digital revolution allows good ideas to spread rapidly, and arts organizations have been quick to try projects like CSA and P2G.

BARRY:   In a general sense, what do you think are the most important issues facing the arts philanthropic community, and what is your assessment of how we are addressing those challenges?  What are we doing right, and where are we falling short?  What areas do you think ought to be prioritized in terms of our national foundational goals?  What do you think about the idea (and the feasibility) of creating a national arts funder policy statement to guide arts philanthropy priorities?

DENNIS:  Wow, Barry, big question.  But the one issue that I spend a lot of time on is how to catch up with the arts audience that more and more is defined by individuals seeking to curate their own experience, and move away from traditional presentation models.
Both arts organizations, and we as funders, may have been a bit slow to react to this seismic drift in audiences.

Take a look at Sunil Iyengar’s NEA study, Participation 2.0, for some of the facts that make up this sobering reality.  I do see a grand awakening by arts organizations to these trends, but I believe that we all need to make these audience engagement issues an urgent priority in our programmatic, strategic and funding efforts.

We at Knight, also feel particularly strongly about the digital revolution and what it means to our current and future consumption of culture.  As a foundation founded on quality journalism, we have seen that industry decimated due to being slow to react to this profound change in the industry.  Frankly, I see many parallels to this in the arts field.  Too many arts websites provide the user with only opening hours and location, with no content that enhances the onsite programming, or allows the user to learn about the programming prior to or after attending.  Arts groups need to have an integrated digital and mobile strategy for reaching their audience.  In this day and age, it can’t be an afterthought.

Your question regarding a national arts funder policy statement is an interesting one.  Each arts funder has its own mission, and while a national dialogue among us is always necessary, and the GIA and AFTA in particular do a wonderful job providing a platform for those discussions, we at Knight tend to prefer an entrepreneurial, risk capital approach which hopefully yields successful models that can then be replicated.

That being said, there is one area that I believe we can all agree on and work toward – that is the issue of a sustainability model for arts and culture in America.
(I’ve given a synopsis of a new project in this area in the response to question 5, below)

BARRY:   Along the lines of the above question, what do you think the overall role of foundational arts funding is, or should be?  Do you, for example, have any specific thoughts you might like to share with respect to supporting programs in: arts and aging, arts education, arts and social justice or support for individual artists?  What role do you think the nation's arts foundation funders ought to take with respect to such issues as advocacy and public policy, professional development for our arts administrators and managers, or the issue of equity in funding?

DENNIS:   I’m so glad you asked me to comment on policy issues.  I just finished a semester up in Cambridge as a 2012 Harvard University Advanced Leadership Fellow, continuing to work on community engagement through culture.  One of the most exciting projects I’ve encountered in the national arts policy area is called the Initiative for Sustainable Arts in America (“ISAA”).  It is led by Jim Bildner, out of the Hauser Center for Non Profits in the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.  ISAA is launching this year with the stated goal of creating a grassroots movement to establish a national arts policy.  It also asks communities to take increased responsibility for supporting their cultural assets.  The project will begin by assessing the cultural assets of six communities across America – Boston, Detroit, Los Angeles, Miami, Minneapolis/St. Paul and Philadelphia, along with initiating a community and national dialogue about the misalignment of community appreciation for cultural assets and the limited personal and philanthropic donor pool.  I’m enthusiastic about the prospects for this project.  It’s an idea whose time has come in America.

Stay tuned as Jim and I hope to present this project at the Grantmakers in the Arts National Convention in Miami this coming October.

BARRY:   A growing trend in arts funding is for various disparate parts of our sector's grant makers (public and private) to collaborate and work together.  How is Knight working to foster more joint efforts and partnerships?  How might the full range of arts funders' collaboration be moved forward given the obstacles and barriers?

DENNIS:   For me the most exciting examples of public/private collaboration out there right now have come from the willingness of the National Endowment for the Arts to reach out and work with so many private funders.  ArtPlace is the leading example of that.  ArtPlace was created by NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman, is led by Carol Coletta and housed at the NonProfit Financial Fund.  ArtPlace is a consortium of the dozen largest arts funders in America collaborating with five banks from the private sector and Cabinet-level participants from HUD, HHS, Agriculture, Education, Domestic Policy and others.  The goal of ArtPlace is to encourage creative placemaking by searching for arts-led vibrancy in communities and funding that momentum.

I am fortunate to serve as the founding chair of the executive committee and operating committee of ArtPlace.  Rocco and Carol’s efforts have raised close to $40 million to date and so far, over two rounds, we’ve given out $26.4 million to 83 projects. You can see a list at

The opportunity to work hand in hand with my colleagues at Ford, Rockefeller, Kresge, Irvine and others, along with the bankers and the federal agency has expanded how we all look at integrating the arts into the growth and development of our communities.

BARRY:   Engagement is the current hot topic buzz word in audience development.  What is your take on that dialogue and trend?

DENNIS:   Engagement is the raison d’etre of the arts.  We must continue to try and find ways to reach audiences, especially as they have so many choices.  Today’s audiences want a multi-media experience and want to participate in the artistic experience.

BARRY:   What kinds of research do you think the field needs to pay more attention to and why?

DENNIS:   We’ve made an investment in the Cultural Data Project in St. Paul.  That continues to show promise as being a long term solution to the existing data gap in our field.  The NEA, under Sunil Iyengar’s leadership, remains a thoughtful generator of incredibly useful research, especially in the area of audience participation.  My colleague at Knight Foundation, Mayur Patel, continues to push us to experiment with finding new addressable metrics and to seek new ways to use the data we receive from the crowd sourced ideas contests.  We need data to support our contention as a field that the arts play a significant role in the social and economic vitality of their communities.  As my AFTA colleague Randy Cohen just wrote “Without the data, you’re just another person with an opinion!”

BARRY:   You have both a journalistic / photographic and museum background, and an enviable eclectic resume prior to your joining Knight.  What have you learned so far at your post?  What do you want to talk about the most when you meet other leaders in the field?

DENNIS:   When asked about my “eclectic” resume, I just explain that I have a short attention span!  I think the biggest learning for me since coming to Knight has been that the tools I used as a venture capitalist, looking at funding and operating startups, don’t all apply as a philanthropist funding arts grantees.

People in the arts field are fiercely passionate, and have given up a lot on a personal level to make art and participate in the cultural community.  So my approach to decision making and communication has had to evolve to acknowledge and respect that passion.

I’ve been involved in the arts for decades, but these last three years has been an immersive experience.  It’s like drinking from a fire hose every day.  I feel that coming from outside the field has allowed me to try some things that might be a little out of the box and to make some grants to artists and organizations that are not necessarily traditional arts grantees.  All great arts ideas don’t originate inside the 501c3 structure.  I think that opening the granting process to everyone in a community, in essence crowdsourcing the best ideas has brought many more people under the arts tent in our communities.  We’ve received close to 10,000 ideas for the Knight Arts Challenge in Miami and Philadelphia.  (I know this to be true because I’ve read each and every one of them over the last four years!)  That sense of openness, seeking diverse opinions but still focusing on artistic excellence, is the hallmark of what we try to do at Knight Foundation.

BARRY:   Rocco Landesman has made great strides in putting the arts on the agenda of other federal agencies in cooperative and collaborative partnerships with the NEA.  Do you see any role for arts foundation programs reaching out on both the federal and state levels in this kind of effort?  How might that work?

DENNIS:   I can’t say enough about Rocco and how he has totally changed the game.  Instead of viewing the NEA as a distribution committee, he has put them out there as a convener, collaborator and changemaker.  He has expanded the arts funding pie and aligned the arts with all arms of the federal government.  His senior team, especially Joan Shigekawa and Jamie Bennett, are also true thought leaders in the field.  We recently collaborated with them on the NEA/Knight Community Arts Journalism Challenge where we invited the eight Knight resident communities to give us their new ideas for arts journalism in the digital age.  We received hundreds of responses and announced three new collaborative models for arts journalism in Charlotte, Detroit and Philadelphia which are already underway and producing new reviews, features and news stories.
We are also excited that the NEA will take the program national this year and Knight will continue to support by matching successful community arts journalism ideas that receive NEA funding in the Knight communities.

BARRY:  Thanks, Dennis, for your thoughts.

DENNIS:  Thank you Barry, for allowing me to share some of the ideas the Knight Foundation arts program is funding.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit