Arlene Schnitzer died Saturday after a long illness. She was 91 years old. Schnitzer transformed the Northwest art scene in the 1960s and 1970s and championed the work of local artists. Schnitzer and her husband, the late Harold Schnitzer, were among Oregon’s most generous philanthropists. They donated more than $80 million to various causes.
“If there’s a lesson from her life, what she said to me this morning is she said, ‘Don’t stop caring about the community,’” Arlene’s son, Jordan Schnitzer, said.
Jordan said his mother died Saturday afternoon at home surrounded by family.
“She had announced the other day that since my father died almost 10 years ago in April, she mentioned to one of the caregivers that she wanted to die in April to be with him,” Jordan said.
“She was a role model certainly for me and others,” he said.
Arlene Schnitzer spent her life in the Northwest. She was born in Salem and raised in Portland. Her parents, Simon and Helen Director, owned a high-end furniture store.
Schnitzer spoke about her life in an "Oregon Art Beat" interview in 2003. She said she found her passion when she signed up for a few classes at the Museum Art School in 1958. It’s now the Pacific Northwest College of Art.
“And my first class was an art history class. And that was it. I absolutely was hooked. It was like I came home,” she said.
Schnitzer was known for being bold. She wore 3-inch heels most of the time and she told her husband Harold they were going to get married on their first date.
When she noticed that her friends and teachers at art school didn’t have many places to sell their work in Portland, she took charge. In 1961, Schnitzer opened the Fountain Gallery, along with her mother, Helen Director, and her friend Edna Brigham. Schnitzer used her gallery to promote the work of Northwest artists, like painter Mike Russo and sculptor Mel Katz.
“I devoted myself and committed myself to the artist who was living here in the Northwest,” she said. “I wanted to keep them here. A city without your art community has no soul.”
Former chief curator at the Portland Art Museum Bruce Guenther called Schnitzer’s passion as an art dealer “legendary.”
Guenther said in the 1970s, the Fountain Gallery was where you went to discover exciting art. An ink and charcoal drawing he bought from the gallery still hangs in his home.
Schnitzer used her gallery to champion artists whose work spoke to her. That included women and people of color. She helped launch the careers of African American artists like Robert Colescott and Marita Dingus.
“Harold and Arlene Schnitzer were among the first advocates in this community for African American artists,” Guenther said. “They crossed those color lines in the ’60s when those color lines were radically drawn.”
At first Schnitzer was reluctant to start her own collection. She didn’t want customers to think she was saving the best for herself. But over time that changed. Together Harold and Arlene Schnitzer collected more than 2,000 pieces of art. The work they loved included early Chinese sculpture, Native American baskets, and the work of contemporary Northwest painters and ceramic artists.
“Harold, who was a metallurgist by training and a real estate baron by profession, loved sculpture, he loved the three dimensional. And Arlene loved story and emotion and narrative,” Guenther said.
Much of their collection has been donated to the Portland Art Museum.
As Arlene Schnitzer built the Fountain Gallery, her husband, Harold, built the company Harsch Investment Properties and made a fortune in the real estate business.
Arlene placed original paintings and sculptures in every one of Harold’s buildings and she used her social connections to convince other business owners to start buying and displaying the work of local fine artists too. In the 2003 interview with "Oregon Art Beat," she said she had to convince people to take down a lot of bland pictures first.
"I always called them either ‘Ducks Flying Out Of The Swamp,’ that was usually torn out of a magazine and framed. Or ‘Sunrise Over Mount Gooch.’ That was the kind of art that was on business walls when I started," Schnitzer said.
By encouraging corporate investment in art, Schnitzer changed the way Portland looked. She and Harold also made their mark on the city by donating more than $80 million.
The Schnitzers gave to hundreds of institutions in Oregon, from Oregon Health & Science University to the Boys and Girls Club to the Oregon Symphony. They also made significant contributions to OPB.
Barbara Hall directs the Harold and Arlene Schnitzer Care Foundation. She said people in Portland know Arlene Schnitzer as the woman whose name is on the concert hall downtown, but in addition to their public gifts, the Schnitzers funded many causes anonymously. In particular, programs that gave financial aid to families caring for critically ill children.
“They’ve even paid for mortgage payments,” Hall said. “For example, if you’ve got a dual working family but you have a child going through cancer treatment, typically one parent has to take a hiatus from working for a while. And that’s a good size program.”
The late Rabbi Emmanuel Rose knew the Schnitzers well through Congregation Beth Israel, where they went to temple.
“I don’t know another family that has done what they’ve done for the city, and the state,” he said.
Rose said while Harold was deeply spiritual, Arlene Schnitzer had questions about religion in general and God in particular, but she felt a strong connection to Jewish teachings about giving back to the community.
“Arlene had a tremendous interest in the ethical side, the social justice side, the humanitarian side of being a religious person,” he explained.
Harold Schnitzer died in 2011.
The Schnitzers are survived by their son, Jordan. He’s now the CEO of Harsch Investments, the family real estate business. Jordan is a celebrated collector of contemporary prints. He bought his first painting from his mother’s gallery when he was 14 years old.