“Being a grandmother has been one of the best things in my life,” says the gallerist Anna Schwartz, one of the most influential figures in the Australian art scene. Uncompromising when it comes to championing her stable of artists, she tackles grandmotherhood with the same pride. “I don’t want to hide anything. I feel very proud to be a grandmother,” she says. “I’ve been able to live long enough and healthily enough so that I can enjoy my grandchildren.”
Schwartz is Nanna to three grandchildren — Lilith, 20, Boaz, 16, and Hephzibah, 12 — and she considers it a privilege to be known by that name. “It’s so intimate and affectionate,” she says. “They don’t call anybody else that. It’s very special.” It’s a close-knit family. Schwartz’s daughter, the architect Zahava Elenberg, along with Boaz and Hephzibah, live opposite the gallerist and her husband, Morry Schwartz, the publisher of The Monthly. Last year, they formed their own Covid-19 bubble, with the adults meeting at 5pm most evenings for a Negroni.
“I have a very involved relationship with my daughter,” Schwartz says. Zahava’s father, the sculptor Joel Elenberg, died when Zahava was seven, forging a strong bond between the two. “We speak to each other several times a day. And I speak to my grandchildren most days. I see them a lot.” The extended family also travels together. “We take them to other countries, bushwalking — all of life’s experiences,” Schwartz says. “We’ve worked hard and we’re in a better situation financially than my parents. It’s a great pleasure to be able to take them travelling and see the world through a curious child’s eyes.”
The grandchildren have been fortunate to grow up surrounded by art, both at home and with the ever-changing exhibitions at Schwartz’s eponymous Flinders Lane gallery. “They’ve had the experience of always having the gallery in their lives and I don’t think there has been an exhibition they haven’t seen,” Schwartz says. “Take them to a museum and they can identify the artists. They have this embedded knowledge and sensitivity.”
Raised in suburban Melbourne by “progressive, left-wing” parents, Schwartz has vivid memories of her paternal grandmother. Her grandparents were refugees who fled Poland just before the Holocaust and never fully integrated into the Australian community. “They had to live with the trauma that the rest of the family was being murdered,” Schwartz says. “I adored my grandmother Rachael. She was the possessor of history, she was the carrier of history, she was the person who transmitted my inherited culture and my inherited identity. When I make the dishes we have for Passover, I think of her.”
Schwartz’s maternal grandmother, Marjorie, died two months before she was born. “I’ve always strangely felt a great affinity to the grandmother who died,” she says. “I’m much more like her than I was like my mother. She lived the kind of life I live. She entertained a lot, she had a strong social role and she had all kinds of relationships with musicians and artists. She was very elegant, beautifully dressed, she loved to travel. I always felt it a loss not to have known her.”
Schwartz believes grandparents have an important role to play in teaching children about trust, forgiveness, empathy and friendship. In part, she says, it is because grandparents don’t have the responsibility or biological imperative of bringing up the child. “When children are going through those difficult, sensitive times, then the grandparents are still there and still the same and pose no challenge or threat. There’s no issue with just loving them or being loved by them,” she says. “One of the things that we provide as grandparents is a kind of stability when life is very volatile and uncertain. We are always there and always the same.” Something else grandparents can contribute is perspective. “I feel very concerned about the world,” Schwartz says, pointing to the effects of climate change. “And they are concerned. I feel that it’s so unfair that they’re panicked. All you can do, I think, is to give them as much information and sense of agency as you possibly can. And confidence.”
Schwartz is not your classic nanna — and she resents the cliché. “I flatter myself, perhaps, that we’ve redefined what it is to be the ages that we are. I’m 70 this year. I’m reasonably fit. I’m reasonably strong. I can do most things that I’ve ever been able to do physically.” She has always been the most stylish woman in the room, not afraid of blue or purple lipstick, but with a preference for structural black. It has been a kind of rebellion, she admits. “I remember my mother saying to me when I was about eight, ‘Anna, you don’t have a monopoly on black.’ I was interested in the form rather than the colouration. I was always interested in reducing things to their essential core and I feel that way about art now.”
To this day, she still feels a bit uncomfortable if another shade veers into her wardrobe. “I’d go into a shop — still do — and look at what there is, and somehow I feel I’m just betraying myself if I don’t get the black one.” Schwartz says her grandchildren have accepted that they have a non-traditional grandmother. “Once, not so long ago, I was getting dressed to go out and my youngest granddaughter said, ‘Oh, you’re getting dressed up to be Anna Schwartz.’ ” But, as Schwartz points out, we’re still living in an age when if she were to be attacked, the news might describe her as a “grandmother of three” not “a gallery owner”. “We’re more than just a category,” she says of grandmothers everywhere.