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40 years on: how Gough Whitlam gave Indigenous art a boost

The Sydney Opera House is not the only cultural institution celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2013. AAP Image/Quentin Jones

As you’ve no doubt noticed, celebrations are underway to mark the 40th anniversary of the Sydney Opera House – and that’s as it should be. But this year marks a few other “40ths” that have had a tremendous impact on Australian culture, and not least on Indigenous art.

My favourite research library is located in the basement of the Art Gallery of NSW. It houses catalogues of exhibitions great and small. There are ancient minute books which record squabbles between trustees and press cutting books that date back to the 19th century. Together, these documents offer a multi-layered narrative of every event and attitude vaguely related to art.

My research has taken me back in time to 1973, the first year of Gough Whitlam’s government – and the year the Aboriginal Arts Board was established. The Board was made up of Aboriginal artists, writers and performers. A prime ministerial press statement makes its purpose clear:

The decision to place control for the arts in the hands of Aboriginals is intended to stimulate indigenous Australian arts and lead to the preservation of many art forms almost lost since the settlement of Australia by Europeans.

The Queen opened the Opera House in 1973. While the 40th anniversary of Danish architect Jørn Utzon’s magnificent building has been marked by enthusiastic public celebration, there are other events from that compelling time vital to the cultural life of this country that deserve to be commemorated.

Queen Elizabeth II opens the Sydney Opera House in 1973.

The first Biennale of Sydney took place in 1973, a landmark occasion for Australian contemporary art. When Whitlam opened the exhibition, he noted it was his first public event at the Opera House as then NSW premier Sir Robert Askin had refused an invitation to the opening party. Forty years later and the Biennale of Sydney is one of the great festivals for contemporary art and continues to showcase the work of Indigenous artists.

Daily Telegraph, November 24 1973.

The ongoing success of these two great institutions, the Sydney Opera House and the Biennale, has only been made possible by another innovation of 1973 – the radical restructure of the Australian Council for the Arts (renamed the Australia Council in 1975) and the introduction of significant funding for creative endeavours.

Every art form can claim to have benefited from the new availability of arts funding. Young practitioners could travel overseas to obtain the necessary experience. The new funding pool gave practitioners time to write or make new works, or subsidised international performances and exhibitions.

Easily the greatest impact of the Australia Council, though, has been how it has enabled the transformation of a broader understanding of Australia’s Indigenous culture and – in fostering the achievements of Indigenous artists, writers, musicians, performers and curators – helped reposition Indigenous culture as central to this country’s identity.

Press clippings give some indication of the attitudes of the time. In 1973, prominent art collector, Jim Davidson, gave an interview in which he claimed, “Aboriginal art is doomed and so are the Aboriginal people”.

Newcastle Herald, April 4, 1973.

This wasn’t the view of the prime minister of the day. On May 22 the Canberra Times reported a speech by Gough Whitlam in which he said that “Aboriginal art should be used to inspire social protest in the cities”. The excerpts from the speech contained in the press cuttings show an intense emphasis placed on the significance of art:

Artists are not only those who see and feel most intensely the agonies, the sorrows and the hopes of their own people … They are those who can bring to others the willingness and capacity to comprehend and share these emotions.

Canberra Times 22 May 1973.

Whitlam was opening a seminar on Aboriginal Arts in Australia, held at the Australian National University, one of the first events held under the auspices of the newly-formed Aboriginal Arts Board of the Australia Council.

The Board had the strong support of the chair of the Australia Council, Dr H. C. (Nugget) Coombs, who was so influential on arts policy that artist Clifton Pugh once accused him of being Whitlam’s de facto arts minister

Nina Berrell has written on how, throughout the 1970s, the Aboriginal Arts Board, led first by artist Dick Roughsey and later by artist and activist Wandjuk Marika, devised a strategy to simultaneously encourage creative endeavours, change the standing of Aboriginal arts and direct much needed money to Aboriginal communities.

In those early years the Australia Council was the largest single client for Aboriginal art. It bought works direct from artists and, as no Australian institutions were especially interested in Aboriginal art, those works were sent on “cultural exchange” to museums and galleries the United States and Canada.

This is one of the reasons the international commercial market for Australian Aboriginal art was so strong. And because board members understood the essential interconnectedness between art forms, the visual arts remained connected to the performing arts.

There is wonderful photograph of Nugget Coombs, sitting on the floor, enjoying a performance by David Gulpilil and David Bannacey to celebrate the departure of the first great exhibition to Canada.

The Australian, February 19 1974.

These policies helped create a supportive climate for later generations of Indigenous artists. The first urban artists were noticed in the 1980s. For the last three decades Indigenous artists have represented Australia in international forums.

In next year’s Biennale of Sydney, Bindi Cole’s uncompromising We all need forgiveness will be seen with Michael Cook’s whimsical Majority rule, memorial and Yhonnie Scarce’s unnerving Weak in Colour Strong in Blood.

Forty years on, the Sydney Opera House, the Biennale, and the Aboriginal Arts Board are all anniversaries worth celebrating.

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