Not So Still Life

Sue Schieman Assistant Director, Public Affairs

If not for a fine arts elective requirement, Mark Schwartz’s closet might be filled with tailored suits and crisp white shirts instead of his signature black tees and slacks. One serendipitous decision can change the course of a life, and in Schwartz’s case, enrollment in a college photography class quickly usurped his earlier aspirations of a law career. Photography became his passion. Starting out at Rutgers and ending up at Princeton to study with the renowned photographer Emmet Gowin was an unforeseen journey for Schwartz. From there he went on to earn an M.F.A. degree from Ohio University, then moved to Cleveland to begin a successful career in visual communications.

Mark Schwartz and Curator of Photography Tom Hinson confer in the new east wing galleries amid temporarily stored shipping crates.

Schwartz is now president and creative director of the preeminent award-winning design firm Nesnadny +Schwartz, the company he founded more than 25 years ago. With the demands of his growing business, Schwartz may have put down his camera professionally, but his interest in photography as a creative director, collector, supporter,andadvocate hasnever wavered. “While I stopped making pictures many years ago,” he says, “I get just as much gratification from commissioning great photographers to partner with us and our clients.” And so he has, most notably by setting a precedent of using fine art photographers to illustrate the annual reports the firm began creating for the George Gund Foundation in 1989.

For one of the early reports, Schwartz contacted photographer Lee Friedlander, who upon learning he would have broad creative control immediately agreed to the project. “Lee was like an official stamp of approval,” says Schwartz. “Once that report was published, I certainly had my calls returned. Virtually everyone wanted to be a part of the Gund commission.” Schwartz is quick to add that the best part of his experience working with Friedlander is the close friendship that developed.

It is to Schwartz’s credit that Friedlander’s photographic series Factory Valleys is currently on exhibit again after 30 years, and that the Cleveland Museum of Art is the Midwest venue for the traveling Friedlander exhibition. Several years after attending the opening of Friedlander at MoMA in New York, Schwartz approached CMA director Timothy Rub with the idea of bringing the exhibition to Cleveland. Schwartz pledged his support with the condition that Rub try to convince Mitchell Kahan, director of the Akron Art Museum, to present Factory Valleys at the same time. Kahan agreed and Schwartz remained true to his word.

“The concurrent shows are marvelous complements to one another, but more important to me is this whole idea of regionalism,” says Schwartz. “The fact that there are significant economic challenges in this part of the world right now underscores the importance of forging partnerships, and these coordinated efforts in Cleveland and Akron are a fabulous and inspiring example of that.”

Schwartz and his wife, Bettina Katz, recognize that the need is endless and resources are finite, so they look for philanthropic opportunities where they can make a meaningful impact. He and Katz are the sole sponsors of Factory Valleys, but for the Cleveland exhibition Schwartz took a creative approach by also engaging photography enthusiasts Fred and Laura Ruth Bidwell, Agnes Gund, and Toby Devan Lewis. “You can accomplish amazing things when a few committed people get together and pool several relatively modest gifts into one major endeavor.” Director
Timothy Rub adds, “An exhibition supported exclusively by a collaboration among individuals is quite rare and quite wonderful.”

Mark Schwartz with daughters Emma (left) and Sophie and wife Bettina Katz.

Schwartz cites a prior experience as another example of philanthropic collaboration. As a board member of MOCA Cleveland, he offered in 2004 to underwrite the expense of MOCA commissioning Spencer Tunick—known for his photographs featuring large numbers of nude people—for an installation on Cleveland’s East Ninth Street pier. Schwartz enlisted Timothy and Nancy Callahan and Stewart and Donna Kohl to add their support to the project. It was money well spent in terms of public relations for MOCA, but the CMA benefited as well. The final Tunick print was donated by the group to the museum’s permanent collection.

In 2005 Schwartz was asked to join the CMA board of trustees, and in this role he has participated on the board’s marketing and collections committees as well as with the museum’s Friends of Photography group. But his legacy runs deeper. To celebrate Schwartz and his wife’s generous commitment to the CMA’s renovation and expansion project, the museum has named its first dedicated space for the photographic medium in their honor: the Mark Schwartz and Bettina Katz Photography Galleries. Photography will now take its rightful place at the museum, “with its history, its stars, and its movements,” and Schwartz is glad that he and Katz have had the opportunity to help make this happen. “While pledging to support CMA’s new photography galleries is a commitment with a ‘capital C,’ we again saw this as something critically important and within our reach. Bettina and I are both very proud and very humbled to be a small part of CMA during the most exciting time in the institution’s history.” 

Looking back at his colorful career, Schwartz jokes that nothing has been black and white—except for the photography. All he can say now is, “Thank goodness for college requirements.”