The joy of a first commission

One of Australia’s most significant multidisciplinary artists, Sally Smart, reflects on the momentum around her first commission, and how young artists must connect with the world around them

Sally Smart and Mireille Stahle, University of Melbourne

Sally Smart

Published 26 July 2019

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 of the next idea, the next project.

Multidisciplinary artist Sally Smart says First Commissions represents an extraordinary opportunity. Picture: Giulia McGauran

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 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, as the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA), or as the University of Melbourne.

First Commissions brings together 30 of the University of Melbourne’s most exciting emerging artists. Video: O’Rourke & Gates

Like all relationship building, it’s 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.

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, 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.

The artists’ work went on display in Florence before returning to Melbourne. Picture: O’Rourke & Gates

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.

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 the 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 overtime, and 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.

Exhibitions like First Commission generates an energy within the artistic community. Picture: O’Rourke & Gates

I clearly remember the experience, and being supported by the VCA, because it felt very significant at the time and 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 VCA and the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, within the Faculty of Fine Arts 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 and a music world. It needs a whole lot of support.

Projects like First Commissions demonstrate that we, the University, can be leaders in that area, and we can show what the effects of that support can be –transformational.

The University of Melbourne’s First Commissions exhibition will be in Melbourne on 27th and 28th July. For more information, you can visit the website.

A version of this article was first published on Precinct.

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