Kingmaker of the art world: lunch with Anna Schwartz

After lunching with Anna Schwartz, I google her and find a piece in Vogue that features her next-level, industrial-style Denton Corker Marshall-designed home. It's extraordinary, a quasi-gallery and a world away from most of our realities, which, given her day job, makes sense. Her eponymous gallery in Melbourne − and until a few years ago Sydney − is highly regarded worldwide and she represents many of our top contemporary artists.

Anna Schwartz has been a champion of contemporary Australian art for nearly four decades.Credit:Joe Armao

The Carlton house is a world away from earlier digs nearby. “When I was really young I lived in the Pram Factory, before it was the theatre. There was the tower and people had rooms. Then it became a theatre and now it’s a shopping mall.”

It’s no surprise she lived in the Pram Factory building, home of Melbourne’s pioneering theatre group. Schwartz has been moving in art circles since her late teens, as the book Present Tense: Anna Schwartz Gallery and 35 Years of Contemporary Australian Art testifies. Written by Doug Hall and published recently by Black Inc, it shows a young Anna with a who’s who of the city’s creative alumni.

“I think it was just that there was much less going on than there is now, a much smaller cultural scene so people did tend to know each other,” she says. “Now, you have the option of many things to do of an evening… in those days there was one thing and everybody went. People from different disciplines knew each other.”

She is seated when I arrive, immaculately groomed and wearing her signature black. We’re dining at the Carlton Wine Room, her favourite in the suburb she’s called home since 1968. The restaurant was once a hairdressers, she tells me; it’s now a venue as highly regarded for its food as its wine, with John Paul Twomey – an alumni of Andrew McConnell’s – in the kitchen.

For Anna, it’s the whole baked flounder, for me, grilled octopus. We order a scallop tostada each to start, and a glass of dry white wine. “Skin contact is fine,” she tells the waitress.

The prompt for lunch is twofold – the book and corresponding exhibition Never the Same River. The breadth of the work shown in her galleries is reflected in the massive two-part show, the first of which features 50-odd works. It was the brainchild of Tania Doropoulos, the Melbourne gallery’s director/curator. “She conducted an archaeology of the gallery, immersed herself in the history of the gallery and the artists,” says Schwartz. “It’s an exhibition that surveys the past, present and the future.”

Schwartz at lunch. Credit:Joe Armao

A self-taught businesswoman, she is proud of her achievements. “I didn’t start with a capital fund or anything, I started with zero. I take pride in the fact that everything the gallery is today is the work that the artists and I have done – and the people who have collaborated with the gallery. It has established a cultural position. And not as many artists need to wash dishes as they used to,” she says with a laugh.

The scallops arrive before the photographer, so she whips out her phone and takes a few shots, handing it to me and suggesting I send myself anything that appeals.

Her husband Morry owns Schwartz Media and is the publisher of the Quarterly Essay, The Saturday Paper, The Monthly magazine and Black Inc books. Success in property development has bankrolled the publishing business, described by some as philanthropy. They've been together since 1986 and spend much of their spare time together, reading and entertaining − she loves to cook. She speaks to her daughter Zahava Elenberg, partner in architectural firm Elenberg Fraser, once a day, and is very close to her three grandchildren, aged 11, 15 and 19. After lunch, she will head off to pick the 11-year-old up from school.

Anna Schwartz at 45 Flinders Lane in April 1988. The window reflection captures an exhibition by Elizabeth Newman, which was to be the last United Artists show before the space became City Gallery. Credit:Martin Kantor, commissioned by Tension magazine. Courtesy Brightspace.

Both Anna and Morry are kingmakers: he giving voice to new and alternative voices, she giving artists her imprimatur. Ironically, they are also very private. Schwartz is expansive on many topics yet doesn't give much away, friendly but on message.

In 1938, her paternal grandparents fled Poland and came to live in Carlton, then home to many synagogues, kosher butchers and other specialist Jewish food shops. Her father and mother, also Polish, met at Melbourne University and married in 1950.

Brett Whiteley, Anna Elenberg, 1987–1991, (cropped and reworked from Anna Weis, 1984), pencil, charcoal, pen and black ink, collage on ivory paper, 36.0 × 42.8 cm. Credit:Courtesy Wendy Whiteley and Anna and Morry Schwartz Collection.

She grew up in “modernist utopian Beaumaris”, the eldest of three siblings, and as a child spent time at one of Melbourne's first jazz clubs, Jazz Centre 44 in St Kilda, which her aunt ran. She left home at 15 to move in with Peter and Ruth Mann, who opened the record store Discurio, where she worked for a while.

The family had a rich cultural life, going to the theatre and museums, but her interest in art developed later when she met her first husband, artist Joel Elenberg. Schwartz describes her relationship with him as her “great exposure”. He died when he was 32 from cancer, after nearly a decade together. Elenberg and Brett Whiteley were best mates; Wendy Whiteley remains one of Schwartz’s best friends.

In 1982, not long after Elenberg's death, Schwartz and a group of artist friends set up the United Artists Gallery in St Kilda, keen to exhibit on their own terms. It’s an approach she recommends for artists starting out.

The whole flounder at Carlton Wine Room.Credit:Joe Armao

The gallery moved to Flinders Lane in 1986 and before long Schwartz was running it solo. It was a prescient call, given that part of the city was then largely populated by derelict buildings. “There was no one there,” she says. Similarly in Sydney, when opening the gallery at Carriageworks in 2008, people told her she was crazy, recommending Woollahra or Paddington. “I knew from experience – not just my own but having seen cultural patterns – if you’re doing something that is really interesting or magnetic to people, they will come.”

While running the city space independently, renamed City Gallery, Schwartz started to think big. “And I was very privileged through my relationships with artists and their culture – I was very much included into the culture of ideas and art practice. And because really good artists want to be shown in each other’s company, I was in a good position.”

Did her relationship with Elenberg provide insights that helped when she began working with artists? In a word, no. “I don’t see artists as a separate species, and I don’t see them as exotic in any way. I see them as intellectuals or philosophers, or both. The practice of artists is very diverse. Although sometimes some critics might say my gallery occupies a certain territory, actually within that territory there’s great diversity," she says. "I don’t think you can ever generalise about artists, no. I think you can say that it’s difficult to make a living for most artists and especially in this country but I don’t think you can generalise about psychologies or about behaviours or derivation, sources or inspiration at all.”

Carlton Wine Room’s grilled octopus.Credit:Joe Armao

For a gallerist, deciding who to represent is far from an exact science. Contemporary art is often conceptual, sometimes difficult. According to Schwartz, commercial imperatives were never paramount. And there is no magic formula. “It’s hard for me to really analyse, but I just know when the work is really important, when it’s really taking the language of art further,” she says. “It’s not always visceral but it can be … In the end you can analyse out all the issues but it becomes an instinctive kind of thing … like a lightning strike.”

Many of the artists she represents have gone on to have internationally acclaimed careers. These include Mike Parr, Emily Floyd, Shaun Gladwell and Angelica Mesiti. Her advice for anyone keen to collect art? Find a good gallerist and trust them, even if that means buying work you don’t particularly like.

Education is a recurrent theme in our conversation. We should make teaching a vocation, she says, and pay teachers a whole lot more. “It would be catalystic in the culture and a lot of social issues, social problems would be resolved … Any kind of cultural barriers that are to do with language or ghettoising of cultures can all be resolved with the right kind of teaching.”

When the retrospective was announced, many speculated it was her swansong, but she's not having any of that. “I’ll show you my next two years’ program. No. I don’t ever think about that – there’s too much to do.”

Receipt for lunch with Anna Schwartz at Carlton Wine Room.

Schwartz downplays what she has achieved, maintaining that the gallery is the artist’s domain. “If you stand back and allow yourself to just be the recipient of people’s practice and knowledge, you can take the glory. The gallery is theirs to do what they want with and I’ve never interfered. I’m there for advice should it be requested, but it usually isn’t. I think that’s a prescription for things to work out well. To let people do what they know how to do and not to interfere.”

Never the Same River is at Anna Schwartz Gallery until December 21; Present Tense is out now, published by Black Inc.

Carlton Wine Room
172-174 Faraday St, Carlton; 9347 2626
Tues, Wed 4pm-11pm; Thurs-Mon 12pm-11pm

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