For the next quarter century, the Fountain Gallery was the center of Portland’s art scene. “Arlene had the social contacts to really raise the sense of collecting,” says George Johanson, one of the few artists of the era still around. “She had a real commitment to the importance of local art and became an evangelist about it to a huge group of people who had the money to buy it, but had never looked at it before.”
Schnitzer chuckles about how, against the common gallery practice (and Harold’s advice), she stayed open Friday nights, a move that netted her first sale: Robert Arneson’s She-Horse with Daughter. Soon she was parlaying her connections to individuals and building collections for local banks, law firms, corporations, and even national giants like US Steel. She also filled the offices of her and Harold’s own expanding real estate company, Harsch Investment Properties, with art. And for their landmark Claremont Hotel in Oakland, they commissioned outdoor sculptures and works for the hallways and rooms. Many a month, she concedes, Harold’s purchases were what kept the Fountain in the black.
“Harold loved the artists; he loved the art; he loved walking into the gallery; he loved that it was doing something in the community,” she says. “And the harder the work was to sell, the more supportive of the artists he was.”
In 1986, Schnitzer closed the Fountain Gallery with a 25th anniversary exhibition. “I had such a monopoly,” she says. “I thought, if I closed, the intimidation factor of others starting galleries would go away.” It did, and a new generation of younger, smaller galleries sprouted.
While she has continued to buy local art, Schnitzer shifted the acquisitiveness she describes as “an addiction,” along with her formidable purse, to Han Dynasty Chinese art. On first encountering the iridescent bronze of a 2,300-year-old wine vessel known as a hu, “I was instantly struck and fascinated,” she says. “There’s such a purity of form. I mean look at this,” she adds, rubbing her thumb over a jade belt hook, then a white jade carving, all of which would lie behind thick glass in any museum. “We’re talking over two thousand years old.”
Working with noted Asian art dealer J. J. Lally, she and Harold built one of the most significant collections of Han Dynasty Chinese art outside of China. The Portland Art Museum dedicated an exhibit to it in 2005: Mysterious Spirits, Strange Beasts, Earthly Delights: Early Chinese Art from the Arlene and Harold Schnitzer Collection.
Schnitzer explains her transoceanic leap of passion as an effort to avoid collecting any “high art that competed with my heart, which was regional artists.”
The homes of collectors of Schnitzer’s means and influence often stand as analogs for how they shape their cities’ larger artistic scenes. Virginia and the late Bagley Wright’s Arthur Erickson–designed Seattle compound overlooking the Puget Sound, for instance, is filled with everything from heroic ’50s-era abstractions to turn-of-the-latest-century video art—the same kinds of things with which she’s stocked the similarly spare and monumental Seattle Art Museum. Closer to home, timber heiress Sarah Miller Meigs occasionally opens her airy Pearl District pied-à-terre loft, dubbed the Lumber Room, with selections of her growing collection of international and regional art and sharply focused exhibitions by invited curators. Nike CEO Mark Parker built a barn-size personal temple designed by the architect of the Nike World Headquarters for his collection of sci-fi toys.
For Schnitzer, art is decidedly personal and unexalted. She lives in the same house the couple bought in 1974, a vernacular, Northwest modern rambler that is great for art but was built, she freely notes, rather cheaply and poorly. In the foyer, an unusually vibrant-hued 1931 Morris Graves landscape hangs above an elemental, clay Han-era beast and cart sitting atop a Ming table that straddles a cluster of ceramic vases by the coastal artist Frank Boyden. In the master bedroom, a gleaming white porcelain Jeff Koons West Highland terrier vase is filled with flowers handmade from antique fabrics.
“Most people who show these, the puppies, they have these big red fake paper flowers,” she says as she rearranges the stems in the Koons that she bought for $450. “I bought these in an antique shop 15 years ago.”
In a nearby hallway hangs the first purchase Schnitzer made from the Fountain Gallery for herself: a black-and-white print made with a hand-cut plate by Dennis Beall. Steps away in the dining room is one of the most widely exhibited and published paintings she owns, the late Robert Colescott’s Sunday Afternoon with Joaquin Murietta. Only the deepest student of West Coast art would know Beall. Colescott, by contrast, is in every American art history book, having risen from PSU professor to the 1997 American representative to the Venice Biennale. He was the pioneer of black satire in 20th-century art. Yet, Schnitzer’s enthusiasm for both works is equally effusive and consumed with the details: the deep black tones and textures of Beall’s tiny abstract print and the agile brushwork shaping the basket of food in Colescott’s riotous caricature of a nude black woman lounging with the Mexican/Californian folk hero Murietta, a send-up of Manet’s The Luncheon on the Grass.
To the question “What has guided you most as a collector?” Schnitzer answers without pause: “My heart.”
“God, when I think about it,” she recalls, “I could have had a Warhol Campbell’s soup can for $50—the flowers and Maos for $1,200. But I couldn’t do it. It was like I would degrade my mission to support the local artist, to keep them here and working. It sounds Pollyanna, but I really mean it.”