The career journey of Dr Gene Sherman is now familiar to those with even a passing interest in the Australian Arts Landscape. First migrating to Australia at age 18 from South Africa, she and her family returned to South Africa after only nine months in Melbourne. The Sherman family then travelled to England before returning to Australia to establish a home in Sydney. This migration, plus extensive travel, has engendered a truly global mindset within Dr Sherman and her whole family.
Professionally, Dr Sherman spent 17 years in academia, firstly completing a masters by thesis and then a doctorate in French literature at the University of Sydney, before commencing teaching there. Following this she joined Sydney’s prestigious Ascham Girl’s School in the role of head of languages.
Sherman Galleries, originally run by Celia Winter-Irving and named the Irving Sculpture Gallery, opened in 1981. In the mid-1980s, as Australia’s attention started to drift towards Asia, Dr Sherman joined the gallery and began shifting the focus from contemporary Australian and International sculpture, to that of art from the Australian-Pacific region. In 1989 the gallery moved from its original location near the University of Sydney to Paddington, and thirteen years later it consolidated two Paddington premises into one enhanced exhibiting space in Goodhope Street. In 2007 the Sherman Galleries closed and was reborn as the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation (SCAF), a Sherman family philanthropic enterprise dedicated to the public exhibition of significant contemporary art from Australia and the Asia-Pacific region. SCAF has four key aims as illustrated in the mission statement:
1. To exhibit significant works by innovative and influential artists from Asia, the Pacific and Australia, providing a space that can house works not always suited to private galleries,
2. To publish texts communicating to broad audiences including both the art industry and educational sectors,
3. To develop educational programs in association with the projects, illustrated by the launch Contemporary Art for Contemporary Kids, a partnership with Queensland Art Gallery’s Children’s Art Centre, commencing October 6th,
4. To continue to develop SVAR (Sherman Visual Arts Residency) a program for international artists considering short, medium and longer term exploratory trips to Australia, particularly to Sydney.
On Friday 24th September COFA announced that Dr Sherman and her husband Brian will gift $2 million towards the new COFA Gallery. This generous donation will contribute to the construction of two new purpose built galleries, the first to be known as the Sherman Gallery and the second named in memory of Nick Waterlow, former curator of COFA’s Ivan Dougherty Gallery, who died last year.
This brief summary of Dr Sherman’s experience and the progression to the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation does not begin to touch on the leadership and educational role she has had within the Australian arts and academic community, from the sponsorship of scholarships, to contribution to publications such as the recently published The Modern Woman’s Anthology (2010), to guest lecturer and philanthropist. Not to mention her donation of contemporary Japanese fashion to the Powerhouse Museum.
Given her incredible life experience, Dr Sherman can provide remarkable guidance to those interested in a career in the creative industries. What follows are some of the key themes and life lessons she has learnt to date.
Plan, prepare and be organised
‘If you don’t plan ahead, create templates and stick to the templates, then things go awry. Life being what it is sometimes, this is what they do.’
A constant in Dr Sherman’s life is her focus on planning and preparation, often over considerable periods of time. She commenced the planning process, with the support of her husband Brian, nine years prior to the launch of the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation.
As a mother with two young children and undertaking a doctorate, organisation and planning was paramount. Dr Sherman dedicated eight years to her masters and PHD, and at every stage she had a five-year plan, one year, six-month, monthly, weekly and daily plan.
But what happened if circumstances interrupted her ability to complete her daily plan? She would set her alarm for the middle of the night, get up and completed her allocated tasks.
It was a combination of strict adherence to her templates, accompanied by a regular review process that saw her consistently achieve long-term goals that would leave many of us struggling.
Capitalise on your strengths and the strengths of those around you
‘I’m both an educationalist and an on going learner. Every day I learn things consciously and subconsciously, and when somebody tells me something I find interesting, I try to learn something from it.’
Throughout her career Dr Sherman has built on her learning progressively, ensuring that she takes every new experience and consolidates it with existing knowledge. Her career at Sydney University gave her the teaching skills to take to Ascham. Her leadership experience at Ascham was then drawn upon as she made the move into gallery management.
Dr Sherman speaks openly about her passion for learning every day, and it is this, along with her ability to communicate and build relationships that form the foundation of her success.
We are never alone in developing our skills and achieving our goals. Dr Sherman describes her mother-in-law as her ‘secret weapon’ in her ability to achieve such a mammoth task as simultaneously raising a young family, working and completing a doctorate. She never hesitates in recognising the support she has received from her family, both her mother in law who lived with the family for 10 years, but also her husband Brian who played a crucial business-mentoring role throughout her career. Her achievements are their achievements.
Like many successful people, she has cultivated guides and mentors along the way. While her husband coached her in the financial and business side of running a gallery, it was William Wright AM who joined the already established Sherman Galleries in 1992 as curatorial director, who Dr Sherman cites as being a key mentor and guide in the art world. Over time their role as mentors may diminish, but Dr Sherman always maintains and values these relationships.
Mix the creative, the educational and the business
‘Cross pollination is so important. I was a university academic for many years, for 11 years I taught in a University. So of course when I came into the gallery world, I was an example of the cross pollination and in a way it was very natural to me.’
We often surround ourselves by like-minded people, and despite the increased flexibility in the modern employment market, most do tend to have linear career paths within the same, or similar industry. There are significant advantages, however, by building bridges between industries and this is something Dr Sherman has succeeded in doing on many occasions.
She has made a conscious effort throughout her career to bring the arts industry and educational institutions closer together. She speaks of her surprise when organizing a crate exhibition in the mid 1990s where she found many of the academics that attended had never seen a crate in which art is transported. It was then she realized those on the academic side of industry had very little practical experience. Over the past 20 years Dr Sherman has sought to bridge the gap between the practical and the academic elements of the arts industry to enable maximum opportunity for all. Clearly the Sherman’s most recent contribution to COFA demonstrates the value with which they hold relationships with the arts education sector.
Dr Sherman has also demonstrated the considerable benefits of mixing business expertise with artistic knowledge. Creative people who can ground themselves with the fundamentals of business theory will be at a distinct advantage. While this does not necessitate the completion of a Masters of Business Administration, of forming long lasting relationship with individuals in the business world who can share knowledge and provide support when called upon.
Read the external environment
‘I never saw the world as confined to one set of ideas, or one set of practices. You couldn’t if you had my background.’
The ability to understand and benefit from global trends has been a factor in the success of Sherman Galleries. Dr Sherman’s skill in identifying Australia’s shift toward Asia in the cultural, political, economic and artistic arena led the Sherman Galleries to be one of the first to specialise in Asian art. This then paved the way for art spaces such as 4A and White Rabbit.
Dr Sherman provides three lessons to determine success in this area. Firstly developing and listening to intuition, and in her case it was her father who played the role of visionary. At age six her father told her two pearls of wisdom, to be recalled 57 years later, that women could do anything and that the next century would be the Asian century. As Australia has recently transitioned from our first Mandarin speaking Prime Minister to our first female Prime Minister, clearly Dr Sherman’s father was correct on both counts.
The second lesson is to be a global citizen. Dr Sherman grew up in a family that spoke five languages collectively, and her passion for travel and study of European and Asian cultures is well documented. While many families are global in nature today, this was a more unusual circumstance in the mid-1950s. Dr Sherman has always understood this knowledge of other cultures as a strength to be nurtured and built upon.
Finally, to understand your environment you must foster intellectual curiosity. There is not a day that goes by where Dr Sherman doesn’t extend her knowledge through reading. Not just reading for professional development, but reading widely and broadly across any subject that catches her interest. Prior to beginning her extensive travel to Japan, Dr Sherman chose to read Japanese literature translated into English for two years.
‘It comes naturally to me, I have to work at doing it, but I don’t have to work at thinking I’m going to do it, it’s my nature plus my training.’
The last lesson we can gain from Dr Sherman’s experience is probably the one of most importance; that of applying dedication to everything you do.
It is clear from every anecdote Dr Sherman shares, she has never waivered in her dedication to achieve whatever goals she has set herself, whether that be six years completing a doctorate or nine years in transitioning the commercial gallery into the contemporary art foundation. She applies that dedication even to her fashion choices, for 25 years she wore only three Japanese fashion designers. Not a single other thing.
The underlying theme from listening to Dr Sherman is passion. Dr Sherman describes herself as a coming together of passion and pleasure, a combination of disparate forces, the artistic, the academic, the business, the cultural, some would say it’s a perfect storm. Whatever endeavor she has directed herself toward, she has done so with passion. This is the lesson we can all learn from.