Martin Carlson, OAM, 1929–2022

2012.002.14543Martin Carlson at the newly installed (now sadly, uninstalled) Casavant Freres organ in Hamer Hall. Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.When it came to finding the right people to work in the newly built Victorian Arts Centre, as it was then known, Martin Carlson and his colleague, the theatre director, George Fairfax, were of one mind. ‘If you cast a play well’, said Fairfax, ‘you are three-quarters of the way down the track … you have people who know far better than us what their requirements are.’

Martin Carlson knew this only too well.

Martin Carlson first arrived at the VAC in 1974 when the Arts Centre was still a vast, muddy hole in the ground. Initially it was a far cry from his previous job as the Melbourne director of the prominent management consultants, J.P. Young and Associates. At that time the Arts Centre staff, all five of them, were housed in what was referred to as architect Roy Grounds’ ‘beach house’ in Snowden Gardens, an area now occupied by Hamer Hall and, significantly, owned by the City of Melbourne. The building of the VAC was beset by many difficulties as the border between the municipalities of City of Melbourne and South Melbourne ran straight through the middle of the site!

Perhaps there is no better way to illustrate Martin’s commitment to ‘casting’ this grand production than in the way he chose to advertise jobs for the yet to be completed Centre. Job advertisements were run without any reference to the Centre, only a post office box number. ‘It meant we could just ferret around talking to people and we didn’t have to explain ourselves,’ Martin said, ‘we often didn’t know exactly what we were looking for until we found someone. Finding the person meant that we also worked out how something might be done. It needed to be very fluid and we didn’t want to get locked into making public statements.’

Martin had an enormous influence on the initiation and development of many of the Arts Centre’s programs and on its overall philosophy. His contribution to fundraising, marketing and to the local, national and international profile of the Centre over the years was immeasurable and his legacy can be seen in every corner of the Centre today.

This is no more evident than in the magnificent interiors of the Arts Centre created by the brilliant Oscar winning stage and film designer, John Truscott.

In 1980 the Arts Centre Trust decided, with time running out and media and politicians clamouring to see something finished, to assign all the money for the interiors not to both buildings but to the Concert Hall alone. Martin Carlson, in defiance of the odds and in the middle of a recession, was then given the task of raising $5 million ($18 million today) from private and corporate sponsors. This was just the beginning.

Martin was, unsurprisingly, the only person undaunted by this, seeing the campaign as a golden opportunity to involve potential benefactors in the work of the Arts Centre right from the start.

Of course $5 million was never going to be enough for the sort of finishes John Truscott envisioned and Martin set to work to raise a good deal more. Most memorable, perhaps, was the trip he and John Truscott made to the Smorgon family home in Toorak with a two metre square model that jeweller Wayne Guest had made at Martin’s behest knowing that people needed to see what it all might finally look like; the colours, space, brass fittings, light reflections, velvet upholstery which only a scenic artist such as John Truscott could dream up. As it was the model complete with its raspberry coloured towelling ‘carpet’ and a tiny Victorian coat-of-arms embroidered at the centre saw the assembled Smorgon family agree in only 20 minutes to donate $750,000 (almost $3 million today) for the completion of what we now know as the Smorgon Family Plaza.

‘Exhausting, rewarding, challenging’ is how Martin described working with John Truscott adding that he was ‘a man who placed enormous demands on everyone who worked with him but who was even harsher on himself’. It was Martin Carlson and his friend, the Arts Centre’s Planning Consultant, Mike Hipkins who gently nursed Truscott through the disappointments and frustrations of this time and saw to it that his remarkable vision became a reality.

A project that was always very close to Martin’s heart (actually they all were!) was the Centre’s Art Ed program based on the aesthetic educational program at the Lincoln Centre in New York which Martin, a former teacher, had learned about through its founding director, Mark Schubart. After the appointment of Susie Leigh as the first, trailblazing director of the Arts Centre’s youth and education program, Martin found the financial support, through his connection with Hertz and others, for Susie to spend three months studying the program at the Lincoln Centre. Returning home she set up the Art-Ed program which remains today one of the Arts Centre’s most enduring and far-reaching successes.

About this time the Arts Centre’s neighbour on Southbank was the head office of Mobil run by a very enterprising American, George Pusack. In time Pusack became a good friend of Martin Carlson: Mobil had a history of support for the arts and Martin saw a fruitful connection through the Centre’s facilities for entertaining and the attraction of its priceless Australian art collection and its world class performances. In time and prompted by the offer of Lady Vestey and J.C. Williamson of twenty-three costumes belonging to Dame Nellie Melba, the two men began discussions about establishing a Performing Arts Museum and Martin headed to New York to make a presentation to the chairman of Mobil World South. He was well received and Mobil subsequently donated $300,000 for the establishment of the Performing Arts Museum. 

Martin liked to remind us that at beginning there was a mere trickle of programs and costumes for the Museum but when the Arts Centre made a public announcement that it was preparing to receive theatrical costumes for the new museum the response became a flood and he found himself forced to move out of his office to make room for it all!

In fact the flood of material from all corners of the world for the Performing Arts Collection has barely ceased since and the Museum’s world-renown reputation remained an achievement of which Martin was particularly proud.

Martin Carlson’s legacy is to be found in all corners of Arts Centre Melbourne and, indeed, far beyond. At the Arts Centre it was Martin who approached the State Bank and persuaded it to finance Graham Bennett’s exquisite State Theatre curtain. This was followed by a new, state of the art flying system for the State Theatre, support by ANZ for the Pavilion and by Westpac for the art gallery, by the Brash family for Sound House and, following a trip to New York, the installation of our own ‘Rockefeller Center’ ice skating rink at the Myer Music Bowl.

Martin was also instrumental in the establishment of one of the country’s first, now immensely successful but initially fraught, computer ticketing system, Bay Area Seating Service which on landing at the VAC became Best Available Seating Service, BASS, (now Ticketmaster).

In his many roles, whether it was at the Arts Centre Melbourne or with the Williamson Foundation, the John Truscott Foundation or The Children’s Hospital Foundation, Martin believed deeply that a shared vision between those working within those Trusts and institutions and the major corporations and individual philanthropists who supported them was vital. It is his dedication to this ideal and the personal relationships that Martin forged with donors, both corporate and private, over many years, that continues to this day to play a pivotal role in the life of those organisations and in the life of this city.

Martin Carlson OAM, thank you.