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A successful automobile dealer is mixing business savvy with a lifelong love of art to create an eclectic gallery in Red Bank

by Laura D.C. Kolnoski • Photos by Amessé Photography

In 1973, Red Bank’s Kenneth Schwartz quit college and began selling cars, a gamble that has paid off to the tune of four successful central New Jersey auto dealerships. There is, however, a novel business twist to the entrepreneur’s portfolio: in a restored turn-of-the-century building in the heart of Keyport above the Raritan Bay, his popular McDonagh’s Irish Pub’s attracts revelers with its welcoming, bright red façade.

An avid art, antiques and memorabilia collector, Schwartz recently embarked on his “next big thing”—opening a 9,000-square-foot, 2.5-story art gallery in a former vacant warehouse in Red Bank’s cultural and entertainment hub.

The Wanderlust Gallery, expected to open in spring of next year, will be, “the coolest, funkiest, craziest gallery anyone has ever seen,” he promised. “I want the building to look like a piece of art, while helping great artists have opportunities to show their work to the world.”

The gallery’s exterior walls will support moveable, interchangeable murals by various artists, while its roof will feature Sergio Furnari’s life-sized sculpture depicting the famous 1932 photograph of workers eating lunch on a beam during the construction of Rockefeller Center. Inside, where a spiral staircase is being installed, cathedral ceilings and a loft space will provide the backdrop for a diverse inventory of folk, urban, and modern art. Gallery director/artist Tara Amelchenko of Asbury Park, whose business acumen Schwartz is quick to detail (having studied Fine and Studio Arts at Pratt Institute), has been preparing for months.

“We chose the name to reflect the gallery’s eclectic, ephemeral nature,” Schwartz said. “Art comes from people’s heads, and isn’t there until it’s created. [The name] connotes a dreamlike state of traveling around.”

Schwartz’s dream had an abbreviated start when, a month after he purchased the warehouse, Superstorm Sandy barreled in. He donated its use to the Red Cross for supply storage. The 75-year-old building also needed extensive renovation (it had no plumbing or working bathrooms). The owner enlisted Red Bank architect Steve Raciti to design the interior.

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To increase the gallery’s accessibility to the community, free art classes for adults and children will be taught by Holly Suzanne Rader, a classically trained fine and mixed media artist and sculptor. Schwartz and Adam Philipson, CEO of Red Bank’s Count Basie Theatre, have discussed collaborating in the musical/cultural aspects of the gallery.

“There will be music, sculptors, painters, videographers—a cross-pollination to enhance the vitality of Red Bank on the regional and national art scene,” Schwartz said. Local busi-ness leaders have called his vision “spectacular,” and while the gallery is generating widening buzz, Schwartz is most excited for the artists.

“I’ve been collecting art for over 30 years, and want to enhance the lives of emerging artists who don’t have a venue,” he explained. “I’m so enamored with artists; not just their work but who they are. They are the treasures of the world.” Schwartz is taking a page from his automotive business to inject sales innovation into the transactional process, too—offering zero percent financing on art purchases, an option he hopes will maximize artists’ exposure.

Schwartz’s treasure hunts, discoveries, and acquisitions began with signed autographs, historic sports and entertainment documents and signatures, folk art, cigar store Indians, 1800s American Indian photographs by legendary photographers Frank “F.A.” Rinehart, Edward S. Curtis, and Carl Moon, paintings and other works. A lifelong fan of singer Billie Holiday, he possesses what has been described as a complete history of her life, possibly “…the world’s largest collection of Billie Holiday letters, contracts, photos, and personal documents.”

A graduate of Long Island’s Lawrence High School, Schwartz attended Monmouth University. After what he describes as a rollercoaster life, the most important lesson he’s learned is to focus on the future, finding satisfaction in passions, philanthropic endeavors, and most importantly, his three children. In 2010, the energetic entrepreneur purchased a vacant furniture store in Neptune. He completely remodeled it, added a large gallery space, and turned it into the beloved but short-lived American Antiques. Its museum quality inventory attracted buyers, sellers, and connoisseurs; one particularly compelling attraction—a wall-sized canvas mural depicting scenes from the 1959 film Solomon and Sheba (starring Yul Brynner and Gina Lollobrigida) was said to have been eyed by Oprah Winfrey.

Schwartz’s World Auto Group includes the top selling Subaru dealer in Monmouth and Ocean counties for 13 years; now the largest regional top-selling dealer. His other World dealerships sell Jeeps, Chrysler, Ram Trucks, and Volkswagens.

The owner gets occasionally confused with another Schwartz dealership near his own—whose two owners dress in amusing and sometimes embarrassing get-ups to hawk their wares on television.

“They are nice guys, but no relation to me,” Schwartz said. “I attribute our success to having the best value product on the market, hiring motivated, nice, regular people, and striving to not de-motivate them,” adding that he personally hires all managers, then managers hire everyone else. The firm has low employee turnover, too; some technicians have been there 30 years, while the chief financial officer has exceeded even that mark.

“All business should be relationship based. If you can’t treat your customers like you should treat your mom, then get out of the business,” Schwartz maintained.

Along with friends, the owner founded the Fidelis Charitable Foundation to assist recovering alcoholics and addicts, and has also made several significant donations. Its mission is to provide short-term direct assistance during the difficult early stages of addiction recovery. The organization honors Maurice J. Roussell of Long Branch, (1934 – 2007), a star athlete at St. Peters College who became a Marine and joined the FBI; rising to Senior Resident Agent in Red Bank. “Reese” helped thousands as a founder of the FBI’s Employee Assistance Program; responsible for bringing the Twelve Step Recovery Program for Alcoholics and Addicts to the Soviet Union.

“Because of Reese and his brother Red, I am sober almost 28 years,” Schwartz said. “Without that, I have nothing. I am in the stage of my life when I want to do the things I’ve always dreamt of. Wanderlust Gallery is just that—a real labor of love. It gives me the chance to do something culturally stimulating and fun. I’m very excited about it.”

Wanderlust Gallery
24 Clay St., Red Bank