Gene Sherman: A Dialogue With Asia - Art Collector

Issue 26 October-December 2003

Dr Gene Sherman believes the nation’s destiny lies in its region, and it’s a dialogue with Asia that has been the focus for her gallery and artists since starting in the business in 1986. Sherman Galleries is the only commercial art gallery in Australia to mount major museum touring exhibitions of important contemporary Australian art in Asia. In 1996-97 Sherman and co-director (and respected curator) Bill Wright mounted Systems End: Contemporary Art in Australia, taking twelve contemporary artists on a museum tour of Japan, Korea and Taiwan. Two years later, the pair undertook a sequel with The Rose Crossing, exhibiting 13 artists – not all of them represented by the gallery – in museums in Brisbane, Hong Kong and Singapore. 2003 has been a watershed year with consolidation of the gallery’s operations into an expanded Goodhope Street Gallery, and the winding up of the gallery at Hargrave Street. Sherman is now ready to re-focus the exhibition programme and her international schedule, with plans also to bring more overseas artists into her stable. Attending the opening of the 50th Venice Biennale in June, Gene Sherman talked to Michael Hutak.

MICHAEL HUTAK: Why did you start the gallery?
GENE SHERMAN: It was accidental – I had to leave the academic world and art was my second major, it was quite a passionate interest… my aunt was quite a prominent artist in South Africa, my father was a collector. I grew up thinking everybody went to art galleries like people today go to the movies.

MH: Why has Asia been your major focus?
GS: Given that I’d had such a broad education – I was already a tri-lingual speaker, I’d grown up in multi-lingual households – I didn’t feel comfortable about being locked into a mono-lingual, monocultural, isolated world. And as I proceeded with the gallery I came to realise, that Asia was there! It just seemed to make sense to me. I had two young children; [husband] Brian [Sherman] was building up a business; it was a very serious effort. I didn’t want to be going too far a field. But with Japan I could and did go there many times, and just for three or four days – you could do it. Our family had moved out of South Africa to London, and now here we were in Australia. I was and remain a great Paul Keating fan, and it was that era when there was a great turning of attention to Asia in Australia. Keating was the first politician in my entire adult life that ever spoke a language that resonated with me. The first one! Not in England, not in South Africa, not in Australia and then Keating came along and everything he said I felt ‘Yes!’ What he said about Asia really resonated with me. I knew I wanted to show Australian contemporary art and I knew I wanted to reach out to the outside world with it.

MH: What’s the current mix of Asian-based to Australian-based artists in the gallery?
GS: We have 22 artists in total – 17 living in Australia, two of whom are of Asian origin: Guan Wei with whom we started right at the beginning – he pre-dates Bill [Wright] joining the gallery – and John Young. Then there’s a number of artists who are not Australian that we show, the most important of whom is Xu Bing, a major figure, a Beijing artist now living in New York. Then there’s Kimio Tsuchiya, Japanese, Cai Guo Qiang who was born in China, studied in Japan and currently lives in New York. And Toshiaki Izumi, who studied and lived in Los Angeles and New York in the 1970s but has since returned to Nagoya. We had three major shows of Chinese artists in the 1990s and this year I curated a show in March called Australia Asia 03 – which had Asian-based Asian artists from Indonesia, Japan and China, and Australian artists of Asian origin.

MH: Is it difficult representing Asian artists in Australia?
GS: I think with almost any artist one needs intuition and persistence. We started way back with Guan Wei in 1989, who arrived in Australia without a dollar, without a word of English but with a number of serious people interested in his work. If ever intuition came into it it was with Guan Wei. We didn’t sell a work for five years. Not one. I had to use an interpreter just to have a cup of coffee with him. Eventually we sold our first work to Tom Lowenstein who could never remember his name and used to call him “senso unico” to remind him of “one way” (laughs) and now there’s a waiting list, queues of people for his work, the museums have all bought and so on…

MH: What about taking your artists to Asia?
GS: Well, I haven’t just gone to Asia. I’ve selected specific places. Within my time frame – and I haven’t got 50 years ahead of me – I targeted Japan to begin with. I first went to Tokyo in 1987 and I’ve been going there roughly twice a year ever since. I’m going twice this year. Most of our artists are invited, and you aren’t invited where you aren’t welcome. Three of our artists are in the Echigo Tsumari [Triennale 2003 near Nagano which opened in July]. Fram Kitagawa is the director. I’ve known Fram for many years. He is a man I admire and on whom I would like, in a way, to model myself. His aim is to revitalise the region where he came from… he encourages the artists to work with the local communities. Our three artists are Janet Laurence, Anne Graham and Lauren Berkowitz. In October I’ll be going to China with Imants Tillers because he has two major works out of the Diaspora series that are going to the inaugral Beijing Biennale. These are two huge works, five metres by nine metres each, 300 panel boards.

MH: What percentage of your business is done internationally?
GS: It hovers between 13 per cent and 25 per cent and at the moment, the current financial year [2002-03] it stands at 17 per cent. Our peak export figures were in the Olympic year – for obvious reasons – when it was 25 per cent. That’s not just the region either because we also have significant American collectors.

MH: Which artists sell well for you in Asia?
GS: It’s arbitrary which artists do well in which market. In object terms most works go to the region, in dollar terms most goes to America. Imants has been successful in Japan and is now getting attention in China. Guan Wei has been successful in Japan. Hossein Valamanesh has been enormously successful in Japan. Hilary Mais has done well in Chicago.

MH: Who in Asia buys the works?
GS: Most interest has come from individual collectors or institutions rather than corporations. Individuals are always going to be attracted to certain artists because it’s such a personal thing. We have more sales to individuals than institutions, but having said that Imants and Guan Wei have been more in demand from institutions. I was six years on the road in Asia when I took those two shows [Systems End and Rose Crossing]… and the people who were attracted to those shows were already attracted to contemporary art, so we were talking to an audience who were already aware of the language of contemporary art and you build on those people. They are often business people, sometimes media people, often in the hotel industry – we’ve made sales of John Young, for example, to hotels in Japan.

MH: Why do you think you have been so successful in developing Asian markets?
GS: Well, I read nothing but contemporary Japanese fiction for two years in an effort to understand the culture. I didn’t just dash in and wave my card. The difference between selling art in Australia and Japan is that you have to make that kind of effort. When I’m immersed in a culture it better allows me to then understand the individual who lives in it. I would never come along and say ‘The Japanese do this…’ or ‘The Japanese don’t do that…’ – it all comes down to a series of individual connections and to tap into a person’s feelings – or, often enough, their anxieties! It’s really very labour intensive and you need commitment, but commitment with a focus. People say why don’t you go off to some other hot spot, everyone’s interested in buying art there – I say, ‘No!’… The Australia Council wanted us to go to ARCO [art fair in Madrid in February 2002]. Many of the other galleries went, a lot of money was put into it. They all called me, everyone called me, I said the same thing to them all: ‘I can’t go to Madrid unless I’m going to Madrid in the long term.’ It’s not just even a question of money: it’s my labour, it’s the staff, it’s our resources, it’s what our artists are not getting at home while we’re all there. And why Spain? Do I want to be in Spain in the long-term? The short answer is I think Spain’s a wonderfulplace but I can’t be everywhere. And they were quite surprised, saying, ‘But Gene we’re giving substantial financial assistance.’ But I said it’s like giving someone a present that they don’t want! A lot of money was spent and, not to say it was a bad thing, but it’s a case of: where do you put your resources to maximise outcomes?

GS: I do find it a little disappointing. So much has been invested in this by so many people to raise goodwill towards Australia in the region. Nevertheless I must say it hasn’t been totally squandered. You can’t go back and wipe the slate clean. There’s very good business being done by very good companies who have gotten footholds in the region now.

MH: What about representing more artists who are based in the region?
GS: That is now my mission. Now I want to represent a decent number of overseas artists…in Australia on an ongoing basis. I want the mix more balanced. Now that we’ve consolidated into the one space… everything we’ve wanted has now happened. Now I want to start bringing more artists back to show in Australia.

MH: Would it make sense to open a gallery in, for instance, Tokyo?
GS: I wouldn’t do it. Not at my age or stage of life. I’m looking forward to grandchildren and I’ve got a 35-year-old marriage as well. But apart from that I also do believe that the art business is enormously personal… and I don’t think you could do it justice running from country to country, from gallery to gallery.

MH: How long do you see the gallery continuing?
GS: This is my seventeenth year and I’ve got a ten-year plan. I don’t think you could plan much further ahead than that, do you?

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