The UNSW Galleries Commissioners Circle addresses the challenges facing Australian artists at the mid-point of their careers, rewarding both donors and practitioners in unexpected ways.
José Da Silva, the urbane director of UNSW Galleries, is musing on the nexus between art, philanthropy and infinite possibility.
“People who love contemporary art, and have the means to support it, see the bigger picture,” he says. “How do you make a commission transformative for an artist, a chance to drive new ideas and ambitions within their practice?”
The UNSW Galleries Commissioners Circle is a family of donors who are indeed engaged with the bigger picture. Through this tailored funding initiative, they make a crucial and distinctive contribution to the sector by supporting the work of mid-career practitioners.
Currently, Karina Harris and Neil Hobbs, Natalia Ottolenghi Bradshaw, the Breen Family Foundation, Emeritus Professor Ross Harley, Dr Dick Quan of Holdsworth House Medical Practice, Dr Mikala Tai and the Wheen Family Foundation, comprise the membership of the Commissioners Circle. Each has committed a $15,000 contribution over a three-year period, to fund a range of commissions that will premiere at UNSW. This number has the potential to grow with further funding.
One commission has already been exhibited as part of the Sydney Festival, and another is underway, due to open in January 2022. One hundred per cent of Commissioners Circle funding goes to the artist for the development and fabrication of their work. UNSW Galleries covers all remaining costs, including staging and promotion.
Donors become ambassadors not only for the Galleries but for the individual practitioners they support. It’s a two-way relationship: the artists are introduced to donors and their networks, and the donors follow the artists’ journeys, as allies and advocates.
UNSW Galleries doesn’t acquire commissioned work, so stimulating outside interest in featured artists is paramount.
“We are active in inviting curators and directors from public institutions to see works, and engage with the process behind the commissions. We want to help our artists find a prominent home for their projects,” says José. “And we want to underscore UNSW’s role in supporting new Australian art.”
Sydney artist Elizabeth Pulie, whose work will be exhibited from 14 January to 14 April 2022, is a stellar example of the mid-career practitioners that are the focus of Commissioners Circle support.
Says José, “Celebrated, and critically respected, but perhaps a little under the radar, Elizabeth has had a sustained career: 20-plus years. But she’s the kind of person for whom an opportunity like this is useful. Our program supporting Elizabeth puts resources behind her, profiles her work to a broader public and gives audiences a comprehensive understanding of her practice.”
Elizabeth Pulie’s art incorporates painting, weaving and research, with her interest in techniques such as collage and embroidery reflecting a personal, critical intrigue with 1970s craft applications. The upcoming commission will spearhead a career survey curated by James Gatt. It’s a chance for the artist to showcase new directions in her practice alongside key examples of her work to date with loans brought together from collections around Australia.
“We’re also helping Elizabeth in a very pragmatic way by funding a website instead of a printed catalogue, allowing her to archive and display her practice for a bigger audience,” says José. “The commissioning process becomes a springboard to more visibility and longevity — with touring opportunities to follow.”
Commissioners Circle donors Neil Hobbs and Karina Harris, landscape architects and public art curators, know how difficult it can be for artists to constantly reinvent themselves. “There’s always the rush to the new thing,” says Neil. “A lot of established artists can fall off the radar. Opportunities become fewer.”
The couple’s Canberra home overflows, inside and out, with paintings, ceramics and sculpture. Among the artists hanging on their walls in great number are Tony Albert, Jonny Niesche, eX de Medici, Glen Hayward, Lynda Draper, Clare Thackway, Danie Mellor, Yasmin Smith — and Archie Moore, the first of the Commissioners Circle’s commissioned artists.
Archie Moore, Family Tree 2021 Conté crayon on blackboard paint Image courtesy: the artist and The Commercial, Sydney
Off the starting blocks
The inaugural commission was with Kamilaroi/Brisbane artist Archie Moore. Exhibited earlier this year in the curatorial project The Colour Line, it placed the artist’s work alongside the landmark drawings of African American scholar and activist W.E.B Du Bois (1868–1963).
The exhibition included two new commissions: the large watercolour Graph of Perennial Disadvantage 2020; and Family Tree 2021, a vast chalkboard genealogy that places the artist’s familial past within Australia’s 65,000-year plus Indigenous history.
Archie Moore’s commissions are reviewed in the May edition of the prestigious international Artforum magazine.
Archie Moore’s selection for the Commissioners Circle was key to us coming on board,” says Karina. “We like to support him. Part of our philanthropic strategy is to support the work of urban Indigenous Australian artists.
“Family Tree was one of the best works we’ve ever seen. It took our breath away. Archie is the most extraordinary artist. Everything he has done has left us gobsmacked.”
Adds José, “To truly make it a transformative experience for the donors, they have to be invested in the project, in the artist. You want them to be able to go on that journey with the artist.”
It’s not just about signing a cheque, he maintains, it’s also about the conversation. “Each donor brings their skills, values and knowledge to this initiative. For example, Sally Breen [of the Breen Family Foundation] has an enduring commitment to education. She has helped us brainstorm possibilities for disseminating information on our commissions through writing and programs.”
When a project is realised, donors feel an enormous pride in the result.
“As a director,” says José, “there’s nothing more affirming than having supporters like Neil and Karina overcome with joy at seeing the work they have sponsored.”
Words: Susan Skelly
Portrait: Rhett Hammerton
Exhibition images: Zan Wimberley