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Why a foundation became an ideas festival

Gina Fairley

Always at the fore of cultural change, Gene Sherman reinvents her arts foundation, this time with a focus on nurturing creative thinking and ideas.
Why a foundation became an ideas festival

Gene Sherman with 2014's Fugitive Structures pavilion; Photo by Rita Zimmermann

This week, Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation (SCAF) announced that it was reinventing itself. It's not the first time. The not-for-profit Foundation arose out of Sherman Galleries in 2008, after more than two decades as a successful commercial gallery.

Dr Gene Sherman, Founder of SCAF along with husband Brian Sherman, said that it was always envisaged as a 10-year project.

Sherman has always been a pioneer of new thinking. When she opened Sherman Galleries in 1986 she recognised that Asia was being underplayed.

‘People were not thinking of contemporary art in Asia, so I decided to represent Australian and Asia Pacific artists,’ she told ArtsHub.

In a similar vein, Sherman believes that we have exhausted contemporary conversations. ‘Everyone is talking about contemporary art now … I really don’t feel I need to add more to the conversation. There is probably too much talk, so I want to go into the spaces where there isn’t as much talk – to focus on architecture and fashion,’ she explained.

The Sherman Centre for Culture & Ideas (SCCI) extends an adjunct program that has ran alongside SCAF for the past decade – Culture and Ideas – pulling it out and pumping it up, into a two-week ideas-style festival constructed around ideas “hubs”.

They will be presented twice a year in April and October, alternating between a fashion and architecture focus. Each Hub will comprise thematic events, incorporating words, music, film and cuisine; what Sherman describes as content rich programming with internationally recognised speakers. 

A better spend for a big result

Sherman said that when she started SCAF ‘money was as secure as it could be’.

‘I said to Brian that I wanted to do a family funded foundation and costed it out. It came to $1 million a year to do what I wanted to do. Brian said yes but that I needed to cap it – to give it a time-frame – so I promised him I would close it or transform it after 10 years. Today I have come to the end of my family contract with SCAF and am honouring it,’ said Sherman.

That annual budget for projects escalated over the years as costs went up and Sherman added Fugitive Structures – an architectural component to the program. Compared to an average spend of $1.3 to $1.5 million annually, the new $500,000 budget for SCCI is a welcome change, said Sherman, laughing.

‘We have a lovely budget if we don’t bring things, and we are not bringing things with SCCI – we are bringing people and ideas,’ she said. ‘We really do this properly. I would rather do less and do it well than do more and in a compromised way.’

SCCI has been projected as a five year horizon (2018-2022). While the original gallery employed 13 staff, and SCAF six, SCCI is projected at three. Sherman welcomes a winding back of activities.

But at 70 she admits that she is not good at stopping. ‘I want to slow down, not stop. I start tidying the drawers! No one is as neat as I am – the kids push me to having project as I need it.’

Digging deeper with SCCI

SCCI is a unique, event-based cultural enterprise. Key are new cultural partnerships with the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (MAAS), University of Technology Sydney (UTS) and the Australian Film, Television and Radio School (AFTRS); the organisations will work collaboratively to deliver SCCI’s program.

The Hubs will launch with flagship, large-scale events at these SCCI partner venues and be rolled out on a more intimate scale through community-focused exchanges at SCCI headquarters in inner-Sydney Paddington.

Sherman told ArtsHub: ‘I don’t want to do a bigger than Ben Hur thing now. I have always preferred to influence the influencers.’

Key to SCCI is an accompanying podcast series. Additionally, every Hub will be filmed professionally, with plans to submit the resulting work into film festivals.

Sherman explained: ‘Every day [of that two-week Hub] I will appoint curators to provide a topic-related program ... divided demographically from 5-8 years to designers and architects working in business already.’

Honouring the RSVP

How is such a hot topic Hub managed in terms of audience demand? Sherman answered flatly: ‘I am going to make them pay a fortune and then I will give it back when they come. And if they can’t come, it goes to the Foundation.

‘The RSVP is like a kind of Alice in Wonderland. I am astonished at the discrepancy of the RSVP list and attendance – it is as though they don’t have anything to do with each other,’ she said.

Student prices will be in the vicinity of $50 for a day program and industry participants around $150.

Sherman said that the initiative is intended to counter the culture of clicking a button to attend but not being committed. ‘In my generation, you felt that you had to go. Today if it rains people just don’t come,’ she said.

SCCI: Fashion Hub will be presented in April 2018.

Sherman Centre for Culture and Ideas is located at 18 Goodhope St, Paddington, Sydney.

About the author

Gina Fairley covers the Visual Arts nationally for ArtsHub. Based in Sydney you can follow her on Twitter @ginafairley and Instagram at fairleygina.