As the most generous visual art scholarship of its kind in Australia, the Samstag provides Australia’s promising artists the opportunity to expand their artistic horizons, with the chance to study overseas at any institution of their choosing.
Since 1992 the Samstag Program has provided funding of more than $10 million to more than 130 Australian artists, following a generous and surprising bequest from its namesakes, the late Gordon and Anne Samstag.
American artist Gordon Samstag, who taughtfrom 1961 to 1970 at UniSA’s antecedent institution, the South Australian School of Art, passed away in 1990 at the age of 83, three years after the death of his wife Anne. They were residents of Naples on the west coast of Florida, United States at the time, after living for over a decade in Adelaide, and for a while after that in Cairns.
Samstag’s will provided substantial funds for annual scholarships to enable Australian visual artists to travel, study and develop their artistic capacities, skills and talents internationally.
Former Samstag Program director, Ross Wolfe, who managed the scholarships program from its beginnings in 1992 to 2009, says it was a privilege to play the lead role in establishing something so historic.
“When Gordon’s bequest was revealed, the Samstag trustee was somewhat wary of the whole scheme – which required that they form a collaborative relationship with an unknown institution, at the unimaginable bottom of the planet,” Wolfe says.
“Gordon’s will left the trustees scratching their heads a little. But over the years, as the trustees began to see how well UniSA managed and promoted the Samstag Scholarships, they gained an understanding of the vision involved, and an immense confidence in the relationship.”
An accomplished arts leader with national experience, Wolfe shaped the Samstag Program into an ambitious platform of opportunity for the artists.
“The scholarship has become nationally renowned, giving the recipients immediate career-building cachet simply by virtue of being a Samstag Scholar,” Wolfe says.
“So many of the artists who came to us as fledging players and recent graduates have gone on to have significant careers, largely because of the experience and confidence they gained through the scholarship program, and the international networks they developed.
“It’s regularly noted within the visual arts world that the experience offered by the Samstag, which places you in a collegial and professionally supportive environment, is radically different to a mere travel grant, where you might travel
the world, yet gain little by way of contact.
“The developmental nurturing by educational professionals and the contact with international peers is what distinguishes the Samstag experience.
“The Samstag is unique and special.”
For art curator Ruth McDougall (pictured top right) – one of the inaugural group of 10 Samstag scholars announced in 1992 – the scholarship set her on a path from textile artist to leading arts curator. The 1991 UniSA Bachelor of Visual Arts graduate used the scholarship to complete a Postgraduate Diploma and Masters in Textiles (1993-95) at Goldsmiths College in London.
It provided the opportunity to spend time in one of the world’s most dynamic art hubs and to study under some of the most critically engaged practitioners working in her field.
“My time in London introduced me to people, artists and ideas that continue to resonate through my current work,” McDougall says.
“I still hold a very clear memory of attending a panel discussion between postcolonial theorists; of spending hours in the back rooms of the British Museum viewing textiles; and of the excitement of walking through an installation by Cherokee artist, Jimmy Duhram, and being completely blown away by the ways in which he had activated that space, making every single work and relationship between works speak.
“During my time in London, my artwork became increasingly about space and how, through particular activations of space, you are able to reveal ideas and presences that may otherwise be hidden.
“I also became much more interested in the practices surrounding an artwork that impact on how we receive it, such as writing. I remember attending a talk by poet, Derek Walcott, where he spoke of writing in the rhythm of an experience
or place and I still think of this every time I sit down to write.”
McDougall is now the Curator of Pacific Art at the Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art. She says there was a natural progression to curatorial work after working within an architectural space where she was constructing relationships or bringing a work or set of ideas to life through words.
For Nicholas Folland, a 1999 Samstag scholar, his time is split between creating his own spectacular works of art and educating a new wave of artists.
Currently the Head of Contemporary Studies and Sculpture at Adelaide Central School of Art, Folland says while he dreams of spending all his time in a studio, he also thrives on the energy of ambitious students.
“I feel an incredible responsibility to rigorous, relevant and quality education, so as the Head of Sculpture and the newly formed Contemporary Studies departments, I work hard to negotiate the needs of a vast range of students, staff and programing,” Folland says.
“It’s a constant challenge to ensure that all of the pieces fit together, but it’s a fantastic reward to see graduates achieving their own goals and dreams as professionals.”
Folland completed a UniSA Bachelor of Visual Arts in 1999 before attending a research program at the Piet Zwart Institute, Rotterdam in the Netherlands, through his Samstag Scholarship.
“The experience gave me confidence,” he says. “My ideas were put to the test by the presence of so many other ideas that I had not previously considered, and while this scrutiny was initially daunting it was also refreshing and motivating.
“It wasn’t just the ideas discussed at Piet Zwart. I travelled through a dozen or more countries and I was continually confronted by experiences that were initially mysterious and daunting. It necessitated clarity and strengthened resolve. On returning to Australia I was up for any challenge.”
Several years later he completed a Master of Visual Arts at the University of Sydney.
In 2013, Folland was awarded the Wakefield Press South Australian Living Artists monograph and its release in 2014 coincided with a major exhibition of his work, curated by Lisa Slade at the Art Gallery of South Australia.
“As a South Australian artist, these are opportunities that you dream of – the exhibition was a chance to share my work with an enormous and often new audience in my home town, and the monograph opens my work up to an audience around Australia and the world,” he says.
And while the world still beckons, Folland says Adelaide is where he is most at home.
“I’m often tempted to leave Adelaide and I spent several years living in Sydney, but the reality is that I’m incredibly bonded to this place,” he says.
“The world is made small by technology and travel, so Adelaide is home-base and studio, but for the past decade I have been represented by interstate galleries – Ryan Renshaw Brisbane and Tolarno Galleries Melbourne.
“I’ve also been privileged to exhibit some of my most ambitious work at the Samstag Museum.”
Folland’s work will feature at the Samstag again in 2016, when the Museum presents Quicksilver: 25 years of Samstag Scholarships. A legacy publication associated with the Samstag’s celebratory 25th birthday exhibitions will also be released during the year.
Samstag Museum Director, Erica Green, says Quicksilver reflects on the impact of the scholarship program and its scholars on the trajectory of Australian contemporary art.
“The importance of the Samstag Scholarships within the ecology of Australian art can’t be underestimated,” Green says. “The Samstag bequest is a legacy that with prudent management will continue in perpetuity.
“Samstag acts a bit like a beacon for our emerging artists. The very existence of the scholarships provides an achievable goal, and points to the wonderful opportunities that Australian artist can aspire to, if they are willing to chance their arm.
“Gordon’s remarkable bequest is a generosity that ranks as the greatest gift towards the development and education of Australian artists.”
Find out more at the Samstag website.