SINCE 1961, Arlene Schnitzer has shown, sold, and bought more Portland-made art than just about anyone. She ran the city’s first truly professional gallery for 25 years and, with her late husband, Harold, endowed the contemporary galleries, a curatorship, and a biennial award at the Portland Art Museum. But on a sunny March morning a couple of months before the first-ever exhibition devoted entirely to her own local art collection, she is fidgeting, folding and unfolding her arms, and making faces.
“I hate being photographed,” she says, her sandy voice rising a gravelly octave as she sits on her living room sofa, wearing a typical ensemble of brightly patterned blouse and dark blazer. “I just hate it.”
What Arlene Schnitzer prefers is show and tell. Show, tell, and touch.
The day before the photo shoot, the 83-year-old darts between paintings, sculptures, and the various other objets d’art in her Southwest Hills home with the speed and certainty of a pinball bouncing bumper to bumper. Every piece inspires a story, of her personal connection with either the artist or the person she bought it from, each episode punctuated with a gleeful affection for the actual thing. And things she has: paintings by Northwest masters like C. S. Price, Kenneth Callahan, Morris Graves, Mark Tobey, Louis Bunce, Michele Russo, and Lucinda Parker, sculptures by Mel Katz, Lee Kelly, Betty Feves, and Debra Butterfield, all of it jumbled together with all manner of other things. Very other. There are the 19th-century Russian trompe l’oeil silver cases. There’s the 18th-century “Japanned” Queen Anne bureau. A chandelier from Murano, Italy. A trio of 18th-century Venetian chairs. Across one fireplace mantle is a lineup of tiny, intricately carved, turn-of-the-20th-century wood toys from Kobe, Japan.
“I got them at an antique shop on West Burnside that a merchant seaman opened,” she recalls, showing that, with the touch of a finger, the figurines pound drums, spoon food, and stick out their tongues. “I’ve had them for about 61 years now.”
With almost anything three dimensional, Schnitzer offers a quick lesson in how it works or fits together, or, in a favorite pastime with anything smooth, she just rubs it. “Ooooo,” she exclaims, her voice pouring into a high squeal of “I just love you” as she pets the belly of an early ceramic torso by the celebrated Bay Area funk artist Robert Arneson. She bought it out of his studio while he was still in graduate school.
The upcoming exhibition, Provenance: In Honor of Arlene Schnitzer, opens May 12 at the University of Oregon’s Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art (named for her son, an equally energetic collector, primarily of prints). Rather than try to capture the sprawl of her collection, the show will sample only 44 pieces by Northwest and Bay Area artists, according to curator Lawrence Fong, “to focus on Arlene’s relationships with the artists.” For certain, her personal rapport with painters and sculptors has shaped her collection at every step, and shaped Portland in turn. But to understand her relationship to art—to the things—you need to swing open the doors to her house, a kaleidoscope of colors, patterns, textures, and forms akin to a huge party in which every guest is having its own separate conversation with the host.
While growing up, as Schnitzer likes to tell it, “‘Art’ to me was somebody’s name. I don’t even know that I necessarily had anything on my walls.” Her father, Simon Director, owned the city’s premier home store, Jennings Furniture, then at SW 10th Avenue and Washington Street. Her mother, Helen, worked with him, overseeing the interior decoration department and styling homes and offices throughout the region. A frequent mother-daughter outing was to Meier & Frank’s 10th-floor tearoom, antique department, and layaway window, where Helen Director was a regular, imbuing Arlene with a lightning eye and quick-draw wallet for objects.
“I make decisions quickly in everything: in fabrics, in furniture, in art, and husbands,” she says. “I proposed on our first date, you know!”
That acquisition, first spotted when a young Harold Schnitzer winked at her in a movie theater in 1949, resulted in nuptials a couple of months later, and a partner in business, philanthropy, family, and art, until his death last year.
Her first encounters with visual art came in classes at the Portland Art Museum School, where she enrolled in 1958 because, as she tells it, “I wanted something to do, and the hours fit.” The often-harsh critiques soured her on making art herself, but she loved the history classes. “I walked into art school, and that was it for me,” she says. “It was like I got home and found myself. I’d never been touched by anything like that.”
In particular, she took to lectures by an erudite, Yale-educated painter, Michele Russo. He had escaped World War I Italy to become a dedicated communist—less political than philosophical—symbolized in his frequent admonition, “I’m a working man,” and the black lunch pail he swung by his side during each day’s walk to the studio. “He was totally unbigoted, unprejudiced,” she recalls of her long informal mentorship with Russo, pointing to the trademark androgynously abstracted figures dancing in a trio of the artist’s postcard-size drawings in her bathroom. “I don’t think he thought in terms of male, female, wealth—certainly not wealth. All he cared about was the mission of art.”
At the time of these early encounters, there were few opportunities, beyond cafés, a small gallery at the museum, and Reed College, for local artists to exhibit, let alone sell their work. When a group of the museum school’s faculty wanted to open a co-op gallery in 1960, the then 31-year-old Schnitzer deployed her real estate connections to help. But when the members turned her down (“It’s nothing but junk wealth,” she recalls Russo’s telling of one artist’s rejection—an anti-Semitic-edged reference to Harold Schnitzer’s family’s roots in the scrap-metals business), she decided to open a gallery on her own, initially partnering with her mom and a friend, Edna Brigham. Russo pledged to help her install the shows.
In search of artists, Schnitzer turned to a well-connected couple who held themselves somewhat aloof from the local art scene: Carl Morris, a painter, who cavorted with the New York School circle around Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko, and Barnett Newman, and his wife, Hilda Morris, an equally accomplished sculptor. They, in turn, introduced Schnitzer to a young PSU professor, Robert Colescott, and to their close friend in Seattle, the Northwest master Kenneth Callahan. And so connections multiplied up and down the coast. On November 28, 1961, the trio of women opened their space at 66 SW Second Ave on Ankeny Plaza. They named it the Fountain Gallery after the water feature just outside its door, the one with the C. E. S. Wood quote, “Good citizens are the riches of a city.”