Sowing the Seeds of Art Appreciation
Jordan D. Schnitzer describes himself as the Johnny Appleseed of art appreciation, endeavoring to help as many people as possible – especially those in underserved communities – experience the most noteworthy artists of our time. The Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation is what Schnitzer refers to as his “lending library” of fine art, and with more than 8,000 works, it is one of the largest private collections of contemporary prints and multiples. Schnitzer has donated the use of these prints to more than 90 exhibitions at 60-plus museums across the country and even as far as Turkey, Spain and Puerto Rico.
Schnitzer is the president of Harsch Investment Properties, managing more than 100 properties in six states. Schnitzer’s extensive duties in the community have included leadership on numerous boards, including the Harold & Arlene Schnitzer CARE Foundation, the Portland Art Museum, Oregon Ballet Theater and Portland Center Stage. Schnitzer’s passion for the fine arts is a continuation of the Schnitzer family’s profound impact on the Pacific Northwest. He is honoring his parents’ collecting life by serving as the presenting sponsor for In Passionate Pursuit: The Arlene and Harold Schnitzer Collection and Legacy, currently showing at Portland Art Museum (through Jan. 11, 2015).
When curators and museum directors select works from the Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation’s collection, Schnitzer’s first reaction is usually to press them to take more. He will encourage them to present a second exhibit or to reach out to other museums in the region. Museums may apply for grants to cover other expenses, such as transporting students from nearby communities to view the exhibits. The foundation also contributes marketing materials with essays by prominent art critics to include with each exhibition.
“Hopefully, after visiting an exhibit, students will go back into their communities and share their appreciation for art,” Schnitzer says of his vast vision.
Why do you focus on contemporary art in your collection?
Artists have always been the chroniclers of our time. Whether you are talking about Michelangelo or the cavemen in France 10,000 years ago, artists always create contemporary art. Their art involves the issues of that time. Artists are supposed to make us smile and feel joy, but they are also supposed to hit us hard with themes that are difficult to confront. And there hasn’t been a time in the history of man- and womankind that there haven’t been issues to deal with. So, how lucky we are to have artists in our midst!
My first loves were the wonderful artists of Portland and the Northwest, like Carl Morris, Michele Russo, Gregory Grenon, and Lucinda Parker. These were the artists that I grew up with, and they still hold a treasured spot in my heart.
When I started first grade, my mother decided to go to the Portland Art Museum Art School. Now it’s called Pacific Northwest College of Art (PNCA). From that time on, we began to have the art of our region in our home and in my father’s office. Like most kids today, I had a working mother – she operated the Fountain Gallery. She’d fly out of the house at 8:30 in the morning before my father would take me to school, and she’d fly back in at 6:15 in the evening.
Later, when I was on the board of the Portland Art Museum, there was an exhibition of contemporary prints from major national artists. I thought, “I never want to lose my commitment to the art of our region, but it might be nice to also start collecting some prints and multiples from some of the biggest artists of our country and the world.” I went down to the Augen Gallery and saw Bob Kochs, who I’d known for years, and I bought a small Frank Stella, and a Jim Dine, and a David Hockney. I went back the next week, and bought a few more. And a few more …
I grew up with a mother who had an art gallery and she’d say, “If you love the work, don’t pass it up just because right now you don’t have any space in your house. Buy it, even if you have to put it under your bed until you are ready to rotate it in.”
How did that develop into the founding of the Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation?
The transformational moment that started the whole exhibition program was in 1995. I was on the board of the art museum at the University of Oregon (later named after Schnitzer), where I had gone to undergrad school. As I built up my print collection, the museum director called up and asked if he could borrow some for an exhibition. I said, “Of course, I love to share my art!”
That was the first time I’d had a major print exhibition. I’d put on so many events in that space to raise money and honor people, but this was my work up now, from my collection. I walked in and thought, “Wow!” I remember the sensation I had was like walking into a room of friends, even though I didn’t personally know any of those artists. But I think this points out a central theme amidst several reasons why art is so important: when you are lucky enough to have art around you, you develop a special relationship with that work. When I go to a Portland Trail Blazers game, I root for those players, even if I haven’t met them. In the same way, you develop a relationship with art and an artist. And that’s what it felt like walking into that gallery.
There was a man who had come into the museum with his son. They were in front of a work by Robert Longo. He did a series called “Men in the Cities.” Longo took his models, dressed them in black and white, and put them in a room with a tennis ball machine. As they were turning and ducking to avoid being hit by the balls, he took photographs. When a human being is consumed with emotion, whether it is exhilaration or anguish, the line between those two is so close. This work by Robert Longo is right on that edge!
When I was looking at the man and his son viewing these pieces, a light bulb went on. I thought it would be great to collect prints and multiples and make them available to galleries and museums as part of a philanthropic effort. Why prints and multiples? First of all, they are more affordable. Secondly, you can collect in-depth. Thirdly, they are easy to transport and move around.
How do you choose which artists or pieces will become a part of the collection?
I love work that makes me laugh, work that is beautiful to look at, and especially work that is very strong in its themes. A lot of newer artists’ work just grabs you and doesn’t let you go. Kara Walker, for example, is one of the foremost African American artists working today. Walker uses a silhouette technique, like those projects we would do in grade school where we trace each other’s profiles. She communicates themes that reflect this country’s history, concerning our treatment of people of color. Her images are very graphic, and she forces us to look at ourselves and at stereotypes – sex, race, power. Her work does exactly what I love art to do – it forces me to take a little break from whatever I am doing, and think about those issues. I know I am a better person for having experienced Kara Walker’s art.
What role do you believe the arts play in creating quality of life?
For myself, waking up without art around me would be like waking up without the sun! Because what are we as human beings? We have a body, mind, heart and soul. I guess when I say “soul” I mean the essence of what we are. To grow up without nourishing all those parts of us would be a pretty empty life.
I went to the ballet this weekend – the 25th anniversary of Oregon Ballet Theater – and it was so wonderful! What I appreciated about the ballet – which is what I also appreciate about the visual arts – is the human creativity. The best that society can be is always reflected in its art and culture. So how important is that for us as individuals? I think that a person would be developmentally compromised if they didn’t experience art and culture. Because ultimately each of us is an artist – whether we are talking about writing or dancing or visual art or business or selling parts at an auto store. What we are talking about is the best of the human experience.
Considering your leadership on numerous boards relating to the performing arts, what do you feel is the relationship between the fine and performing arts? Do you personally favor one over the other?
All the art forms touch us in different ways. It’s like if you ask me what my favorite food is. I love food! Do I like one type of food better than another? I think the more variety you taste, the more it expands your palate. It’s the same with the arts. I like the visual arts in particular, because they have been such a part of my life growing up – they are through every pore in my body – but I love all the other art forms, too. I tend to be involved with the visual arts more, because I have such a significant art program. But at the Oregon Ballet Theater the other night, I was one of the first on my feet for the standing ovation. I felt the same contentment that I had felt walking through an exhibition of work from my collection. It just doesn’t get any better than that.
If you could say anything to someone viewing art that you have contributed to an exhibition at one of these many museums, what would you say?
I tell my two wonderful daughters, Audria and Arielle, what I want for them in life: appreciate your health, appreciate that you live in a safe country, don’t feel any sense of entitlement, lie down each night feeling that you did your best that day and helped someone else, and – lastly – have a passion for the arts.
Why do I put that last and best? I wish I could guarantee my children a life without issues, without disappointments, but you can’t. In the end, life ends up being far more complicated than we could ever imagine. If you have a passion for the arts, you can always escape to that and find yourself refreshed. The arts will not take away your problems, but they will help you gain perspective, and will bring a bit of joy to life’s challenges.
That’s what I hope for my daughters and that’s what I hope for your readers, as well.