Arlene Schnitzer, Patron Saint of Portland Arts, Speaks!

From philanthropy to feminism, the life of Portland's reigning cultural patron is a saga of art, business, and telling it like it is.

By Zach Dundas March 2, 2015 Published in the March 2015 issue of Portland Monthly

Image: Amy Martin

1929 Arlene Director is born, daughter of the owners of one of Portland’s largest furniture stores. “My mother managed hundreds of employees. She was also an interior designer who did some of the biggest jobs in the state. And until women’s lib, it never dawned on me that other mothers weren’t working.”

1949 Arlene marries Harold Schnitzer, a member of the family behind Schnitzer Steel. (She proposed.) Harold goes on to assemble his own real estate empire.

1958 Arlene Schnitzer enrolls in art classes at the Museum Art School. “I started at first because—this sounds stupid, but it’s true—I needed to get out of the house. And I walked into the first class, which was taught by Mike Russo, the most passionate and wonderful and eloquent possible teacher. And he passed that passion on to me.”

1961 Schnitzer and her mother open the Fountain Gallery, arguably Portland’s first serious independent art gallery. “The people who ran the most noted galleries in the country at the time tended to be women—so for me to go into the gallery business as a woman was not unusual. But to do it in Portland, Oregon, was a little bit offbeat. The banks wouldn’t give us a loan unless we had my husband and my father cosign with us. I wanted, above all, to keep artists living in Portland. If you don’t have artists in your community, you have a completely sterile, soulless society.”

1960s Schnitzer develops a niche as a consultant, guiding corporations as they assemble art collections for their headquarters; notable clients include the Bank of California and Pacific Power & Light. “I was educating a population who didn’t care what was on the wall. Ducks flying out of a swamp was perfectly fine with them. And I did everything I needed to do to change their outlook. I did the framing, I did the installation—whatever needed to happen. Because I’m convinced that you can’t put good art on the wall without it changing your life.”

1984 Arlene and Harold make major contributions to the $10 million renovation of the downtown theater henceforth known as the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. “Charity—though I hate that word—is inculcated in Judaism. That’s all I’ve ever known. My parents did as much as they could. Harold and I had the opportunity to do things in another way. We had some tough times, when every penny was going back into the business. But as we were able to do more, philanthropy just became part of how we thought.”

1998 Harold sells Berkeley, California’s Claremont Hotel for $88 million, and the couple uses profits to establish two charitable foundations. “We give in the arts, we give in medicine, we give to social services. Because you’re talking about a whole society.”

2011–2014 After Harold dies from abdominal cancer at age 87, Arlene continues her patronage—notably with a $2.3 million gift to Portland State University’s College of the Arts and $1 million to the Portland Japanese Garden. “We’re very responsive, because we don’t have a board things have to go through. I can make a decision in two minutes. I’d say we respond to people. If we like and trust the leadership, we’ll give.”

Present “I tell people, if you have something to say, say it now. You’d be amazed at what comes out once you lay that down. I would also say, never explain yourself. Your friends don’t need it, and your enemies won’t believe you anyway.”

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