Anna Schwartz isn’t one to break gaze. Though charismatic, eloquent, even a tad self-deprecating when she sees fit, she is unequivocally direct. Unwarranted pleasantries and flippant small talk are not part of the Schwartz patois.
“I don’t see any point in not saying what you think and not doing what you want to do, as long as you’re not hurting anybody,” she says, staring coolly from behind her well kempt mop of curls, today partially tamed by a solid, black gloss beret.
We’re sitting in an austere, bunker-like office hidden on the upper floor of Anna Schwartz Gallery’s Melbourne headquarters in Flinders Lane. We’ve had the brief tour, the customary pause to admire the new suite of paintings by Mike Parr installed in the upstairs gallery.
“I’m always being told that I’m frightening or too straightforward or whatever it is,” she continues, unflinchingly. “But I run the gallery I want to run, I work with the artists I want to work with and I and say what I believe.” A Pause. “What other way is there to live?”
It’s an attitude that has – at least in part – contributed Schwartz's standing as one of the most influential, mythologised and in many cases feared figures on Australia's contemporary art landscape. In a career spanning three decades, Schwartz has represented not only some of Australia's leading and most challenging contemporary artists- Mike Parr, John Nixon, Peter Booth, Daniel Crooks, Callum Morton, Shaun Gladwell, Emily Floyd, Kathy Temin and Marco Fusinato among them – but played a leading role in introducing and championing conceptual art’s the more experimental strains.
Even her high-profile international stable, which includes US conceptual art star Joseph Kosuth, Moscow collective AES+F and legendary British sculptor Antony Gormley, is not immune. Chatting with Gormley prior to his Memes exhibition at the gallery in February, he affectionately described his Australian representative as an “extraordinarily ambitious person” who “can be quite imperious, but…not so imperious as not to be able to laugh at herself.”
It speaks of a woman who is not easily intimidated – who, for all her supposed pretence, is remarkably driven and assured in her vision. “I’m only really interested in artists who are challenging the language of what art is and are real innovators,” she offers after a moment of deliberation. “We will never to compromise in terms of what we show and what we say about what we show.
Schwartz claims her role to be that of a “counterpoint” to that of the museum. “Within public spaces and museums there is an interrelation between the curator and the artist, but this is really the province of the artist. The gallery was founded on the principle of artists being able to do whatever they wanted to, with no constraints.
“It’s tough running a gallery like this – there are a lot of financial pressures – and for me it’s only worth doing if the art is important.”
It’s easy to take such a statement with a grain of salt. It’s not as if the gallerist, who is married to high profile property developer and publisher of The Monthly, Morry Schwartz, is as vulnerable to the financial rigours as many in her industry. But Schwartz is adamant that her gallery – and its vast Sydney counterpart, which she launched in the height of the financial crisis in 2008 – has succeeded on its own terms.
“It’s never been something profitable,” she admits. “But it has paid its own way…and it’s the same with the Sydney space. We’ve made it work”
Having grown up in Beaumaris – her father, a Jewish aeronautical engineer, had fled Poland in 1938 – she spent her late teens working in a record store before studying linguistics at La Trobe University in the early 70s. But art was never too far away. Her first husband and father of her daughter Zahava, Joel Elenberg, was an artist, as were many in their wider social circle.
Elenberg died of cancer at just 32 and Schwartz went onto open a gallery in St Kilda, United Artists, with a group of artist friends in 1982. “Artists make art and don’t necessarily run a gallery well, so as it transpired, I ended up holding the baby,” she reflects with a laugh. She opened the first incarnation of her eponymous gallery in 1986 at a then derelict 45 Flinders Lane – the same year she and Morry wed. Schwartz recalls the time as the beginning of her “real professional life”.
“People said, ‘Oh you can’t open a gallery in the city, people won’t come, they can’t park, there’s no history of it, don’t do it’ and now I’m trying to stop the City of Melbourne calling it a precinct,” she laughs.
Schwartz moved the gallery to its current site at 185 Flinders Lane in 1993 and has not looked back. “I read something to do with the gallery’s longevity recently and I remember being quite shocked because I was always perceived by the core of the Australian scene as being very peripheral in terms of the work that I was showing.”
Though she credits many – including her husband – for their support and influence, Schwartz is very much a product of her own invention. “Morry often asks me, ‘Where did you come from?’” she laughs, pausing for a moment. “I’ve created myself.”