Sally Smart: “First Commissions takes our artists to the world”

Sally Smart in her Melbourne Studio. By Giulia McGauran
Sally Smart in her Melbourne Studio. By Giulia McGauran

Ahead of the First Commissions exhibition in Melbourne on 27 and 28 July, multidisciplinary artist – and Vice-Chancellors Professorial Fellow of the University of Melbourne – Sally Smart tells Mireille Stahle about the “commission” that launched her career, and how Australian artists are turning their gaze to the rest of the world.

The one thing that’s critical for a young artist is momentum. What I mean by this is the momentum to continue to make your work – to find the capacity to be interested and thinking into the next idea, and the next project. Maybe this is also to see a place that the work speaks from, or seeks out in the world. I do also believe that there are multiple pathways an artist can take; it is exciting now to see more and more opportunities for young artists to work across disciplines, and how the diversity of a cohort generates pathways and opportunities for other artists to emerge.

The First Commissions project, in which 30 of the University of Melbourne’s most exciting emerging artists respond to the themes which inspired some of the world’s most iconic works, takes the Faculty to the world. We show them what we have: the most incredible facilities and a really incredible community of artists and musicians.

We are lucky in the sense that we are connected to the world. But, we also need new opportunities, we’re a global community now, we need to be out there. That said, it’s not all one way, we need others to join us, and we need to go to them, to join the global conversation. Let’s be more collaborative in our approach.

Somebody asked me, “What do you think is the best thing about First Commissions?” I said the fact that it’s being done. It’s extraordinary. I think that’s what I’ve found really impressive is the international aspect of the campaign.

It’s important that we reach out a lot more as a community, whether that’s as an arts community or as the University of Melbourne. Like in all relationship-building, it is the turning up and meeting that is the most necessary, and yet most difficult, aspect of being a creative. And it’s great to have a project that’s so absolutely out there, with artists actually on the ground in Florence, Italy.

L-R Sam Kreusler, Danna Yun, Jack Riley, Associate Professor Matt Delbridge, Esther Stewart and Ash Perry at the feet of Michelangelo’s statue of David, Galleria dell’ Accademia, Florence. By O’Rourke & Gates. That’s when the real connections, relationships and pathways grow. Australians have always been great at going out into the world, and individually that’s wonderful. That has happened a great deal and been very successful. But it also takes a whole-culture approach. It takes all of us to collectively advocate for us, as Australians and as artists. We are geographically isolated, and sometimes that’s a barrier – new technologies link people better than ever – but there is nothing like person to person experiences. The University has a great capacity to facilitate and grow this discourse with a whole artistic community and beyond.

The intellectual support of your fellow artists is fundamental for creative momentum and its impact is enduring. It is as necessary as financial and emotional support. In an art school, there are networks and conversations, and communications that artists and musicians can come back to. You can’t underestimate that as an engine of creativity – a source of energy.

Speaking as a visual artist, I can say that a commission nowadays looks very different. As an established artist, a commission today might be an installation of works or an artwork integrated into the public realm, but I also consider an exhibition a kind of commission. Especially when I was a younger artist, those early exhibitions were significant. Some less than others, some cut through more than others. I think they are made more powerful when the alignment of an opportunity and the work is tangible.

Ashley Perry installs his work “Anthology of human physical perfection” at the Accademia Di Belle Arti Di Firenze. By O’Rourke & Gates.

Commissions are a strong part of the future of all artistic practices, whether it be exhibitions, solo shows or a specific commissioned work – the opportunity allows the artist to realise an idea, and share experientially, but also grow virtually into the world, and thereby generate visibility and new work.

When I was at the VCA, I won the ANZ Travelling Scholarship. It was an amazing program where I went to New York, it was one of many trips that I made to build friendships and relationships which have grown over time. It also generated awareness of my work locally with an exhibition of work.

It was an example of the culmination of opportunities, not just one, not just the other, but multiple collectively supporting an artist.

I clearly remember the experience, and being supported by the VCA, because it felt very significant at the time – it was very significant at the time. I had been making a lot of work before, but those two things, the scholarship and exhibition, generated visibility and my momentum grew.

And that’s the other thing you must remember, the individual artists graduating from the Victorian College of the Arts and the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music – the Faculty of Fine Art and Music – are high achieving individuals who aspire for their work to be the very best, that is a huge demand, but I think that there’s energy that comes out of an event like this.

You have to trust that they are able to generate capacities for reflection, and resilience, and that they are looking to their fellow artists for support. We have a strong and vibrant community, and that extends beyond the boundary of particular disciplines. We know it takes a whole ecology to sustain an art world – to sustain a music world. It needs a whole lot of support. Projects like First Commissions demonstrate that we, at the University, can be leaders in that area, and we can show what the effects of that support can be – how transformational that can be.

World’s best practice exists here, we just need to show the world what we can do with it. But it doesn’t stop there. Let’s make the pathways for these incredible practitioners so they can be here, there, back here, and everywhere.

The First Commissions exhibition takes place at the University of Melbourne’s Southbank Campus on 27 and 28 July during Open House Melbourne.