Collector Gene Sherman: “Rich people can be very picky”
“I never owned jeans and I never drank Coca-Cola,” says Gene Sherman. “People ask me, what are your comfortable clothes? Well, Miyake is comfortable. He liked to say that he didn’t design for demanding women.
Sherman should know. She doesn’t just live in Issey Miyake – she’s wearing it right now and in the FT’s portrait – but has also been collecting the famed Japanese designer’s clothes for years, as well as lesser exposure from her compatriots Comme des Garçons and Yohji. Yamamoto. She believes that thousands of years of Japanese thought flow through her work. “My ‘wardrobe’ was 32 pieces, now it’s gone to 55,” she says. The rest is carefully cleaned, wrapped in acid-free paper, boxed and archived. Over the years, sections of the collection have been donated to museums, including the Powerhouse (or Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences) in Sydney, where she served on the board of trustees from 1993 to 2000.
Although low-maintenance in hair and makeup, Sherman is a powerful figure in Sydney’s cultural life. She is one of Australia’s most dedicated art collectors, philanthropists and activists. Its collections cover contemporary art, clothing, jewelry and, more recently, furniture. “I didn’t see it as a collection until we moved into the new house,” she says, referring to her home, Braelin, more like a campus of five low-key buildings in Sydney’s Centennial Park. . They include a house built for the Lord Mayor in 1918. “It’s not grand,” she says, “but for Sydney it’s historic.”
Among its contents are a Shigeru Ban chair with a seat made of paper tubes and the Camaleonda modular sofas by Mario Bellini. In the dining room hangs part of a nine-piece suite of photographic images by Chinese artist Zhang Huan, called Family tree, in which the artist’s face is increasingly covered in calligraphy detailing his identity. (Another edition is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.) She saw the work in 2004, during an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney. “And Brian said, Should we buy the whole show?” says Sherman of her husband, with whom she formed the collection.
Sherman’s acquisition of Japanese fashion required 58 visits to the country — “I’m part of the furniture there. I know a lot more people in Tokyo than in London” – and she was due to make a 59th on September 12. But the day before, her 54-year-old husband died. It wasn’t sudden – Brian had suffered from Parkinson’s disease for 10 years, and even detailed the experience in a book called walk through honey – but it marked the terrible end of a long and devoted partnership. “He always looked so handsome, even on his deathbed,” says Sherman, who insists the job gives her the comfort she needs.
Brian and Gene Sherman came to Sydney in 1976 from South Africa, with little money but desperate to escape the apartheid regime. Gene completed his doctorate in 20th century French literature; Brian started a fund management company with Gene’s cousin, Laurence Freedman. (They sold it in 2000 for A$153 million [today US$100mn].) “I thought I would be an academic,” she said. “But during this period, Australia looked to Asia for its fortunes, and this had an impact on European language departments at universities.”
She taught in the language department at the exclusive girls’ school in Ascham for five years until shortly after her father’s death in 1985. “He had always told me two things: that girls could do anything do and that the next century would be the Asian Century. A Jewish immigrant from Austria to South Africa (his mother was from Lithuania), he had instilled a deep sense of discipline in his daughter. “I had been setting goals since I was six years old,” she says. “We are a strategic family.” She realized that visual art was her other love, gave up education and went to work in a private art gallery. In 1988, she had put her name above the door.
Sherman showed Australian, then Asian, then international artists. And after 20 years, she closed the gallery. “I wanted to stop selling,” she says now. “To get rid of collectors. Rich people can be very picky. She established a private foundation – the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation (SCAF) – with a budget of AU$1.5 million per year, to focus on artists and audience engagement. It was launched in 2008 with a performance by Ai Weiwei and new works have been commissioned from artists such as Janet Laurence and Yang Fudong and designers such as Tokujin Yoshioka. “SCAF has gone back to my academic roots, to teach, to explain,” she says.
After 10 years, at the age of 70, Sherman – never afraid to advertise his property – established the Sherman Center for Cultural Ideas (SCCI) to focus more intensely on the cultural significance fashion and architecture. With his small staff of four, Sherman calls it “an exaggeration of my journey through the arts. I am a researcher, collector, documentalist by temperament and training.
Sherman wraps up SCCI, a five-year project, with something of a grand finale by bringing it to London, with two long weekends of lectures and exhibitions on fashion and architecture at the Design Museum in Kensington (28- October 30 and November 4-6 respectively). She sees it in part as a way of letting Brits know what Australia’s creative class is really doing.
Sherman brings 40 speakers, from futuristic “body architect” Lucy McRae and Ninotschka Titchkosky, designer of the tallest wooden skyscraper in the world, to fashion designers such as Grace Lillian Lee and artists like Atong Atem. “Forty percent of Sydneysiders have parents born outside Australia, and the participants reflect that,” says Sherman. Attendees will be fed cucumber sandwiches and punch. His book The spoken objectwhich details her fashion, jewelery and design collection, will be launched at South Kensington’s arts center Cromwell Place with a fashion exhibition.
Meanwhile, Sherman regularly disposes of his collections. “I have a filmmaker son and a daughter in postgraduate studies in the sociology of compassion who live in Tel Aviv. What were they going to do with 900 works? she says. In May this year, a group of 100 works of contemporary art were sold at an online auction by Bonhams, and Sherman is busy donating more to museums and carefully placing them in private collections.
Among the 300 works she will keep is one of her first purchases: a dark print by William Kentridge from 1989 entitled “Casspirs Full of Love” which evokes the South Africans of this period held without trial. And when that’s all done, don’t worry that Sherman is idle: “I’m going to write my memoirs,” she says.