Interview with the Knight Foundation's Dennis Scholl

by Barry Hessenius  

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.

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.

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About the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Knight Foundation supports transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts. We believe that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged. For more, visit