A central platform of the Australia Council’s new strategic plan, unveiled 18 August 2014, is to grow the profile of Australian arts overseas. While there are new initiatives toward this end in the Strategic Plan, http://2015.australiacouncil.gov.au/strategic-plan/, the existing system of artist residencies in studios across the world remains the backbone of the international profile and a platform for any further development.
I have just returned from New York, where I was an indirect beneficiary of the visionary program that established the Australia Council’s longest running residency program. Its beginnings are a reminder of how influential individuals have been in the history of Australian art. The Greene Street Studio in New York was the pioneer for the studio arrangements that the Australia Council has as a standard practice in many countries. Greene Street was initiated by Australian abstract painter Robert Jacks (1943-2014) who passed away last week. At the time of his death I was visiting Donna Marcus in the Greene Street studio – where she is the current artist in residence.
Studio manager Kathy Morano related the folkloric beginnings of this program. Resident in this building since she was 25 years old, Australia (a country about which she knew nothing), has been her companion for 38 years throughout the Greene Street journey. An artist herself, connected to the minimalist scene, she found this loft in 1976, secured it with hard-won savings, and looked around for a sub-lessee. Her Studio To Rent notice, pinned on the Broome Street Bulletin Board, was seen by Jacks, then resident in New York. Keen to improve the opportunities for Australian artists in New York, with the support of Visual Arts Board director Leon Paroissien, the deal Jacks did with Morano was sealed with a handshake. In those days Soho was a newly discovered neighbourhood. Factories were still operating and resident artists were many (today, high end boutiques – Longchamp, Joseph, American Apparel – are the prime street presence).
As Peter Anderson confirms in his essay for the Jacks retrospective, Order & Variation, to open at the National Gallery of Victoria 3 October 2014 (to 15 February 2015): “Jacks located the studio, renovated it, and then managed it for the Visual Arts Board. The Greene Street Studio pioneered the Australia Council’s international artist’s residency program, and it continues to be one of a number of artist’s studios supported by the Australia Council in various countries around the world.”
Initially the Australia Council signed a five year lease: the arrangement continues on a year by year basis. Morano, a native New Yorker, protects the studio and its status by ensuring that artists abide by the building’s rules. She adds value to the experience for artists by maintaining memberships to major museums and art galleries for visiting artists, facilitating their, often unusual, artistic requirements, and is available for advice and guidance. An additional bonus is that she channels the New York persona – with powerful energy, pragmatism and dynamism. (Our initial meeting was on the building stairs – and it took us 20 minutes to arrive at level 5. During our journey upward we were regaled with lively stories on everything from social mores to 9/11.) Most importantly, Morano is “boots on the ground” for visiting Australians, recently locating a performance venue, at short notice, for an Australian act, also managing the ISCP Australia Council studio (also in New York) and providing liaison for visiting Australians.
Greene Street’s value to resident artists is vested in the lived experience of New York, in addition to the access to exhibitions and art galleries in this international centre. The ability to buy time, in New York’s unique stimulation, away from the exigencies of regular life has crucial importance for artists. Current resident Donna Marcus noted the time this has brought her – from teaching and her administrative work and duties in Australia, for creative exploration and perspective – a lens from which her practice may be reviewed, considered, and reinvented anew.
Jeff Gibson, Managing Editor of New York-based Art Forum magazine, a job for which he relocated from Sydney some 16 years ago, recalls, “Greene Street was the very first New York address I had. I camped on the sofa in the studio for a few days when Margaret Morgan was resident there in 1987 (the year Warhol died). It was paradise. For me, Greene Street remains the mother of all studios.”
Greene Street creates the space for newness to happen, and provides Australia with a presence that it could not otherwise afford. Donald Fortescue noted in an article marking Greene Street’s 20 year anniversary in Object magazine (3/1996), that it “allows a step away from your reality, geographically, emotionally, spiritually”.
If the new Australia Council international support programs, to be directed through multiple avenues, offer dividends like the investment in Greene Street, Australian art and artists may look forward to an exponential boost. The advocacy of Robert Jacks and the direct dividends he achieved for so many Australian artists over more than four decades describes the driving influence of individuals – particularly when backed with the institutional support of the day.
I did not have the pleasure of meeting Jacks. His loss has elicited tributes and sadness that speak for his personal qualities in addition to a significant artistic legacy. Bruce Heiser wrote, “Robert will be remembered not only as a fine artist but also for his decency, cultured manner and urbane nature. His presence will be greatly missed.” Vale Robert Jacks. Many Australian artists (and writers) have cause to be grateful for his contribution.