The banana-yellow posters with black block letters plastered in the windows of the Carol Schwartz Gallery aren’t promoting an exhibition by an avant-garde artist. The Carol Schwartz Gallery is, indeed, going out of business.
After 38 years, 27 of them at the corner of Old Bethlehem Pike and West Chestnut Hill Avenue in Chestnut Hill, gallery owner Elliot Schwartz is calling it quits.
“I knew I had to start winding down because I was getting old,” Schwartz, 75, said last month, sitting on the wooden stairs to the basement of the gallery named for his late wife. Dressed in his work uniform — crew neck sweater (the colors vary) over a collared shirt with khaki pants — Schwartz cataloged what has been sold to date from the gallery’s 2,000 pieces of art.
“We’ve sold hundreds of pieces in the last month,” he said.
And yet the gallery’s rooms were awash in art, with so many vibrant colors it looked like a candy factory had exploded, artfully. Oils, watercolors, serigraphs (silk screens), giclees (computer-generated inkjet prints), photos, vintage posters, and encaustics (works painted with wax) adorned the walls. Other pieces rested in racks or leaned three-deep against walls.
“I’m retiring and I’m not putting anything in storage,” Schwartz said.
Other window posters underscored his point: “Entire Gallery Is on Sale,” “Selling to the Bare Walls,” “30% Off.” Before the New Year, the gallery will be history. Dec. 30 is its last day.
Schwartz first contemplated closing after Carol, his wife of 44 years, died in 2012. But it wasn’t until last year that he put the wheels in motion by discreetly selling the 18th-century, three-story building. In October, Schwartz sent out 4,000 letters followed by an email blast to 1,800 customers announcing the closing.
From side gig to local institution
Carol Schwartz began her art career after a 1979 trip to Israel, where the couple met Arona Reiner, an Israeli artist who asked Carol to represent her work in America. Over the next 11 years, Carol sold Jewish and Israeli art from the couple’s Flourtown home. She was, said Elliot, “a natural saleswoman.”
“People loved her,” Schwartz said. “People are coming in saying how much they loved her and how much they miss her. She had a wonderful reputation.”
In 1990, the couple bought a storefront on Old Bethlehem Pike. The gallery was on the first floor with an apartment upstairs. But the location was several blocks from Chestnut Hill’s main shopping area on Germantown Avenue. So in 1995, they opened a second gallery in the heart of the shopping district.
“Those days, you wanted to be on the Hill,” said Schwartz. “We did a great business but you still had to come [to the main gallery] for framing.” He had worked in the ladies’ apparel business and left it shortly after the second location opened.
In 2000, the couple folded the Germantown Avenue store back into the main gallery. By then, the gallery was representing the day’s big names, including Philadelphia watercolorist Howard Watson. Other prominent artists who have called the gallery home are Pino Daeni, Hessam Abrishami, and Philadelphians David Fox and Kathleen Gallagher.
“Every artist was kind of a story,” Schwartz said.
Art for trees’ sake
Take, for instance, Maryfran Cardamone. One day in spring 2015, the Penn Valley artist, known for her botanical and archival illustrations, strolled into the gallery with a proposal for Schwartz. If he showed her work, she would donate a percentage of her sales to a retreeing project that was going on at the time in Chestnut Hill. He agreed.
Proceeds from the show eventually financed the planting of four trees, including one in front of the gallery, dedicated to Carol Schwartz. Since then, Cardamone has been among the gallery’s best-selling artists.
The way Schwartz came to represent another of his best-selling artists was equally serendipitous. At a 2014 art show in New York City, Schwartz, who had never sold photographs at the gallery, happened by the booth of photographer Jordan Matter. He found Matter’s work intriguing but didn’t know whether it would sell. Though he liked it, it didn’t fit with the gallery.
What he didn’t know was that Matter was the eye behind the lens of Dancers Among Us, a 2012 New York Times best seller and an Oprah magazine best book. A few months later, while attending the Pennsylvania Ballet’s 50th-anniversary party, Schwartz learned that Matter’s work was well known among the dancers. Since then, the two have worked together on several projects, including several photo shoots by Matter with members of the Pennsylvania Ballet.
Sweet guy, bittersweet farewell
“I don’t think there are many people like him in this industry,” Matter said of Schwartz. “I often don’t trust what people are saying to me. With Elliot, I trust him completely. I plan to continue working with him, not because I expect to generate revenue … but because I love him and I love his energy.”
It’s a sentiment expressed in the cards, letters, emails, text messages, and in-person testimonials Schwartz has received since announcing the closing. “Elliot is kind and funny,” said Sally Asher, who has managed the gallery for 15 years. “It’s just been a pleasure to work for him.”
Schwartz said he’s excited, not sad, about retiring. He looks forward to “going and doing,” starting with a trip to Paris in the spring.
“I guess it’s the people that I’ll really miss,” he said. “I have all these wonderful customers who became friends.”