Everyone knows her name. It adorns museums, hospitals, universities, temples, scholarships, awards, endowed positions and Portland’s premier concert hall.
After presiding over the city’s cultural life for half a century, Portland’s leading lady of philanthropy has died. Arlene Schnitzer died Saturday at 2:12 p.m. She was 91.
“She was holding my hand, her heart was fine, her blood pressure was fine,” said her son, Jordan Schnitzer. “And then two minutes later she was gone.”
She was home and had been suffering some intestinal issues. “In the end, at 91, I think she just decided she’d had a pretty amazing life,” her son said.
April was an emotional month for Arlene, Jordan said, because that was the month her husband, Harold, passed away in 2011.
Jordan listed among her proudest accomplishments: Her long involvement in the arts and other civic causes. “Both my parents were proud Portlanders. They were born and educated here. It was their village, they used to say. They felt if they didn’t help build the institutions in this town, who would?”
Wealthy yet generous, charming yet blunt, caring yet practical, she and her late husband Harold Schnitzer transformed small-town Portland, first with a groundbreaking art gallery, then by giving away more than $119 million to thousands of civic projects.
In the process, they brought professionalism to a provincial art town, enlarged the scope and visibility of philanthropy and paved the way for the next generation of wealthy donors, including their son, Jordan.
The Schnitzers were not the wealthiest Oregonians, but they occupied an unusual place: They were among the first Jews to rise to prominence in a city with deep Protestant roots.
Before the Schnitzers put Arlene’s name on the Oregon Symphony’s new home in 1984, Portland’s wealthy residents gave quietly and modestly. A major gift might be $2,000. New York had Carnegie and Rockefeller. Portland had the Civic Auditorium and the Paramount Theatre.
“This was a town of little checks written quietly because they were so modest,” said Bruce Guenther, former chief curator of the Portland Art Museum.
But in 1984, Harold agreed to give $1.7 million to help create a new performing arts center in exchange for putting his wife’s name on the old Paramount. Other wealthy patrons started adding zeroes to their checks and seeing their names appear on other cultural buildings, including the Winningstad, Newmark and Brunish theaters, the Mark Building at the Portland Art Museum, Keller Auditorium and the Allen Elizabethan Theatre at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland.
Unlike younger donors who tend to give to single causes, Harold and Arlene spread their money widely over the arts, health care and social services. Recipients included New Avenues for Youth; community gathering places such as the Oregon Zoo; schools such as the University of Oregon and Lewis and Clark College; Jewish cultural agencies such as the Mittleman Jewish Community Center; and arts institutions from the Oregon Symphony and Oregon Ballet Theatre to the Portland Opera and Portland Art Museum.
Since 1997, the main vehicle for the couple’s philanthropy has been the Harold & Arlene Schnitzer CARE Foundation, funded by the sale of the Claremont Hotel for $88 million.
They viewed giving as an interconnected web of urban needs.
“I think of her as a big wave,” said Lucinda Parker, one of the city’s best-known painters who met Arlene when they were both art students in the 1950s. “She encouraged and embarrassed everyone to do what she was doing. She made her way. She had no fear.”
Arlene was born in Salem and moved to Portland when she was 2. She recalls running around the large furniture business of her parents, Helen and Simon Director, at the corner of Southwest 10th and Washington streets.
She met Harold in 1949 when she was 20 and he 26. They married five weeks later — after Arlene proposed. Harold was quiet, introverted and thoughtful, while Arlene was bold, outspoken and argumentative.
When Harold asked Arlene’s father for her hand, Simon Director said, “Are you sure you want to do this? She’s spoiled, she’s a handful and she can’t cook,” recalled her son, Jordan Schnitzer.
At the time of their marriage, Harold worked in the scrap-metal business at Schnitzer Steel Industries — founded by Russian immigrant Sam Schnitzer in the early 1900s — before breaking away in 1950 and eventually making his own fortune in real estate at Harsch Investment Properties. The couple had Jordan, their only child, in 1951. He later served as president of Harsch and sits on the boards of several arts organizations. He also became an art collector and is the namesake of the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at the University of Oregon.
Their small family led a typical middle-class life, Jordan recalled. Every night, the three of them would eat supper at 6:30 p.m. while watching the Huntley-Brinkley news show. They were the last home in their neighborhood to get a color TV.
Arlene’s father was right — she didn’t like cooking, so while she decorated and ran the house, Harold shopped for groceries and cooked dinner. But she did love to make chocolate chip cookies. “She made oodles of them, and there would be pots and pans everywhere,” Jordan said.
Arlene paid the bills, spreading them out on a TV tray table, using a calculator. Some months, she couldn’t pay them all and had to stretch a few of them out, Jordan said.
“She was always there,” he said. “She was my den mother and she taught me to drive. She was as bad a teacher as I am a driver.”
After taking art classes (“I needed to get out of the house”), Arlene and her mother opened the Fountain Gallery in 1961, where she became an evangelist for Pacific Northwest artists for the next 25 years. That was new ground in a city of small commercial galleries and few opportunities for local artists to exhibit or sell their work.
“I started early in the game to realize that I had to find a different market other than just the lady who was decorating her house and would come in with her decorator, pick out a painting for over the sofa,” she told Guenther in a 1985 oral history interview for the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art.
“I want the young, serious, good artist coming up to know that there is a place here he can show. He doesn’t have to run away. I want him to stay in this community. I want it to be a vital community, and a community can’t be vital without the arts,” she said.
Arlene helped launch the careers of many now esteemed regional artists such as Mel Katz, Michele Russo, Jay Backstrand, Parker and dozens of others. She went further: With Harold’s help, she also bought at least one work from each artist she showed, an unheard of commitment at the time.
“She would say, ‘Have a real painting, don’t have a print’,” Parker said. “She got us to look at the artists who actually live here.”
Arlene had the eye for art and Harold had the money. Sales were a struggle in Oregon’s fledgling art market.
“Arlene’s goal was to sell,” said Guenther, who met Arlene in 1969. “Harold was there to make sure artists found buyers.” Harold kept the gallery going by discreetly buying work, year after year.
While running the gallery, which suffered a catastrophic fire in 1977, Arlene also became an art consultant, helping local banks and law firms choose art for their lobbies and boardrooms. It was a time when people hung reproductions on their walls and corporate art favored “ducks flying out of a swamp,” as she once put it.
Over the years, she and Harold created their own collection of Northwest and West Coast post-war masters, Native American ceramics and beaded bags,19th and 20th century silver, international glass works and more. They built one of the most significant collections of Han Dynasty Chinese art — thousands of years old — outside of China. The Portland Art Museum dedicated an exhibit to their Han pieces in 2005: “Mysterious Spirits, Strange Beasts, Earthly Delights: Early Chinese Art from the Arlene and Harold Schnitzer Collection.”
Arlene’s taste in art was personal, said Guenther, who curated a museum show taken from the Schnitzer’s entire collection in 2014.
“She loved art that engaged her visually and emotionally, so her collection ranges from the devastatingly powerful to the innocuously beautiful. She responded to the work immediately.”
Arlene also loved music. The story of how she and Harold saved the performing arts center has become Portland lore. It began over lunch in the Benson Hotel in the early 1980s. Robert Scanlan, who chaired the committee to raise money for the project, was in a panic. He had a week to close the deal on raising $6 million in private money to restore the Paramount Theatre as the new home of the Oregon Symphony. If he failed, the city would be unable to issue a bond sale of $19 million to finance the remaining costs.
Scanlan didn’t know the Schnitzers, but he called and made a lunch date. He was going to ask them for $1.7 million. He did not know that the Schnitzer’s largest previous gift to any organization was $20,000.
Arlene recalled: “The last thing I said to Harold before we went in to lunch was ‘Harold, don’t give him an answer without telling him you and I want to talk about it first, and then we’ll get back to him.’ And Bob is explaining about the need for this last money or the whole project’s going down the tube and I sat there and I watched Harold put his hand out to shake Bob’s hand, and he says, ‘Bob, you’ve got it.’ And I was totally dumbfounded.”
The Paramount renovation and construction of new theaters across the street led to the redevelopment of what became the city’s cultural district, including the museum renovation and acquisition of the Masonic Temple. Scanlan also ties the Paramount’s renovation to the Heathman Hotel remodel, the $28 million renovation of the Hilton Hotel, nearby restaurants and the construction of the 1000 Broadway Building, replacing the old Broadway Theatre.
But Harold’s donation — and Arlene’s name on the building — rubbed some people the wrong way. One donor, who had pledged $100,000, withdrew his support “because of the junk dealer,” Scanlan said. “I was stunned at the antisemitism.”
Scanlan recalled hearing other comments, accusing Harold of demanding naming rights, which Arlene denied.
It was a painful episode. Arlene didn’t like talking about it, but she later said that while Harold did ask that her name be put on the building, it was Scanlan who insisted on it.
“It was Bob who pleaded with us on the basis that the only way we can get other people to take their hands out of their pockets and contribute money was by attaching a name to the gift,” Arlene said.
Even as a young woman, Arlene was self-assured, Guenther said.
“The beauty of Arlene is that she can be sophisticated, polished, in command of the room and still access her sense of being ‘just me,’” Guenther said. “She has the ability to balance both sides of her life. I’ve watched her receive great awards, and in the privacy of her own house, she could be filled with doubts about something she was trying to do. She could be tough in asking important questions in board meetings, about goals and actions to achieve, and she could be tender and forgiving.”
She could be generous on a personal level, too. There is a family story about Arlene when she was in the fourth grade at Laurelhurst Grammar School. She was in a school play, but she got stage fright when she came onstage and froze. Silently, her mother stood up in the audience, as if to say, “I’m with you.”
Said Jordan, “My mother has stood up from the crowd thousands of times to give support to individuals. That is who my mother was. She was always there.”
Barbara Hall, who worked with Arlene for decades, remembers walking out of the Harsch office with her one night. A young man approached them and said, “I never do this, but I’m broke. Do you have any extra money?”
Arlene replied, “I never do this, but I trust you,” and she began digging in her purse for a $20 bill. The wind picked up and several $50 bills flew out of her purse like confetti. The man ran to gather them up, but instead of taking off, he handed them back. Arlene gave him a $20.
Hall once received a call from a woman who wanted to thank Arlene for an act of kindness 40 years earlier.
Arlene, who hated exercise — a “walk” is something you cook in, she liked to say — was trudging around the track behind Lincoln High School. Each time she made the circle, she saw a young woman sitting in the bleachers, crying. On her third circuit, Arlene stopped and asked what was wrong.
The woman said she had left home and followed her boyfriend to Portland, but he had dumped her. She was 18, adrift, no money.
“First thing, young lady, you’re going to go home and reconcile with your parents,” Arlene told her.
She drove the girl to get something to eat, then to the bus station where she bought her a bus ticket and gave her money before sending her on her way.
Four decades later, the caller wanted to thank Arlene. The two women talked on the phone and Arlene, who remembered the young woman, learned that the forlorn teenager was happily married with two children.
Harold died of abdominal cancer in 2011 at the age of 87, but Arlene continued her patronage with recent gifts of $2.3 million to Portland State University’s College of the Arts and $1 million to the Portland Japanese Garden.
After Harold’s death, mother and son grew closer, Jordan said. “We had a very intense, very complex relationship. We were three strong-minded, strong-willed people. But I know she was proud of me.”
He continued, “She always had this drive to be somebody, to make something of herself. She and my father saw themselves as Portlanders and Oregonians, as citizens of their village.”
Something like 200 artists had careers because of Arlene, Guenther said. And the couple’s accumulated gifts form an arc of philanthropy over the region.
“Look across the cultural landscape of Oregon,” Guenther said. “Harold and Arlene’s commitment to art and artists living in this community will be remembered for generations. Her name on a building is just the outward sign of their love for this community and the place where they made their lives.”
In addition to Jordan Schnitzer, Arlene’s survivors include four grandchildren: Arielle Schnitzer; Andria Schnitzer; Samuel Director Schnitzer and Simon Director Schnitzer.
Jeff Manning of The Oregonian/OregonLive contributed reporting.
— David Stabler, For The Oregonian/OregonLive