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Arlene Schnitzer dies at 91

The Portland philanthropist, gallery pioneer, and art collector helped shape the city's cultural scene.

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Arlene Schnitzer, the longtime Portland cultural philanthropist and pioneering art gallery owner, died Saturday afternoon, April 4, 2020. She was 91 years old and died of natural causes, her son, Jordan Schnitzer, told KATU-TV.

“Her son Jordan tells me she died in his arms this afternoon,” KGW-TV anchor and reporter Brittany Falkers said on Facebook. “He says she had ongoing health issues and her death was not related to the coronavirus.”

Arlene Schnitzer, courtesy of the Portland Art Museum

Schnitzer was a towering cultural figure in Portland and the Pacific Northwest, giving many millions of dollars over several decades to the Portland Art Museum, other cultural organizations, health and medical organizations including Oregon Health and Science University, and Jewish causes. With her husband, fellow philanthropist Harold Schnitzer, who died in 2011, she helped shape Portland’s cultural scene: Between 1993 and Harold’s death they donated more than $80 million to various causes. Their naming gift helped transform downtown Portland’s run-down Paramount Theatre into what became the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, home of the Oregon Symphony, much of the White Bird dance series, and other performances. In January of this year Arlene Schnitzer gave a $10 million lead gift to the Portland Art Museum for its $100 million Rothko Pavilion project, a multi-story glass structure designed to connect the museum’s two main buildings and make many accessibility improvements.

Schnitzer and her husband were major benefactors of the Portland Art Museum and also significant collectors, with distinguished holdings in early Chinese art and Pacific Northwest art from the mid-twentieth century forward. She was also a pioneering Portland gallerist, founding the Fountain Gallery, which in many ways was the progenitor of the city’s fertile current gallery scene. Along the way she nurtured the careers of many leading Oregon and Northwest artists.

Schnitzer was born on Jan. 10, 1929, in Salem, to Simon and Helen Director, and moved to Portland with her family when she was 2. She married Harold Schnitzer, who worked for Schnitzer Steel Company, in 1949; a year later he founded Harsch Investment Properties, which has major real-estate holdings throughout the West. It was that firm, largely, that seeded the fortune from which the couple’s philanthropies flowed.

Arlene Schnitzer was more than a benefactor. She was a friend to many artists, and a smart and avid supporter of their work. She was also a fixture on the city’s social scene, a regular at gala events and fundraisers whose presence could mark an event as something important. She was elegant into old age, often arriving to events in fur.

Arlene and Harold’s son, Jordan, born in 1951, is now president of Harsch Investment and a major collector and benefactor in his own right. His collections cover many areas but focus on contemporary prints, which he frequently lends for shows in museums and schools. He’s given naming gifts for three university museums: the Jordan Schnitzer museums of art at the University of Oregon in Eugene; Washington State University in Pullman; and most recently, Portland State University.

Sponsor

Portland Area Theatre Alliance Fertile Ground Portland Oregon

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Bob Hicks has been covering arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, including 25 years at The Oregonian. Among his art books are Kazuyuki Ohtsu; James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time; and Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Northwest Passage, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series "Today I Am."

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5 Responses

  1. My hear is totally broken! Arlene and Harold WERE the hearth upon which Portland’s cultural fires burned.
    We’ve lost a great lady and I’ve lost a mentor and dear friend.
    Will miss you always Arlene. You showed us the way. ❤️

    1. It won’t be the same without Arlene. She was a friend and patron for me and so many artists. She was our champion. She had great wisdom, humanity, and a true sensitivity and love for the visual arts and music. Words cannot express our loss. I feel so fortunate to have known Arlene.

  2. Arlene was a wonderful lady. Her support of the PSAM and her champion of the arts shall be missed. We are so lucky to have known her.

  3. I will miss Arlene greatly, even though we saw each other a little glass couple of years I have fun memories of our time together with our husbands going to cultural events in the valley, She was an inspiration and example what we can do to make where we live a better place she was a outstanding Wife mother and friend and I will miss her my sincere condolences to Jordan

  4. Many. many years ago, I was on the board of the Portland Poetry Festival, quite a small non-profit. When I asked Arlene if we could use the Fountain Gallery as a home to a number of poetry readings at this time during the late 1970s, early 1980s, she never hesitated to say “yes, of course.” Her many kindnesses during the long years I have known her were always available and generous. Something I will never forget.

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