Book: The Sam­stag Legacy, by Lucy Stranger


THIS NEW BOOK PRO­FIL­ING THE enig­matic Amer­i­can cou­ple, Gor­don and Anne Sam­stag, who laid foun­da­tional stones in the Australian art in­dus­try through their be­quest of the Sam­stag Schol­ar­ships, has been 16 years in the mak­ing. It was only sup­posed to take a few years, but what was ini­tially pro­posed to be an es­say of 3000 words has de­vel­oped into a densely rich mono­graph of nearly 400 pages, en­ti­tled The Sam­stag Legacy: An Artist’s Be­quest. The Anne & Gor­don Sam­stag In­ter­na­tional Vis­ual Arts Schol­ar­ships pro­gram is a re­mark­able gift to the Australian art in­dus­try, en­abling Australian artists to par­tic­i­pate on an in­ter­na­tional plat­form. From the Sam­stags’ $5 mil­lion cul­tural be­quest, The Fine Arts Trust awards in­ter­na­tional study schol­ar­ships for Australian artists to study and de­velop their artis­tic skills and tal­ents out­side Aus­tralia. Pre­sented af­ter Gor­don Sam­stag died in 1990, in Florida, USA, the be­quest was for­mally es­tab­lished in 1992 and so far has awarded 138 Sam­stag Schol­ar­ships. The out­come of pro­vid­ing in­ter­na­tional ex­pe­ri­ences for lead­ing Australian artists, in­clud­ing Nike Sav­vas, TV Moore, Sean Cordeiro and Claire Healy to name a few, and the re­sult­ing rip­ple ef­fect in the Australian art in­dus­try is un­quan­tifi­able. In recog­ni­tion of such gen­eros­ity, in 2007 the Uni­ver­sity of South Aus­tralia named its new Art Mu­seum gallery on North Ter­race, the Anne & Gor­don Sam­stag Mu­seum of Art. While the Sam­stag name is a main­stay in the art com­mu­nity, un­til this new book was pub­lished, lit­tle was known about the ex­pa­tri­ate Amer­i­can artist Gor­don Sam­stag and his wife Anne, who ar­rived in Aus­tralia in 1961. Gor­don taught from 1961 to 1970 at the South Australian School of Art, now the School of Art, Ar­chi­tec­ture and De­sign, a part of the Uni­ver­sity of South Aus­tralia. In the book’s in­tro­duc­tion, ed­i­tor Ross Wolfe, the in­au­gu­ral di­rec­tor of the Sam­stag Pro­gram from 1992-2009, notes that the Sam­stags’ pri­vate lives and back­grounds were largely un­known by their col­leagues and the in­sti­tu­tion to which they be­quested five mil­lion dol­lars. Their move to Aus­tralia from the USA was a cu­ri­ous and un­ex­plained de­ci­sion by the cou­ple.

Aca­demic Lea Ros­son DeLong’s in-depth and fruit­ful re­search ef­forts have re­sulted in a sat­is­fy­ing and ex­pan­sive nar­ra­tive of the cou­ple, beginning with Gor­don’s ca­reer as a young artist in Amer­ica.

In the lat­ter half of the book Wolfe pro­vides com­pelling in­sights into the Australian art in­dus­try dur­ing the 16 years the Sam­stags lived here. In a se­ries of es­says DeLong and Wolfe map chrono­log­i­cally the Sam­stags’ jour­ney from New York to Melbourne, Ade­laide, Cairns and, lastly, Naples.

Gor­don Sam­stag was fore­most an artist. Born in 1906, in Man­hat­tan, he was a clas­si­cally trained pain­ter. As a young artist in Amer­ica in the 1930s, he is de­scribed as a “sharp-eyed real­ist” whose most sig­nif­i­cant work was pro­duced dur­ing the Great De­pres­sion. A prize-win­ning artist, he also cre­ated pub­lic mu­rals – in par­tic­u­lar a paint­ing for the Roo­sevelt ad­min­is­tra­tion’s New Deal pro­gram. His in­ter­est in so­cial re­al­ism, de­pict­ing the ev­ery­day ac­tiv­i­ties of work­ers and work­places, proves to be an on­go­ing out­look through­out his life, cul­mi­nat­ing in his fi­nal gen­er­ous gift in the form of the Sam­stag be­quest.

The book un­earths more about the unas­sum­ing Anne Sam­stag. An ac­com­plished tex­tile artist, Anne’s family her­itage – her fa­ther, a ty­coon who con­trolled turn-of-the-cen­tury coalmines

in Ken­tucky – left the wealth that cre­ated the Sam­stag legacy. This drive be­hind the be­quest was cer­tainly fu­elled by the fact that Anne her­self was a very creative per­son.

A lively tale that steers across two con­ti­nents, The Sam­stag Legacy: An Artist’s Be­quest is a re­ward­ing read that delves into dif­fer­ent art worlds, and their burst of char­ac­ters in each. For the Australian reader Wolfe ex­plores sig­nif­i­cant de­vel­op­ments in con­tem­po­rary Australian art that the Sam­stags over­lapped with dur­ing their time in Aus­tralia.

As a teacher at the South Australian School of Art, Gor­don in­ter­sected with key events and a pa­rade of per­son­al­i­ties – Max Har­ris, Kym Bonython, Charles Red­ding­ton, Syd­ney Ball, El­wyn (Jack) Lynn, and Sid­ney Nolan among oth­ers – who he both en­gaged with and chal­lenged at times. And for Amer­i­can read­ers DeLong re­turns a miss­ing piece of his­tory – pre­sent­ing Gor­don Sam­stag as an in­flu­en­tial artist in Amer­ica in his own time.

Over­all, what makes this a com­pelling story is the pre­vail­ing thread that cel­e­brates Anne and Gor­don Sam­stag as sim­ply two artists who had the fore­sight and gen­eros­ity to be­quest the op­por­tu­nity for oth­ers to fol­low their own in­ter­na­tion­al­ism – and as such have their po­ten­tial and ideas chal­lenged through travel and study over­seas. 04 Gor­don Sam­stag, Un­ti­tled (por­trait of Anne), c. 1930s, oil on can­vas, 46 x 35cm 05 Anne and Gor­don Sam­stag, Train­ing

Your Own Dog, 1960, Al­fred A Knopf Inc, New York

Gor­don Sam­stag’s in­ter­est in so­cial re­al­ism, de­pict­ing the ev­ery­day ac­tiv­i­ties of work­ers and work­places, is an on­go­ing out­look through­out his life, cul­mi­nat­ing in his gen­er­ous gift.

01 Gor­don Sam­stag, Young Man De­sires Po­si­tion, 1930, oil on can­vas, 127 x 121cm 02 Gor­don Sam­stag, Nurses, 1935-36, oil on can­vas 03 Anne and Gor­don Sam­stag at

home, Naples, Florida, USA, c. 1986, pho­to­graph courtesy of Mrs Florence (Robbie) McBryde.

The Sam­stag Legacy: An Artist’s

Be­quest, es­says by Ross Wolfe and Lea Ros­son DeLong, pub­lished by Anne & Gor­don Sam­stag Mu­seum of Art, Uni­ver­sity of South Aus­tralia. 2016, $70.

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