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Paulina Kolczynska Conversation with Dennis and Debra Scholl
The Miami based collectors talk about their continuing
attraction to contemporary art
(Interview Published by Artindex (Gabrius) Fall 2002)

Andreas Gursky, Chicago Board of Trade, 1997, 1997, c-print, 71x94 1/2 in (180x239xm)

Dennis and Debra Scholl have been collecting contemporary art together for 24 years. They are the founding chairs of the Guggenheim Museum Photography Acquisition Committee and the Tate American Acqu7isition Committee.  A show of their photography collection entitled “imperfect Innocence: Selections from the Scholl Collection, 1992-2002” will tour in 2003 at venues including the Baltimore Contemporary Art Museum and the Palm Beach Institute of Contemporary Art.

Paulina Kolczynska: Why did you start collecting?

The Scholls: We both had an initial interest in art, but it was Dennis who really waned to collect. We started with contemporary prints in 1978. Our collection included pieces by Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, Susan Rothenberg, John Baldessari and Elizabeth Murray. We stopped collecting for about five years while we were starting a business and then started again about ten years ago. We got back into collecting by going to the auctions and coincidentally acquiring three photo-based works by Lorna Simpson, Barbara Kruger and Alfredo Jaar. Once you own three of anything it becomes a collection!

Paulina Kolczynska: Was it then you decided to create a purely photographic collection?

The Scholls: We asked ourselves whether a collection based solely on photo-based art could be a collection. If this wasn’t too narrow a focus.  The difficulty about collecting, I think is to make sure that your collection is not so idiosyncratic and personal that it doesn’t mean anything to other people. But also, that it’s not so broad that you are unable to establish a relationship between the works in the collection. It is a tension to get this balance right. We have decided to focus on art from our own time and photography-based works.

Paul Pfeiffer, Long count 3 (Thrilla in Manilaa), 2001, video sculpture, 4x6x60 in (10x15x152com)

Paulina Kolczynska: Since you have a strict time frame, do you buy in-depth works by one artist or only selected examples? If so, do you resell older pieces?

The Scholl: WIn general, we try to collect in-depth.  When we buy for the first time, we try to get at least two pieces.  And since it is about art from our time, we buy very early work, it’s much easier to retain everything.  Whatever we acquire in particular year is reflective of how the art world looked that year.  We are close enough to the cutting edge art world to be focused on what we thought was interesting at that time. So, it’s not so important to resell works as we go forward.

Paulina Kolczynska: Can you describe the selection process?

The Scholls: Even if we fall in love with the work, we don’t buy right away. We talk a lot at first. We both have to be passionate about it. If a piece keeps you wake at night, that’s piece worth having. We also collect together. We have a two-vote rule: both of us have to be convinced about it. This rule is a cornerstone of the collection- we look for consensus. I don’t think we have missed much great work because we have not agreed on things. Time has shown that the two of us collecting together creates a much better collection than each of us separately. If you want to have a good collection, you have to spend a lot of time looking at art and very little time acquiring it. It takes a lot of discipline.

Paulina Kolczynska: Primarily, you have examples from the 90’s and early 21st century. How do you go about choosing the actual artist and do you take into consideration the intellectual context of the work?

The Scholls: At the beginning we acquired brand new work by emerging artists. Over the past 3-4 years, however we have found that in order to reflect the innovations  and the direction of the chosen artists we have to acquire works by the artist from the previous generation and create a context that helps explain the direction of the new work. We enlarged our contemporary collection by adding works by artists who were mentors to the emerging artists we collect. That’s why we acquired pieces by John Baldessari, Richard Prince, Cindy Sherman and the Bechers. These are all artists that are universally admired by the current generation of photographers. In order to understand where the inspiration and artistic background of emerging artists came from, we had to include works by their mentors.

Paulina Kolczynska: Who are yours primary consultants? Do you discuss your decisions with the curators or collectors?

The Scholls: We get most of our feedback from curators that we think have the finger on the pulse of the contemporary art world. We don’t use consultants to collect. We are very fortunate living in Miami Beach because we are surrounded by four of the most fantastic collections in the world: the Rubell Family, Martin Margulies, the Bramans, and the De La Cruzs. We have spent a lot of time traveling together and looking at works of art with these great collectors. We are always conversing about art with them.

Paulina Kolczynska: You also have a special relationship with a number of curators who, by invitation “curate” a display of your collection at your home. How did this come about ?

The Schols: As collectors, we have found that we aren’t very good at showing our collection. That’s why after a few frustrating sessions we decided that there must be abetter way to displsy the work. So, we invited a curator to come down to Miami and install the collection. Pretty soon, it became an annual event where we brought out everything from our storage and we’d invite a curator from a major museum. We leave them alone in our house, and they spend a few days hanging works of art throughout our entire home. They have complete creative control, as we leave during the installation .   When we come home, there is anew installation of our collection. Each curator brings a different vision to the collection. The way they juxtapose works causes us to see new interpretations. So far we have used Douglas Fogle from the walker Art Centre, Minneapolis, and Matthew Drutt, the chief curator of the Menil Collection, Houston. We also had Connie Butlker from L.A. MOCA. We choose young curators because they’re more in tune with the edgy nature of the work. We have never been disappointed with the results as the curators have each approached the task very seriously. This year we have invited Rochelle Steiner, chief curator of the Serpentine Gallery in London.

Paulina Kolczynska: In anumber of cases, you have stressed that the Scholl Collection is about “our time”. Time, however, goes foreword. Whatever is current becomes the past. And also changes is your taste. How has your taste changed over the past decade?

The Scholls: Over the years, we have started gravitating towards more conceptual contemporary photography. We look for smart and intellectually challenging pieces. Art is never just about beauty for us –never.

Paulina Kolczynska: So your choices are more European, and yu look at art rather with your brains then with your eyes?

The Scholls: It’s always the intellectual challenge and the motivation of the artist. I think you are right, we have started looking more towards Europe. We are interested in European artists like Simon Starling, Olafur Eliasson and Asian artists like Zhang Huan. Over there, artists are less impacted by the art world as opposed to making art, and recently that’s influenced us to get involved in this part of the world. We are looking for something that is fresher –fresh work that takes us someplace that we haven’t been before.

Paulina Kolczynska: As I understand you also do studio visits, is it important to you that a gallery already represents the artist ?

The Scholls: What is important that the artist is going to be part of the contemporary art world. There are always undiscovered great works that are not looked at and not represented, but that is not the situation we’re interested in. Dealers serve an invaluable function in the art world. The building of an artist’s career ( as well as building a collection) is a process and we participate in this process by acquiring the work at an early stage of the artist’s career.

Paulina Kolczynska: Have you ever thought about your collection as an investment? What is your opinion on art as commodity?

The Scholls: We try very hard to ignore this side of collecting, but it becomes very difficult as things escalate. You can’t help but recognize that a work of art you have acquired is now valued at five times or even twenty times your acquisition price. We try not to be impacted by that, or in how we value that over 200 pieces we currently have in our possession. Collecting is something joyful for us. We try to remember that on builds a collection only as a caretaker, since no one lives forever. So ultimately, we want to be fortunate enough to put it together and then enjoy if for a while. The key is to exercise your eye and enjoy the emotional and intellectual experience of the building the collection.