Industry Interviews

Dr Gene Sherman Philanthropist & gallerist

July 05, 2018

As Founder, Executive and Artistic Director of the Sherman Centre for Culture and Ideas, Dr. Gene Sherman is an instrumental figure in the Australian art and cultural landscape. Known for her passionate pioneering vision, Parlour X is especially fortunate to deep-dive into Gene’s storied and philanthropic career, and inquire on what’s next.

Congratulations on the opening of the Sherman Centre for Culture and Ideas! Tell us, what is the overarching aim of the centre, and what inspired its inception? 

Sherman Centre for Culture & Ideas (SCCI) is a Hub series fashioned as the newest evolution of my 31 years of intensive cultural activity through Sherman Galleries (1986-2008) and Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation (SCAF, 2008-2018).

SCCI aims to provide a vibrant platform for the exchange of the most challenging and engaging ideas on architecture and fashion within the broader context of culture.

Through conversations with colleagues, friends and family, I noticed a repeating pattern associating fashion with commercial activities and material aspirations. Simultaneous with my years working within the contemporary art framework, I inadvertently at first, and later enthusiastically, became a focussed collector of contemporary Japanese fashion.

For eight years I was Powerhouse Museum Board Trustee. During that time I came to understand the depth and breadth of the Museum’s fashion collection. Subsequently, I was asked by the incoming Museum Director Dolla Merillees, to create a Designer’s Circle, in part replicating the Patron’s Circle that had generously supported our family-funded Contemporary Art Foundation. In February 2015 the Centre for Fashion was established at the rebranded Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences (MAAS), and I was asked to become the Founding Patron alongside my role as inaugural Chair of the Designer’s Circle. As of 2018 MAAS Board Deputy Chair Lisa Chung, has taken on the responsibility of Designer’s Circle Chair. These involvements expanded significantly my fashion horizons and deepened my involvement.

You’ve had a long and successful career in the Australian art scene, can you outline how you got started and summarise your career to date for us? 

I started my professional life as an academic teaching French literature. When Australia pivoted from a Euro-centric focus towards Asia in the early 1980s, I took up a position as Head of Modern Languages at Ascham Girls School in Sydney. Following almost six years in this position, I decided to open a contemporary art gallery focussing exclusively on art from Australia and the Asia-Pacific region, later including the Middle East within the Gallery’s self-imposed framework.

In 2008, with my family’s blessing, I followed my dream, opening a privately funded, publicly accessible exhibition space, renaming the enterprise SCAF, the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation. A decade-long suite of exhibitions expanding Sherman Galleries’ remit to include contemporary visual practice; art, architecture, fashion, film and design.

During my 31 exhibition-making years (Sherman Galleries 1986-2007, SCAF 2008-2017), I had the privilege to serve on a number of Government and University Boards; including National Portrait Gallery (Deputy Chair), Australian Institute of Art History (current), Power Institute Council at the University of Sydney (1996 – 2006), ​Art + Australia​ Editorial Advisory Board (2003 – 2015), Commissioner’s Council, Australian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale (2007 – 2009), National Gallery of Australia Foundation, Canberra (2000 – 2009), Australia Israel Cultural Exchange (AICE) (2005 – 2010), International Council of the Asia Society, New York (2001 – 2003), Advisory Board of the Asia Society, Australasia Centre (2002 – 2003), Cultural Advisory Committee to the City of Sydney (1997 – 1999), and Australian Centre for Photography (1994 – 1997).

gene sherman

Fashion seems to play a big role on the SCCI platform – why is this?

From my perspective, Fashion in particular, has lacked serious attention as a sophisticated, intellectually rich and multifaceted mode of creative expression. Through SCCI, we seek to elevate fashion to a more prominent position alongside other artforms, and begin a conversation that is long overdue. The very best of contemporary ideas on architecture, and its intersections with cultural, social, aesthetic and economic factors, will also be explored intensively at SCCI in equal measure.

What do you see as being the intersection point between fashion and art?

In my humble opinion, when elevated and provided that the the highest possible level is attained, cuisine, interior design, graphic novels, video, cinema, architecture, music, literature and more, fall under the rubric of art. In the hands of the most talented, rigorous and intelligent practitioners, these practices have the potential to transcend the mundane, the ordinary and the unoriginal to be categorised as art.

You have an incredible, but precisely curated, wardrobe. Explain your less-is-more approach…

Since 1985 I have limited my wardrobe to a specific number of pieces which depended ad still depends on the space available and the precise number of coat hangers able to be accommodated in my closet (three houses with a fourth to come, with different size cupboards has resulted in various spaces – between 32 & 45 garments).

I only wear trousers, skirts and jackets, no dresses. The undergarments including tights, leggings and close-fitting tops in various lengths are not counted. My mostly black, grey and silver palette allows for total interchangeability. When I acquire a piece, a piece is retired, and if considered significant enough, donated to MAAS (my 100th gift is soon to be included in their Reflections of Asia Exhibition opening Saturday 7th July). Less interesting garments are on-sold through designer second hand shops or gifted to friends.

gene sherman

Who are you favourite fashion designers, and why?

Following my passion for collecting, my favourite designers include Issey Miyake, Comme des Garçons (Rei Kawakubo & Junya Watanabe), Yohji Yamamoto, and their disciples including Australians Alistair Trung and Akira Isogawa. I have also closely followed the careers of the Antwerp 6, with particular interest in Ann de Meulemeester and Dries Van Noten, alongside Haider Ackermann.

What do you love most about fashion?

I find fashion a deeply satisfying channel through which I am able to give expression to my values and identity.

And what do you love least about fashion?

Fast Fashion is a deeply problematic notion for me. I abhor waste, and I cannot bare the idea of people buying and quickly discarding clothing. I believe that “Instagramming” is a double edged sword; while opportunities for visual communication are provided at the click of a button, the mindless consumption and waste, in easily influenced young hands, is having a real effect on our society’s psyche and the planet at large.

How do you think the fashion industry has changed in the past 20 years?

Given my collecting practice and personal taste, I have made few changes in the way I dress, the way I shop, and the way I look after my clothing. My approach has remained constant over decades.

What are you excited about next?

Our 2019 SCCI Fashion Hub!

You can find Gene on instagram @sherman_gene

gene sherman

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