by Elizabeth Coady
The announcement went out via email to Elliot Schwartz’s 4,000 customers: The eponymous Chestnut Hill art gallery, founded by Carol Schwartz in 1979, was closing. The 18th Century, stone, three-story storefront at 101 Bethlehem Pike had been sold, and the 2,000 artworks – paintings, posters, prints and clay sculptures – would have to go. Every piece would be offered at a 30 percent discount.
On Friday, Oct. 27, the first day of the sale, the line to get into the gallery was six-deep when Elliot arrived at his door.
“We’ve been mobbed all morning,” the delighted owner said. The 30 percent discount was being offered “because it’s the right thing to do.”
By 3 p.m., at least 20 works had been sold before that evening’s private event convened from 5 to 8 p.m. Buyers streamed in all weekend, fueling Elliot’s perpetual motion to higher speeds. One customer alone bought 45 works.
“It’s been crazy,” Elliot said Saturday afternoon before cutting a call short to tend to his customers inside the space lit by sun and a riot of colors on canvas.
“It’s nice to stop when you’re doing well,” Elliot said before the sale. “I’m very proud of that. It’s a good way to go, let’s put it that way.”
Many of the gallery’s bargain hunters customers were longtime gallery clients who had crossed over into “friend” category.
“Some of my best friends today started out as customers,” Elliot said.
Two friends, Jerry and Marilyn Segal, arrived Friday with a ”bucket list” pen, paper and cup set as retirement gift and left the owners of four new pieces of art.
“I’ll give you a piece of advice,” said Segal, 71. “Don’t bring a $15 gift into an art gallery with your wife.”
“We knew them before they started the gallery,” he said, “It’s almost an institution that’s leaving Chestnut Hill, which is sad. You don’t see too many of these places anymore.”
Founded by Carol Schwartz in 1979, the gallery was inspired by artist Arona Reiner whom the Mount Airy couple met on a trip to Israel.
“She’s the soul and inspiration of this entire business,” Elliot said.
That admiration is mutual.
“Carol was a great business lady and a wonderful friend,” Arona said via email from Israel. “We did things together that were completely crazy. After she saw one of my one-woman shows in Israel, she said she wants to open a gallery and I should help her with it. And so it was.
“Carol was the center of Elliot’s life. ,The gallery was my center in the States. I had many one-woman shows around in museums and other places but Carol was the address to connect.”
Initially Schwartz represented Israeli and Jewish artists whose work she would sell from her home and on calls to prospective clients’ homes. In 1990, the couple opened at the current location and expanded the collection to include artists of any background whose work they appreciated. The business expanded to include framing and eventually collectible and vintage posters.
The gallery was so successful that for five years there were two locations in Chestnut Hill, the second on Germantown Avenue next to Kilian Hardware. Elliot, after a career selling women’s clothing, joined the gallery in 1995.
“I was in ladies apparel business and my wife needed help,” said Elliot, who is also a Rotary Club member and board member of the Philadelphia Theatre Company. “Twenty-two years later I’m still working, and my wife died on me.”
Through the years, the gallery has exhibited or represented a wide variety of artists including Clarissa Shanahan’s evocative landscapes with encaustic or tinted beeswax, John Stango’s Philly funk-inspired “Popaganda”, Dori Spector’s stirring floral still lifes, Ursula Sternberg’s landscapes, and the Italian artist Pino’s figural giclee prints. Other notable works include M.F. Cardamone’s whimsical botanical collages, and Howard Watson’s pictorial watercolors of Philadelphia scenes.
In 2014, the gallery teamed up with world-renowned photographer Jordan Matter with the Pennsylvania Ballet to create images of dancers in fluid moves in locations around Philadelphia. The result was an “amazing” relationship between the gallery and the dance theater. Matter is the bestselling author of “Dancers Among Us.”
Carol Schwartz, the mother of three daughters died of thyroid cancer in 2012. In 2015, a Yoshino cherry tree was planted out front of the gallery in her honor as part of the “Re-Tree Chestnut Hill” initiative launched by the Chestnut Hill Community Fund, Community Association and Business Improvement District.
“Carol’s death was losing a sister and a center of creativity for me,” said her muse, Arona, a Boston native.
“Everything he does is a tribute to [Carol] and her memory,” said Sally Alsher, who’s been the manager of the gallery for 15 years. We miss her every day.”
She joked that whenever they turned on music at the gallery and heard “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” that was Carol checking in with them. That was her song, she said.
Though retiring at 75, there’s no sense that Elliot Schwartz is slowing down.
“Fifty-three years I’ve been working,” he said. “Is that enough?
“I just want to do things. So many of my friends my age have retired. And they’re doing things I want to do, and I’m jealous.”
His plans include more time with his seven grand kids and enjoying his beach house in Ventnor, traveling, and golfing.
“This has been good and I’m feeling good and my health is good. And if not now, when?,” he said. “I just decided that I wanted to do it.”
Martha Sharkey, executive director of the Chestnut Hill Business District, lamented the gallery’s closing and praised the contributions that the Schwartzes have made to Chestnut Hill over the last three decades.
“The Carol Schwartz Gallery was a treasure for the Chestnut Hill community and the Greater Philadelphia Region for more than 25 years,” she said. “Not only were they leaders in the fine art and collecting arena, but the Schwartz business and family were leaders in philanthropy, placemaking, and a valued partner for their fellow neighbors in Chestnut Hill.”
She said the Business District team and the Business Association “remain grateful to Elliott Schwartz for his years of service, creativity and community building.”
The art sale continues through the end of December.