COLLECTING: Jordan Schnitzer

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Jordan Schnitzer

Sometimes tears well in Jordan Schnitzer’s eyes when he talks about an artwork that inspires him. To spend time with him is to witness a disarmingly direct emotional connection between a man and his aesthetic fuel–a connection that isn’t always a given with collectors. Often, it’s the nitty-gritty of the deal or the adrenaline rush of the auction that drives collectors, but Schnitzer, first and foremost, is a lover of the art object and the experience of sharing those objects with others. He has parlayed that love–and the considerable resources of his family business, Harsch Investment Properties–into a lifetime of arts patronage centering around artists and institutions in the Northwest, while also amassing one of the United States’ preeminent private collections of modern and contemporary prints.

It’s a passion he was practically born into when he entered the world in 1951. His mother, Arlene Schnitzer, was a pivotal figure in raising the profile of the Northwest’s then-nascent art scene. In 1963 she founded Fountain Gallery, which she ran with a hands-on, artist-centric approach until its closing in 1988. When the young Jordan Schnitzer was in elementary school, his mother often came home with canvases and chalks, which he turned into art projects in the family basement. After school, he hung out at the gallery and the Pacific Northwest College of Art (formerly known as the Museum Art School). He also had illustrious babysitters, including the late Laura Russo, then an assistant at Fountain Gallery and later owner of the eponymous gallery that succeeded Fountain.

For Schnitzer, this heady milieu was his natural habitat. “I remember going down a day before the gallery first opened,” he recalls. “A couple artists were helping paint the walls. There was a print drawer I looked through, and in it was a beautiful, fuchsia-colored print, 18 by 24, called Fond de la Mer [1960] by a British artist named Stanley William Hayter. My mother asked me, ‘Would you like that?’ and I said, ‘I’d love it.'” He wasn’t content merely to get artworks as gifts, however. Soon thereafter (he still remembers the date: June 23, 1965), when he was 14, he bought a small tempera painting from Fountain Gallery (he still remembers–and owns–the work: Louis Bunce’s Sanctuary). “I paid five dollars a month on it for a year. I knew that if I missed a payment, my mother knew where to find me.”

As Schnitzer grew into manhood, he continued to nurture his aesthetic sensibility even as he prepared for what he now refers to as his “day job.” In 1973 he graduated from the University of Oregon, then went on to earn a law degree from Lewis & Clark College. He began working with his father, the late Harold Schnitzer, a noted philanthropist who, along with his wife Arlene, contributed more than $80-million to charitable causes. Alongside the elder Mr. Schnitzer, and continuing after his father’s death in 2011, Jordan Schnitzer helped make Harsch Investment Properties one of the largest real estate property and management firms in the West. Like many successful businessmen, he has led an active public life, having served on the boards of more than 30 civic and cultural organizations. But collecting art was always more than just one among the many pastimes of a busy man.

In the late 1980s Schnitzer attended an exhibition of prints at the Portland Art Museum co-curated by the late Gordon Gilkey (the museum’s longtime curator of prints and drawings) and Robert Kochs, owner of Augen Gallery and a seasoned expert in works on paper. Invigorated by the show, Schnitzer visited Kochs’ gallery, bought a Frank Stella print, another by Jim Dine, and another by David Hockney. The following week he returned and bought a Helen Frankenthaler. In turn, Kochs began scouring his contacts to locate prints that had caught his new client’s eye. It was, to borrow a phrase from the film Casablanca, the beginning of a beautiful friendship, which endures to this day. It may be possible that Kochs knows Schnitzer’s artistic predilections as well as anyone alive besides Schnitzer himself. “His taste,” Kochs observes, “goes all the way from Ellsworth Kelly and Agnes Martin–he’s got the entire collection of Martin’s On a Clear Day–to, on the other side of the coin, a collection of Richard Prince’s Nurses and some challenging work by Wangechi Mutu and Ellen Gallagher. His interests cut a wide swath.”

Others in the art world began to take notice. Sotheby’s, Christie’s, and Butterfield’s (now Bonhams) began sending Schnitzer catalogues, and soon he was on a first-name basis with the heads of those houses’ print departments. Although his print collection–overseen by his foundation’s curator, veteran Portland gallerist Tracy Savage–now numbers upwards of 7,000 works, he has never been one to let them languish in a warehouse. In fact, he has lent works to nearly 50 museums around the country and a few internationally, including a recent exhibition in Ankara, Turkey. He loans these works free of any exhibition fees, often covering half the amount of shipping and funding educational outreach programs associated with the exhibitions. A newly redesigned website (www.jordanschnitzer.org) will soon offer details about the foundation’s liberal lending policies. While Schnitzer reports that museum directors are understandably grateful for the loans, he is quick to cast himself as the luckier half of the equation. “I may be lending them art,” he says, “but they’re loaning me their museums!”

In 2009, a retrospective survey of prints by John Baldessari from Schnitzer’s collection was shown prominently at the de Young Museum in San Francisco; the show was subsequently expanded for a larger exhibition on Baldessari at the Palm Springs Art Museum. The newest exhibition to feature prints from the collection is “Emancipating the Past: Kara Walker’s Tales of Slavery and Power,” which opens January 25 and runs through April 6 at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art. This museum, on the campus of Schnitzer’s alma mater, the University of Oregon (Eugene, Oregon), was renamed in his honor in 2005 to commemorate his tenacious efforts to expand and renovate the facility. The Walker exhibition is curated by Jessi DiTillio, the museum’s assistant curator of contemporary art. It opened in late 2013 at the Crocker Art Museum (Sacramento, California) and will eventually travel to five other museums across the country. The U of O isn’t the only university to benefit from Schnitzer’s generosity. In October he donated $5-million toward a new museum planned for the campus of Washington State University in Pullman, Washington, in the southeastern corner of the state.

In addition to the prints, Schnitzer also collects paintings, sculptures, and mixed-media work by some of the Northwest’s preeminent artists, among them Rick Bartow, Brenden Clenaghen, Sherrie Wolf, Gregory Grenon, and Mel Katz. He owns the largest extant collection of paintings and drawings by Portland-based artist Tom Cramer, whom Schnitzer calls “brilliant–one of the most passionate artists and people I know.” His approach to collecting remains intensely personal. “When you walk into a room full of artwork,” he says, “it’s like walking into a room of intimate friends. Even if you don’t personally know the artists, you develop a kind of relationship with them.” Martha Lee, who purchased the Laura Russo Gallery after Russo died in 2010, can attest to this personal connection. “One of the things that’s most unique about Jordan,” she observes, “is his insider’s appreciation of what’s going on behind the scenes, since he grew up around artists. He knows what artists and galleries do and the struggles they have. When he comes to openings, he knows everyone, and everyone knows him.”

The primacy of an emotional involvement with artwork, Robert Kochs contends, bridges Schnitzer’s love
of works across diverse media: “Whatever the purchase is, the emotion carries the day. That isn’t common among collectors. A lot of people I’ve worked with are more pragmatic–they have an idea in the back of their minds that something’s going to be worth more in the future. But to Jordan, that’s immaterial; he made a commitment a long time ago not to resell anything.”

Schnitzer remembers the moment he realized he wanted to share his collection with as wide an audience as possible. It was at the opening of a 1995 exhibition at his namesake museum in Eugene, featuring prints from Robert Longo’s Men in the Cities series. “I’ll never forget, a man came in with his son, a boy about eight years old. The boy was looking up at these images of different people reacting to Longo throwing tennis balls at them. I scooted down beside this kid and said, ‘Hey, what do you think is going on in these? Are they rocking out to music or twisting in pain?’ You could almost hear the gears turning in his head. He said, ‘I think he’s dancing!’ And I said, ‘I think you’re right!’ I would have told him that no matter what he came out with. That, to me, is the beauty of art: Each of us gets to respond differently; no one can tell us what our perspective is supposed to be.”