In 2015, my former colleague Dermot McCaul, the then Arts Librarian, was contacted by freelance curator Damian Smith, who was offering to donate a substantial number of art catalogues relating to his work as a curator and art writer. Damian’s approach led Dermot and me to consider the idea of curatorial practice, and how well this field was documented by the Library’s collection. While the Library actively collects Australian exhibition catalogues, along with art ephemera, the way in which we catalogue these items prioritises artists and galleries, over the work of curators.

This was demonstrated when we looked into the curatorial career of Damian Smith. While he has curated a substantial number of exhibitions, his curatorial practice was largely absent from the Library’s catalogue, other than a small file of ephemera. Added to this, Damian, a Melbourne-based practitioner, had curated numerous international exhibitions, many of which produced accompanying catalogues, virtually none of which were represented in the Library’s collection. While it’s unlikely the Library could manage to comprehensively document the practice of a range of curators, we decided there might be a benefit to archiving the work of a single curator, in the belief that such an initiative might provide a snapshot of a somewhat undocumented field, that of freelance curatorship.

Fast forward to 2022 and Victoria Perin, currently completing her PhD at the University of Melbourne, visited the Library to explore in detail the Damian Smith archive. What follows is Victoria’s response to exploring the material.

Des Cowley, Principal Librarian, History of the Book & Arts

“Who is Damian Smith?” This is the question generations of researchers will be asking as they request the unique material gathered in the Damian Smith Archive at State Library Victoria. Maybe they are researching the important Tibetan-born British artist, Gonkar Gyatso. Maybe they are hunting information on ephemeral street-art and were drawn to the box on Robert Janz’s work. Perhaps they are studying Chinese soft power in Australia, and want to see Smith’s material relating to China Art Projects (established 2008) or his work with the collection of former Australian Ambassador to China, Geoff Raby. Because academics trade in specialisation and narrow units of inquiry, the researchers of the future may not appreciate the remarkable breadth of this collection, although, once they start leafing through the archival boxes, they are bound to recognise its diversity.

Art catalogues and ephemera from the Damian Smith Archive, State Library Victoria. RARESEF 759.994 Sm541A

The Damian Smith Archive current holds five plus boxes of catalogues, articles, artworks and exhibition ephemera, including approximately 200 published essays on contemporary art. The archive follows the arch of Smith’s career, which has traversed continents and specialisations from 1996 until today. While Smith has worked in and with institutions, primarily, he must be understood as a freelance curator. His curatorial independence is his defining characteristic as an arts worker, and it fundamentally explains why the archive is the way it is.

The earliest piece in this archive dates from 1991, when Smith was leaving art school at RMIT University, Melbourne. Trained as an artist, Smith invites contemplation of the oft-transgressed, creative line between artmaking and art-curating. While in England in the mid-1990s, Smith was offered the position of archivist for the Estate of Sidney Nolan, Australia’s most revered modernist painter. While his role at the Nolan estate was not a curatorial one (and, thus, is not overly reflected in the Damian Smith Archive), it both established his qualification in the realm of arts-management and gave him valuable insight into this seminal figure. Nolan and his circle are the subject of some of Smith’s most engaging essays and curatorial projects.

Art catalogues and ephemera from the Damian Smith Archive, State Library Victoria. RARESEF 759.994 Sm541A

In the mid-2000s, while Smith was working at the Shepparton Art Gallery in regional Victoria and Maroondah Art Gallery, Melbourne, he began writing on contemporary art in Tibet and China more broadly. His work in Asia was a pivotal moment in his curatorial career. Signalling a move away from Australian art and art communities, Smith began developing expertise through travel, when he would personally meet with local artists and propose his services as a writer or curator with Australian connections. All of Smith’s work in Asia must be thought about in terms of cultural exchange. Constantly working with cosmopolitan and diasporic figures, Smith’s curating focuses on artists and communities looking to transcend their immediate home-context. His early partnership with Red Gate Gallery and later China Art Projects, Beijing, both explicitly institutions of cultural exchanges and international residencies, illustrate this point. Documents relating to both are significantly represented in the Archive, and prefigure Smith’s 2018 publication on Geoff Raby’s collection of contemporary Chinese art.

An early highlight of Smith’s work in Asia is his contact with Gonkar Gyatso, a senior figure in contemporary Tibetan art. Gyatso combines references to traditional Buddhist life with references to a globalist culture that threatens to displace it. Smith and Gyatso met in the late 2000s and Smith was an important Australian supporter of his work, as shown through various catalogues and essays in the the Library’s archive. Gyatso was an important contact for Smith’s visit to Lhasa in 2010, when the curator had several formative experiences with the gritty and vibrant Lhasan grassroots art community. From that period on, Gyatso has developed a unique profile in Australia. His art has been acquired by many public and private Australian collections and Gyatso was featured in the 2009 Asia Pacific Triennial, and the 2010 Biennale of Sydney. In 2011 he was honoured with a three-part exhibition display across the Institute of Modern Art, the Griffith University Art Gallery and The University of Queensland Art Museum in Brisbane. The work of Smith and other cross-cultural specialists is integral to forging and maintaining connections with leading diaspora artists like Gyatso.

Smith calls his professional philosophy ‘barefoot curating’, a term that acknowledges his role ‘on the ground’ of the art communities he works with. Throughout the Damian Smith Archive there are dozens of essays commissioned by local Australian galleries and contemporary artists. You can trace Smith’s relationships with various galleries throughout Melbourne, such as Anna Pappas Gallery, Mars Gallery, Scott Livesey Galleries, and Chapman and Bailey (as well as more ephemeral spaces). His essays for exhibitions held in these private galleries are a snapshot of the local scene and will prove a valuable record of this period.

Art catalogues and ephemera from the Damian Smith Archive, State Library Victoria. RARESEF 759.994 Sm541A

One of Smith’s most significant touchstones for the idea of barefoot curating was his work in Havana, Cuba, culminating in his curation of a display of Australian art for the ‘Bienal de la Habana’ (the Havana Biennale) in 2019, the so-called ‘biennale of the Third World’. Having worked in Havana from 2015, Smith was aware of the problems that this region can pose to large-scale arts organising. It is his belief that freelancing allows a curator to be nimble, resourceful and responsive. This agility is necessary when working with programmers that are disadvantaged by significant financial and infrastructure challenges.

The Damian Smith Archive is a collection that speaks of Smith’s philosophy of barefoot curating. ‘Implicit in the term’, he writes, ‘is the intention to get things done irrespective of the available resources.’ It is rare to find a record of an individual like Smith in a place like State Library Victoria, an institution that is better situated to record the careers of other institutional professionals, such as the senior curators and directors of state or national galleries. However, we must remember that a healthy art community (both local and international) relies on figures that move quickly between commissions, code-switch through high and colloquial cultures, and translate between foreign lands. The record of Damian Smith’s career is the archive of one such figure.

Written by Victoria Perin

Explore the Damian Smith Archive

This article has 1 comment

  1. Dr Gary Willis

    So much of Australian art history is produced in the minor key and arguably, for many archivists hardly worthy of attention. However, I think the beating heart of Australian art is best understood through these often overlooked catalogues. I’m thinking of Terry Whelan’s extensive collection of artist’s catalogues, flyers and invitations to exhibitions from 1960s – 2010’s. I believe it is in exactly collections such as Damian Smith’s that the history of Australian art is forged. A most interesting collection.

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