Anne and Gordon Samstag have been responsible for providing more than 100 Australian artists the opportunity to study overseas through the very generous bequest of US$5 million they left to the University of South Australia. With a major art museum also bearing their name, just who was this American couple and why was it important for them to leave such a legacy?
Ross Wolfe, the former director of the Samstag Program (he held the position from 1992 until 2009) and American scholar Lea Rosson DeLong delve into the story of the Samstags in the publication, The Samstag Legacy: An Artist’s Bequest. The book will be launched in October along with the exhibition Meet the Samstags: Artists and Benefactors at the Samstag Museum of Art commemorating 25 years since the scholarships program began.
Very little is known about the Samstags’ lives in America before they arrived in Melbourne in 1961. What we do know is that Gordon was a successful painter and Anne came from impressive lineage; her forbears were among the second wave of colonists to America in 1630. The fact that so little is known about their lives before they came to Australia hints at the kind of man Gordon was.
Gordon SAMSTAG, Nurses, 1936, oil on canvas, 121.9 x 106.7 cm (47 5/8 x 42 in), Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, San Jose, California, USA.
“It’s an insight into Gordon’s modesty and his sense of privacy; he was someone with a past of significant achievement,” Wolfe says. “Both he and Anne also had personal family histories of high interest, especially in Anne’s case, but they felt no need to talk about it.”
The book is split into two parts. In the first section, DeLong has built a profile of Gordon the artist, leading up to when the Samstags came to Australia. She looks at his early professional career where he found success as a social-realist painter of the ‘American Scene’.
At the peak of his career he was commissioned to paint a number of murals as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal projects during the Great Depression. These works still remain in post offices in Reidsville, North Carolina, and Scarsdale, New York.
Gordon SAMSTAG, Tobacco, 1938, oil on canvas mural, 243.8 x 475.0 cm (96 x 187 in), Reidsville City Hall (formerly Reidsville Post Office), North Carolina, USA.
While it’s not completely clear why the Samstags came to Australia, Wolfe suggests it was a combination of the fact that his artistic career in America had come to an end because of other developments in art, and that he had become disillusioned with life in America in general.
Wolfe points out that it was a time of social crisis in the US across a number of fronts. In the ‘50s there had been “the shadow of McCarthyism”, impacting on artists working in film and the creative industries. There were also tensions around the Civil Rights movement. But above all, there was the threat of nuclear war, particularly affecting those (like Anne and Gordon) who lived in or near New York city, surely a prime target.
“Samstag had become indifferent, and probably disillusioned,” Wolfe says. “The art that he was identified with and, in which, his reputation had been forged – the art of the American Scene – had been overwhelmed by New York-led Abstract Expressionism, and what was following. There were many artists of his ilk who’d lost their way, or given up.”
Anne and Gordon SAMSTAG, Training Your Own Dog, 1960, Alfred A. Knopf Inc., New York. Photograph by Sam Noonan.
Whatever the reason, in 1961 the Samstags set off on an adventurous move to Melbourne, where Gordon had lined up a casual job at RMIT teaching illustration. The position of senior lecturer in fine art then came up at the South Australian School of Art (SASA) and the Samstags moved to Adelaide, marking the beginning of their connection with the city.
Gordon didn’t find the same success with his artistic career in Australia, and, as a result, only a few artworks produced during this time feature in the publication.
“One of the objectives of the book is to reveal Gordon’s achievements as an artist at his best,” Wolfe says. “It’s our aspiration, our hope (we are going to disseminate his book strategically in America) that a future scholar might develop an interest in him and undertake further research.”
Instead of focusing only on the art that Gordon created in Australia, the second half of the book, which is penned by Wolfe, sets the scene by also telling the story of the Australia to which the Samstags arrived. The publication looks at aspects of Australian art that intersect with the Samstags’ time here – mainly with American audiences in mind. “I’m looking as well at artists who have a defining relationship to South Australia, such as Dorrit Black and Jeffrey Smart,” Wolfe says.
Gordon SAMSTAG, Young Man Desires Position, c. 1930, oil on canvas, 127.6 x 120.0 cm (50 ¼ x 47 ¼ in), Museum purchase 1944.08, Swope Art Museum, Terre Haute, Indiana, USA.
Wolfe’s essay also explores the history of the SASA and the evolution and politics behind it. SASA eventually became part of the University of South Australia when a number of colleges, institutes and schools merged in 1991. This was the same year the scholarships program was formally agreed, so they share a common 25th birthday.
The Samstag scholarships are known as ‘golden passports’ because of their generous nature; they give Australian artists the opportunity to study at a place of their choice, anywhere in the world, for 12 months or more.
Samstag’s bequest was an unprecedented gift, the motivation for which was simple. “It’s an expression of their love of Australia and Gordon’s love and fond memories of his time at the South Australian School of Art,” Wolfe says.
To date, the list of artists who have been selected for the Samstag Scholarship is impressive and includes artists such as A.D.S. Donaldson, Anne Wallace, Nike Savvas, Deborah Paauwe, Shaun Gladwell, Christian Lock, Tim Sterling and Christine Aerfeldt.
Gordon Samstag at SASA 1969
In 2007, Wolfe successfully negotiated for the University Art Museum to be named the Anne & Gordon Samstag Museum of Art and, following his retirement in 2009, the museum took over the task of running the scholarships program, which they still do today. When the Samstag Museum of Art was established it became South Australia’s second-largest public art gallery, with expectations that it would be a default ‘Museum of Contemporary Art’ for Adelaide.
“Our primary goal was, and still is, to grow a wide audience for advanced visual arts culture and to be an effective and credible vehicle for providing major opportunities to artists both locally, and nationally,” explains director Erica Green.
The museum has made a significant contribution to the visual arts scene, complementing the objectives of the Samstag Scholarships program. The museum continues to push the boundaries, delivering large-scale progressive exhibitions with a high level of community engagement.
Anne and Gordon Samstag dancing in 1986
A large part of the museum’s strategy is to work collaboratively and in partnership with other South Australian arts organisations. Over the last 10 years, the museum has worked with the Adelaide Festival of Arts, Adelaide Film Festival, OzAsia Festival, SALA Festival and TARNANTHI | Festival of Contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art (to name a few).
Together, the Samstag Scholarships and the museum, carry on the Samstags’ legacy, continuing in perpetuity their link with Adelaide’s arts community, and making a significant contribution to the visual arts by encouraging emerging artists.
Meet the Samstags: Artists and Benefactors
Samstag Museum of Art Friday, October 14 to Friday, December 9
Opening and book launch: Thursday, October 13
The Samstag Legacy: An Artist’s Bequest
Editor Ross Wolfe Essays by Lea Rosson DeLong and Ross Wolfe 392pp, hardback RRP $85 incl. GST (+ $15 postage within Australia) For information and orders: [email protected] or 8302 0870