When I was a 19-year-old student at RMIT, fresh out of the south-eastern suburbs on my own in the CBD for the first time, Anna Schwartz Gallery was one of the places I (shyly) frequented between lectures and tutorials. Wandering around the gallery in complete, blissful ignorance to what I was looking at, or the history of the space, I felt like the cosmopolitan young woman I had always aspired to be. Like this gallery was in the epicentre of everything that was sophisticated and special, grown-up and important. But it is not by chance that Anna Schwartz Gallery is part of what makes Melbourne feel like Melbourne. Anna was there at the start of it all.
Anna’s first venture into galleries was in 1982 at United Artists, a group venture in St Kilda with artists representing their own work – ‘an artist run gallery doomed to business failure’. Anna was representing the work of her first husband, and father to her daughter Zahava, the late Joel Elenberg. Eventually, she wanted something bigger, and realised what potential there was in running an art gallery.
Four years after this first foray into galleries, Anna was introduced to a large space at 45 Flinders Lane (which now operates as the art space fortyfivedownstairs), and opened City Gallery with another from the original group in 1986, in the same year Gabrielle Pizzi opened her Indigenous Art Gallery on the same street. ‘Everybody said, “you’re crazy, people won’t come, they can’t park”, and it was at a time when the city closed down at 6pm. There were basically no residential apartments yet, and very few restaurants’, Anna recalls. ‘It was just at that point of change that had started in the city.’ She moved into 185 Flinders Lane, the site of the gallery as it stands today, in 1993. When I asked Anna what made her confident that her gallery would succeed when others were so convinced it wouldn’t, she said, ‘I never listened to other people’s advice.’
This steadfast self-assuredness is a quality Anna is renowned for, and is inextricably linked to her success over the last 37 years of gallery stewardship. Despite having represented many of Australia’s leading contemporary artists over the years, Anna has ‘never chosen anything because of its potential for commercial success’. Rather, she considers it her responsibility to show what she thinks is serious and important, and ‘try to make it commercially viable’ so her artists can make a living, and their work can be culturally understood.
Anna is fiercely committed to her artists, gallery, and family, and has knitted her personal and professional worlds so tightly together that they are one and the same. ‘It’s a privilege to live a life that is totally indivisible from my work’, she says. This journey has been delightfully documented in the upcoming book Present Tense by Doug Hall, chronicling the world of Australian contemporary artists and cultural figures, as they relate to Anna, over the last 35 years.
We visited Anna in early October, only a couple of days before the opening first part of the gallery’s landmark exhibition Never the same river. The milestone show draws on the histories of Anna’s four galleries, with work by over 50 Australian and international artists, spanning the 1980s to the present.
I wake up very early and am the lucky recipient of a very well made coffee by the person who has been lying next to me all night [Morry Schwartz, owner of Black Inc Books and publisher of the Quarterly Essay, The Monthly and The Saturday Paper.] The best cafe latte in Melbourne!
I do pilates with a close friend who is an absolute expert, she was a prima ballerina in Australia and internationally. Morry and I both go to her class twice a week. Apart from that, I try most days to walk to work and back, and as soon as it’s warm enough I swim three or four days a week at the Carlton Pool.
Often early in the morning, I go to the Victoria Market which I love. I’ll go there two or three times a week and buy fresh, organic produce. I’ll prepare food and think about what I’m going to make that night.
I get into work around 10am. I always talk to everybody who works in the gallery about what needs to be done, the current exhibition, how the future is tracking and what issues have come up. I try to take everything forward.
It’s extremely varied. After this conversation, I’m going over the road to Supernormal for lunch with some people who have just been in the gallery and invited me to join them. Supernormal is a great favourite and Andrew McConnell is a great restaurateur who has contributed so much to Melbourne. We often have lunch here in the gallery, which either I will cook or they will bring over from Supernormal. I’m a big fan of their ramen in winter. In fact, I might be made of that ramen soup!
I love being in the gallery so I’m here unless something else takes me away. Today I’m picking up my grandchildren from school, they live very close to me and I love driving them. I do that once a week, if not more, and pick them up. My daughter is a single mother, has three kids and lives opposite us. It’s like a village really, we all share the responsibilities. I can’t imagine it being any other way.
Depending on what’s going on I will leave work around 6pm, go home and make dinner. I love cooking with music playing and having people around.
I have cooking heroes. They are Marcella Hazan – when she passed away a couple of years ago it was like a personal loss to me; Claudia Roden – she is an expert on Jewish and Middle Eastern cuisine, and Charmaine Solomon – I’ve had her Asian cookbook since the 1970s. Basically, if you do what these three women say, then you’re a great cook. I often cook Indian, Sri Lankan, Burmese, or Italian, Spanish, North African. I also make a lot of traditional Jewish food. We have a wonderful house designed by Denton Corker Marshall, and it’s very nice to have people there. We probably have people over three or four nights a week.
I really love to read. I feel remiss about the television shows that everyone is engaged with, I just never seem to get to television. What I do is so consuming and I think it’s really important to read and keep up with writing, and because my husband is a publisher I like to keep up with his newspapers – The Saturday Paper, The Monthly magazine, The Quarterly Essay, Australian Foreign Affairs, and the hundreds of books that he publishes. I’m in the very privileged position of having access to early copies of things.