Oregon philanthropist Arlene Schnitzer passes at age 91


"I was holding her and she looked at me and smiled and closed her eyes," said her son Jordan

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Arlene Schnitzer, one of Portland’s preeminent patrons of the arts, has died, according to her son, Jordan, on Saturday. The well-known Oregon philanthropist was 91 years old. She died at home of natural causes, according to the Schnitzer family.

Her son described her as a huge supporter of the art community in Portland. Arlene was a local pioneer of women’s rights and she was most proud of her family and the legacy she would leave behind.

Arlene Schnitzer in an undated photo. (Courtesy Portland Art Museum)

“She enjoyed giving back more than she enjoyed receiving,” said Jordan of his mother. He said she lived an incredible life, and though her name is associated with philanthropy and the arts, family was her focal point. “She always felt family was the most important thing you could do.”

“She was always proud I ended up having a passion for the arts and a passion about the real estate business my father started,” said Jordan. “She was an amazing aunt to 22 nieces and nephews.”

Jordan said Arlene did not have a virus or cancer, but was under a doctor’s care for an intestinal illness.

“I was holding her and she looked at me and smiled and closed her eyes, and within two minutes was gone,” said Jordan. “I guess I sort of look at it that she decided, that’s it, I’m done with all the medical issues, I’m at peace and I want to just be with Harold.”

Her husband, Harold, passed away in April of 2011. They were married for 63 years.

“Last week, she told one of the caregivers if she had to die, she wanted to die in April to be with Harold,” recalled Jordan.

Arlene had recently been making sure organizations had funding despite the impacts of the coronavirus.

“Last week, with the urgency of the virus and problems, sending a check for $100,000 to the opera, and $100,000 to the ballet, and right now it’s a critical time for the arts organizations, as it is for all of us with half of the people in this country being unemployed,” said Jordan.

Together, Arlene and Harold donated around $80 million to the community. Jordan believes she’d want to shine the spotlight on someone else during this time, despite her legacy of giving back.

“I think she’d say, ‘stop talking about me, I was so honored to be part of this community,'” said Jordan.

Arlene is survived by her son, four grandchildren, extended family members, and others who Jordan said she “adopted” as her family.

Portland Art Museum

Arlene recently gifted $10 million to the Portland Art Museum in January, the largest personal donation to the museum in its history and one of the largest to any Oregon arts organization. 

Following the news of her death, the Portland Art Museum released a lengthy “In Memoriam” of the “longtime Museum Life Trustee.” The statement read, in part:

“Arlene Schnitzer, with her husband, Harold, provided unprecedented leadership and contributions at pivotal moments in the Museum’s history. Their visionary leadership on the Board of Trustees made it possible for the Museum to grow and better serve the Portland community. Arlene’s passion for ensuring that everyone had access to art inspired all of those around her. She and Harold led the Museum through the 1996 and 2000 renovations and expansions of the Main Building and the prescient acquisition of the former Masonic Temple.

“When asked about what drives her philanthropy, Arlene herself said, “Enough is never enough giving back. And Harold felt it as strongly as I do. And that’s it.”

“The Museum and larger art community grieves with Jordan and the family.”

History of giving 

arlene and harold schnitzer_195675

Arlene and Harold Schnitzer inspired others to collect art, including their son, Jordan Schnitzer. He has three university museums named after him, in Portland, Eugene, and Pullman, Washington, and is known for having the largest collections of postwar American prints in the world. 

They have donated more than $100 million to more than 570 nonprofits.

Arlene and Harold Schnitzer also donated to Cedar Sinai Park, Congregation Beth Israel, Lewis & Clark College, Northwest Academy, Oregon Ballet Theatre, Oregon Health & Science University, the Oregon Historical Society, Oregon Jewish Museum, Oregon Public Broadcasting, the Oregon Symphony, the Oregon Zoo, Pacific Northwest College of Art, the Portland Japanese Garden, Portland State University, and the University of Oregon.

OHSU: Her name is synonymous with civic dedication

The OHSU President and Foundation President shared a joint statement expressing their sadness from the news of Arlene’s passing.

“All of us at OHSU were saddened to learn of the passing of Arlene Schnitzer. Arlene’s contributions to our state and our community were profound; her name is synonymous with civic dedication. Among Arlene’s many passions were improving women’s health and providing world-class care to those living with diabetes. Her inspiring leadership and sustained generosity have helped the OHSU Center for Women’s Health and the OHSU Harold Schnitzer Diabetes Health Center become models of care delivery in our country. We are grateful OHSU patients will be among the thousands who will benefit from Arlene’s legacy for years to come. We extend our deep sympathy to Arlene’s son, Jordan, and the entire Schnitzer family on the loss of this truly irreplaceable woman.”

Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall

The Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall is the jewel of Portland’s Performing Arts Complex. It’s a cultural landmark in the heart of the city brought to life by one of Portland’s most prominent families.

arlene schnitzer concert hall_195660

“When the symphony hall was named for my mother, on one hand we’re a little embarrassed about the name,” Jordan Schnitzer told KOIN 6 News in a 2015 interview. “On the other hand, I was certainly proud of what my parents had accomplished.”

The concert hall named for Jordan’s mother houses the Oregon Symphony along with many other world-class performances that come through the city of roses.

When the former Paramount Theatre underwent a $10 million renovation in 1983, the project was a few million dollars short. But with Harold’s help, it would be completed.

“He said, ‘you bet I’ll help, but I’d like to have it named in honor of my wife because she’s done so much for the arts,’” Jordan said.

This story was written with contributions from KOIN 6 News’ media partner the Portland Tribune.

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