The Samstag Legacy: An Artist’s Bequest

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.

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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.