Gene Sherman on exploring architecture and fashion as forms of cultural expression

SCCI’s founder & artistic director Dr Sherman speaks to STIR about SCCI x The Design Museum Fashion and Architecture Hubs, focusing on the two industries' cultural impact.

by Jincy IypePublished on : Nov 04, 2022

What are cultural landscapes built of? People — essentially the vocations that have come to characterise the nuances, nature, and acumen of our existence, since our genesis — art, music, architecture, philosophy, literature, philanthropy, fashion, objects, commerce, farming, and more, across a myriad of mutual, specialised, theorised, and lived experiences. In the crudest sense, if not for our creative and intellectual ventures, how would we stand apart from other beings that inhabit this planet we call home?

The nature and evolution of such occupations have now, or over the past few decades, bled into each other, breeding new subcultures of experimentation, learning, and unprecedented growth. Science as art, art as architecture, architecture as material, material as fashion, and fashion as technology — this cross-pollination of industries and their allied fields of study have generated newer, fascinating results that interrogate, deliberate, innovate, unlearn and educate.

Australian cultural figure, collector, academic, gallerist and philanthropist, Dr Gene Sherman | Gene Sherman at SCCI 2022 | STIRworld
Australian cultural figure, collector, academic, gallerist and philanthropist, Dr Gene Sherman AM Image: Courtesy of SCCI

Such is the underlying ethos of the not-for-profit Foundation SCCI, the Sherman Centre for Culture and Ideas, a Hub series fashioned as the newest evolution of the renamed Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation (SCAF, 2008-2017). SCCI Director, cultural impresario, and philanthropist, Dr Gene Sherman launched the SCCI Hub Programme in 2018 as a cultural-exchange platform for architecture and fashion, and its relationships with other creative disciplines. From 2008–2017, she was Chair and Executive Director of the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation and for two decades, directed Sherman Galleries celebrating artists from Australia, Asia-Pacific, and the Middle East.

Trailer for SCCI X Design Museum Fashion and Architecture Hubs: Coming to Design Museum Oct 28 – Nov 6, 2022 Video: Courtesy of Sherman Centre for Culture and Ideas

For the SCCI Fashion and Architecture Programme 2022, SCCI in Sydney has initiated a partnership with Design Museum London, for a series of talks and keynotes celebrating fashion and architecture, and their intersections with film, technology, social justice, business, and the environment at large. It is taking place in London from October 28-30, 2022 and November 4-6, 2022 respectively, as part of their UK/Australia cultural season. The two weekends will feature leading creative voices from the Australian architecture, fashion industry, design, and the applied arts fields, and showcase some of the most interesting talents and ideas from the Oceanic region.

Dr Gene Sherman AM welcomes Odile Decq at her opening keynote address for SCCI Architecture Hub 2019| Gene Sherman at SCCI 2022 | STIRworld
Dr Gene Sherman AM welcomes Odile Decq at her opening keynote address for SCCI Architecture Hub 2019 Image: Courtesy of SCCI

Gene Sherman AM, a collector, academic, art specialist and gallerist has been hailed "a beacon in the Australian cultural landscape", and for fostering an architectural culture in Sydney. Over decades, the 75-year-old has successfully cultivated her agenda to foster creativity and weave it into the public domain. At their core, Sherman’s events and discussions are issue-based and cross-disciplinary, congregating architects with filmmakers, fashion designers, writers, human rights lawyers, and more. Sherman’s foundation relays that she has undoubtedly made her mark and proven that architecture deserves its place within public discourse alongside the arts, in Australia, and beyond. “Going through the online archives of these events we see architecture, sitting as it should, firmly within the broad social arts.”

Philanthropists and patrons are vital for our cultural landscape – able to take risks that institutions might be less willing to do so. – Gene Sherman

Forever curious and hungry for new knowledge, Sherman describes herself as an avid reader, seeking out those pushing intellectual and creative boundaries, with her stories seldom being told beyond Australia. "She is a connector of people and ideas, witnessed in her public programming and in social settings where she carefully curates her guests over vegan food and drinks in her beautiful home,” mentions the press statement by SCCI.

An overview of Sherman Centre for Culture and Ideas led by Dr Gene Sherman Video: Courtesy of Sherman Centre for Culture and Ideas

Her approach to architecture as a “culturally informed outsider” has enabled her pursuits, fame, and intent, to move the dial on merging these contemporary disciplines, redefining their intents via thought-provoking combinations and discourse. In conversation with STIR, Gene Sherman highlights her vision of the SCCI Fashion and Architecture Programme 2022, as its founder, executive and artistic director, prior to retiring from engaging in public events. Excerpts below:

Dolla Merrillees and Dr Gene Sherman AM discuss the relationship between architecture and literature at SCCI Architecture Hub panel ARCHITECTURE WORDS 2019 | Gene Sherman at SCCI 2022 | STIRworld
Dolla Merrillees and Dr Gene Sherman AM discuss the relationship between architecture and literature at SCCI Architecture Hub panel ARCHITECTURE WORDS 2019 Image: Courtesy of SCCI

Jincy Iype: With a background in French literature and teaching, as well as a doctorate in design, you emerged a philanthropist, artistic director, gallerist, and overall creative practitioner in the design, art, fashion, film circuit, and much more. Please indulge us in your journey so far.

Gene Sherman: My journey has been geographically peripatetic (Johannesburg, Paris, Melbourne, London, and Johannesburg again, and for the past 30+ years, in Sydney. After five years in academe, my French literature doctorate became increasingly useless in the Asia Pacific-focused Australia. I drew on my undergraduate art history and design studies in order to craft new professional pathways for myself —founding a commercial Asia / Australia gallery in operation for 21 years (1986-2007) which transformed into a ten-year, 37-project, not-for-profit exhibition space (2008-2017) focusing on architecture, design, fashion, film as well as art.

Ai Weiwei at the launch of his first Australia retrospective under Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation 2008 exhibition AI WEIWEI UNDER CONSTRUCTION | Gene Sherman at SCCI 2022 | STIRworld
Ai Weiwei at the launch of his first Australia retrospective under Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation 2008 exhibition AI WEIWEI UNDER CONSTRUCTION Image: Courtesy of SCCI

Jincy: As an academic and an expert in contemporary art, could you take us through some of the previous editions of SCCI?

Gene: SCCI launched in April 2018 with its inaugural Fashion and Architecture Hubs, returning in 2019 with highly acclaimed programming. The Foundation’s deliberately intimate and high-impact events explore intersections with these disciplines and the cultural, social, aesthetic, and economic life of contemporary Australia, the Asia Pacific, Europe, and the Middle East.

An impressive list of architects have been involved from the days of the Sherman Contemporary Arts Foundation (2008-2017) — in 2009, Kazuyko Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa (SANAA) were commissioned to design an installation in the Sherman Gallery, contemporaneous with the London Serpentine Pavilion. Shigeru Ban and Sou Fujimoto also featured major projects, following my interest in Japan, and a desire to set up a culture of exchange between Australia and the Asian Pacific. For many Australians, it was their first in-person encounter with the works of these architects.

Architect Kengo Kuma & Designer Akira Minagawa: A SCCI Cinéphile Hub 2020 Episode Video: Courtesy of Sherman Centre for Culture and Ideas

Owing to the restrictions posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the programmes for the 2020 edition of the design event evolved into digital documentaries — 20 open-access episodes (40-60 minutes) billed as the SCCI Cinéphile Hub 2020. Filming in London and Tokyo, Season II presented the SCCI Fashion & Architecture programming in a hybrid format, featuring world leaders (in order of appearance): Tsuyoshi Tane, Kengo Kuma, Akira Minagawa, Astrid Klein, Mark Dytham, Dame Zandra Rhodes DBE, Andrew Logan, John McAslan CBE, Tom Emerson, and Stephanie Macdonald, Kazuyo Sejima, Ninotschka Titchkosky, and Phillip Rossington.

Through the SCCI Cinéphile Hub, the Foundation seeks once again to elevate conversations around fashion and architecture to prominence alongside other forms of cultural expression. In 2021, the Foundation focused on education, presenting the SCCI Stepping Stones series of skills-based workshops for upper primary and secondary students, in addition to two regional Architecture Hubs with the Universities of Newcastle and Western Sydney, featuring leaders in the Australian built environment sector.

Gene Sherman’s wardrobe and jewellery case | Gene Sherman at SCCI 2022 | STIRworld
Gene Sherman’s wardrobe and jewellery case Image: Courtesy of SCCI

The Fugitive Structures series that ran between 2013 and 2016 broke the norms as its name suggested. Designing pavilions in the gallery courtyard were an eclectic range of architects including Australians AR-MA who often partner with bigger practices to create innovative parametric facades; a collaboration between Tel Aviv-based Sack and Reicher + Muller with Eyal Zur; and Võ Trọng Nghĩa Architects from Vietnam. Accompanying publications stand as strong legacies and testaments to the ideas generated from these temporary projects.

Art's business is everybody’s business. Without artists (writers, graphic designers, architects, filmmakers, composers, singers, musicians, fashion designers, and other creatives) we would live in a bleak homogenous world. – Gene Sherman

With over 40 leading Australian thinkers from the worlds of fashion, architecture, applied arts, culture, and business, SCCI 2022's curated programme will explore the relationship of these areas of design to art, activism, film, philanthropy, publishing, diplomacy, commerce, speculative futures, and more, enabling and catalysing the exchange of ideas between the two nations. More recently, programmes for children have driven home the value of exposing the young to spatial thinking. Across all initiatives, we have supported and championed Australian architects, and those based in Sydney, in particular.

Dr Gene Sherman AM presides over the childrens programmes for Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation installation of Olafur Eliasson CUBIC STRUCTURAL EVOLUTION PROJECT staged in Australia for the first time| Gene Sherman at SCCI 2022 | STIRworld
Dr Gene Sherman AM presides over the children's programmes for Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation installation of Olafur Eliasson CUBIC STRUCTURAL EVOLUTION PROJECT staged in Australia for the first time Image: Courtesy of SCCI

Jincy: Please elaborate on the final public projects that encompass your five-year forward programme (2018–2022), comprising five fashion hubs and five architecture hubs.

Gene: SCCI, my final public-facing curatorial project, launched in 2018 in Sydney and circles back to my idea of sharing, educative tools. Seven Sydney-based hubs (conferences inserted into visually rich mises-en-scène) culminates in the Design Museum London, iteration which launches on October 28, 2022, and unfolds across two long weekends. Core topics, fashion and architecture, are explored via their interrelationships with other disciplines including art, film, and literature. 45 top tier Australian creatives have made their way across the globe to share ideas with the United Kingdom and global counterparts—as a part of a government-to-government UK-Australia Season of Culture.

HERO fashion and jewellery for Spectrum - Chiharu Shiota, Carrying Memory Necklace and Ring 2018 (L); Tone Vigelund, Untitled Bracelet 1990 (R) | Gene Sherman at SCCI 2022 | STIRworld
HERO fashion and jewellery for Spectrum - Chiharu Shiota, Carrying Memory Necklace and Ring 2018 (L); Tone Vigelund, Untitled Bracelet 1990 (R) Image: Courtesy of SCCI

Jincy: What is the business of art? In what ways does it depict or shape culture, philanthropic endeavours, and the ensuing economic landscape of a country?

Gene: Art's business is everybody’s business. Without artists (writers, graphic designers, architects, filmmakers, composers, singers, musicians, fashion designers, and other creatives) we would live in a bleak homogenous world. Governments alone cannot support the arts to the extent that is needed. Private philanthropy and corporate sponsorship are required in order to keep art sectors healthy. In addition, and perhaps insufficiently acknowledged, the arts contribution to national economic health is monumental.

Audiences assembled at the launch of Fugitive Structures 2014 TRIFOLIUM pavilion by AR-MA | Gene Sherman at SCCI 2022 | STIRworld
Audiences assembled at the launch of Fugitive Structures 2014 TRIFOLIUM pavilion by AR-MA Image: Courtesy of SCCI

Jincy: “(SCCI) – aims to forge a new path that elevates fashion and architecture to a more prominent place alongside other mediums of cultural expression, by providing a vibrant platform for the exchange of challenging ideas within the broader framework of culture.” As Founder, Executive and Artistic Director of SCCI, how does this year's programme aims to divulge into contemporary fashion and architecture as forms of cultural expression?

Gene: Fashion can —and perhaps too often— is perceived in financial terms or even more reductively, as shopping.

In reality, fashion serves a multitude of serious purposes including the creation of gendered and individualised identity, the costuming of actors in film, television, and theatre and the development appropriate to the times such as hairstyles (think 18th century coiffed men and women or flapper-era bobs for women). Fashion involves fabrication (with workers' rights as a key area of concern), textile innovation, and in today’s world needs to address key issues relating to monumental waste and environmental degradation.

Gene Sherman’s fashion donations to Powerhouse Museum Fashion Collection | Gene Sherman at SCCI 2022 | STIRworld
Gene Sherman’s fashion donations to Powerhouse Museum Fashion Collection; Gene Sherman commissioned capsule collection - Akira Isogawa (R) Image: Courtesy of SCCI

Architecture and sustainability, the architecture of museums (contemporary sites of social interaction and education, the democratisation of courthouse architecture, and the specific design needs in remote places (think Australia’s outback) are all topics explored by SCCI during its five-year, eight hub shelf life.

Faith & Fashion Video: Courtesy of Sherman Centre for Culture and Ideas

Jincy: What is your process of mediating and curating SCCI’s talk programme? In what ways are your chosen topics of discourse and discussion relevant and accessible to the general public, and in practicality, how do they confront the challenges of today?

Gene: The SCCI hub curation starts with the core topic areas— fashion, design and architecture. These fundamentally design-focused disciplines are then researched and contemplated in relation to the challenges of the day. Once the roll call of themes has been selected, appropriate creatives from across a variety of on-target and interconnected disciplines are invited to participate under the wise guidance of an expert moderator.

Kate Klippensteen interviews Tsuyoshi Tane in Tokyo for the documentary series SCCI Architecture Cinephile Hub 2020 during worldwide lockdowns | Gene Sherman at SCCI 2022 | STIRworld
Kate Klippensteen interviews Tsuyoshi Tane in Tokyo for the documentary series SCCI Architecture Cinephile Hub 2020 during worldwide lockdowns Image: Courtesy of SCCI

Jincy: What changes would you like to see in institutions of art, design, and allied industries? What accepted formats should be challenged?

Gene: Once a clear vision is set operational details become relatively easy to identify. Adequate resources are needed with fundamental costs stabilised ideally via government funding. Philanthropic and corporate assistance are needed in order to mount ambitious programmes, and in today’s world, appropriately, visitor engagement is essential.

Jincy: What does your newly launched book, The Spoken Object: a collector’s journey in fashion, jewellery, design and architecture, seek to highlight?

Gene: The Spoken Object's primary focus is on the objects —bijoux d’artiste, fashion garments, individually designed furniture, and architectural structures created by the hundreds of practitioners whose work is documented in the book. The book offers a glimpse into one of the most striking and singular applied arts collections of our time. In addition, and most importantly, the role of the collector and the deliberate long-term strategies involved in building meaningful collections underpin the 15 essays and multiple images in the publication.

The Spoken Object – book jacket | Gene Sherman at SCCI 2022 | STIRworld
The Spoken Object – book jacket Image: Courtesy of SCCI, Gene Sherman

Jincy: Tell us a little about your idea of collecting and managing galleries.

Gene: Collecting is a passion, which requires vision, strategy, and oodles of patience. Depending on the level, deep pockets may be required but if embarked upon in the early stages of an artist’s journey, modest budgets can provide brilliant collection outcomes. Gallerists and galleries work best when the focus is on the artist—on managing their careers and helping them create their very best work. Focusing on clients at the expense of the artists may result in short-term gains but ultimately inverts the gallery’s remit.

Jincy: What is NEXT for you?

Gene: Writing my autobiography and travelling, looking at art, design, and architecture for pure pleasure. Perhaps doing a little culture-focused writing too.

What do you think?

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