Stage by Stage

Comedy Theatre Comedy Theatre, Melbourne.

This is the third and concluding part of a paper prepared by choreographer, dance educator and THA Committee Member, ROBERT RAY, first published in On Stage in the Autumn, Winter and Spring 2000 editions. Adapted from a paper he prepared for his Master of Education (Arts Administration) at RMIT University late in 1999, it charts the history of this important Arts institution, founded in 1954 ‘to provide a theatre of Australians by Australians for Australians’.


While the Trust had achieved a great deal, there were serious concerns about its ability to take the arts in Australia forward. There were too many financial bungles. Clearly the entrepreneurial role of the Trust was not working. The arts companies seemed to prefer to entrepreneur themselves. The Australian Opera, for example, did much better to hire Harry M. Miller to take over their promotion; he developed the idea of a subscription season which was hugely successful. There needed to be another way of government funding for the arts.

The Australia Council

So on 8 July 1968 the Australian Council for the Arts met for the first time, with Dr H.C.Coombs as Chairman, and nine Council members—Prof. K.C. Masterman (Deputy Chair), Peter Coleman, Virginia Erwin, Mary Houghton, Barry Jones (Deputy Chair), Dr Karl Langer, Betty Archdale, Jeana Bradley and Geoffrey Dutton. In February of the following year the first round of grants was announced.

There seemed to be plenty of money. For example, the grants to the Australian Opera rose from $193,000 to over $650,000 in 1971. In 1970 it developed an Aboriginal Arts Program which sought support from local authorities and the indigenous people themselves. In 1973, with the election of the Whitlam government, the arts funding scene began to be much more rationalised.

Whitlam announced an arts policy to combine several already existing arts advisory bodies into one statutory body. These bodies were the Australian Council for the Arts, the Commonwealth Art Advisory Board, the Commonwealth Literary Fund and the Commonwealth Assistance to Australian Composers.

The new Council was made up of seven boards: Aboriginal Arts, Crafts, Film and Television, Literature, Music, Theatre, and Visual Arts. Nugget Coombs remained Chairman with Dr Jean Battersby as Executive Officer. The major companies, such as the Australian Opera and Australian Ballet, were funded through the Council. There was also a broader brief: to fund individuals and smaller grassroots groups.

During the Whitlam years the arts in Australia flourished. There was a confidence and assuredness in the future. The arts paid over $450 million a year in wages and salaries—about 1.5% of the Australian total—and comparable with that paid in agriculture and mining.

In June 1974 Nugget Coombs retired as chairman and was replaced by Prof. Peter Karmel, CBE. In March 1975 it was renamed the Australia Council. Central to the Australia Council’s policy was, and still is, peer assessment. This is claimed to be the fairest of all processes for arts funding. Politicians are seen to be the last people who should decide on artistic merit. Also, with changing governments (and with their changing attitudes to the arts) an organisation at arm’s length from government was seen to be the most stable.

Major organisations such as the Opera and the Ballet, however, bridled under the system. Why should they be sat in judgment upon by the ‘little people of the arts’? Some of the peers used for assessment were not particularly illustrious or open minded. Many had axes to grind against the ‘fat cats’ who they saw as being over funded at the expense of community arts, etc.

The Fraser government took the authority to fund the Opera and Ballet away from the Australia Council and gave them direct-line funding. Only in the past few years has the funding of the Australian Ballet been given back to the Australia Council. Opera Australia remains directly funded from Cabinet.

The Australia Council is proud of its achievements. Many state theatre, opera and dance/ballet companies have been nurtured with their support. They have also funded an impressive list of independent artists. Like the Trust, however, they have not been free of criticism. Peer assessment has its flaws. Impartiality among artists is unheard of. While an artist might be in a position to assess the merit of another artist, what can happen is that the assessor can often be a rival to the applicant, and meanness ensues. However, the Council defends its funding policy, as still being the best there is. With the establishment of the Australia Council the Trust’s role became more and more entrepreneurial. Coombs had switched his vision to the Council. The Trust was left with nothing much to do and very little money to do it with.

By 1975 the Trust had only minuscule amounts to play with. In 1975 it allocated itself an entrepreneurial fund of $46,000, but in 1976 this was cut to $21,000, not much more than half of the general manager’s salary.

Earning the funds

Instead of allocating resources for the job, the Trust made the decision to earn them. [1] Witness of its poor judgment in this was their investment in three Edgley and two Brodziak shows imported through the Theatre Royal, Sydney. The plays—Dead Eyed Dicks (with Peter O’Toole directing and starring), The Two of Us with Sheila Hancock, The Pleasure of His Company (with Douglas Fairbanks, Jnr) and Lauder (with Jimmy Logan)—were of such poor quality that the suggestion was made they might do permanent damage to Australian light entertainment.

‘We have not actually spent, in the nett, one dollar of government money on commercial investment,’ the Trust defended itself over the losses on these shows. ‘And that money has been used to pick up the losses in excess of these other shows.’ [2]

It’s an account of what might be called the ‘peanuts problem’: the Trust sets itself a national mission, but allocates peanuts to realise it. A confusion of activities is then probably unavoidable, with one set of priorities to promote Australian theatre and another (frequently contradictory) set to raise the cash to do it. The way out of the bind is for the Trust to hit a commercial jackpot— but the jackpot never seemed to come. [3]

If the Trust saw its role as the nation’s official entrepreneur it was guided by an overridingly cautious business approach. If it was to take the commercial successes from the subsidised theatre companies and tour them nationally, it would then employ a policy which said: wait for the right venues, give publicity and marketing a chance, bide your time. While this cautious policy might have been the right one, reticence lost such prizes as Gordon Chater in The Elocution of Benjamin Franklin which was toured by Wilton Morley. Because of lack of funds the Trust made the decision in 1977 to axe the Playwrights’ Conference which was seen by many as essential to the growth of Australian playwrighting.

Many other inexplicable decisions seemed to alienate the Trust more and more from the community’s good will. One of its last remaining functions was as a channel for arts donations. To qualify for tax exemption, donations to the arts had to be made to the Trust. The donor would indicate who the funds were for, but the Trust was under no legal obligation to follow these instructions. In short, they could give the money to whomever it chose. While this rarely happened in practice, it was enough to make donors nervous of giving to their favourite companies. The Trust also ran a superannuation scheme for artists.

The demise of the Trust

The year 1991 saw the collapse of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust. The tax laws were changed, allowing arts organisations to set up their own Foundations which could accept tax-deductible donations, making redundant this last remaining role of the Trust. In view of its history it is hardly surprising that it was wound up. Was it timely? One has to say it probably went on longer than it needed to. It was troubled from the start. It was born in a time when commercial success was more important than development of the arts, a time when foreign was better, especially if it was British; a time when government was only dipping its toe into support for the arts.

Nugget Coombs had been the principal persuader in setting up the Trust, but by 1969 he had clearly become disillusioned with colleagues such as Hugh Hunt, who was his target in an address made to a UNESCO seminar on the Performing Arts in Canberra. ‘The arts in Australia have too long continued to arise out of and to reflect the Western European tradition from which they derived and have been too little influenced by the environment, dreams, prejudices, interests and values which are peculiarly Australian,’ he said. ‘I believe that this failure to be influenced by and to reflect our own especial way of life has been part of the reason why the Arts have often been regarded as suspect by so many of our people, many of whom still see them as alien, an expression of snobbery and of privilege, or simply as “strictly for the birds”.’ [4]

Coombs might have dissolved the Trust at that time, or change it. It was easier to start something new—an Australian Council for the Arts. It is my opinion that, with the formation of the Council, the Trust should have been wound up. By 1970 its best work was behind it. It had set up a national ballet company, a national opera company, training schools in drama and ballet. As the companies it helped found pulled away from it, the writing was on the wall.

An evaluation in hindsight

The criticism of Anglo-centricity is a new one, and reflects our present times rather than the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. As we yearn towards a republic it is no longer fashionable to be British. Yet, can we really complain that our heritage in drama was founded from a country which today has arguably the most fertile drama scene in the world?

While the connection is a sound one, however, there was too much of a need by imports, such as Hugh Hunt, to replicate little-Britain-down-under. This was also true of the Australian Ballet. While Peggy van Praagh professed a wish to develop a national Australian style, what she taught was purely British. What else could she teach? What else did she know? Nevertheless, this accent on all things British still resonates around our society.

Coincidentally, since the Trust’s demise in 1991 as a funds provider, funding for the arts has declined. Each successive government seems to care a little less. There were rays of promise with the Keating government’s Creative Nation policy of 1994 and Arts Victoria’s Agenda 21. Clearly the work of the Australia Council has gone way beyond the original intentions of the Trust.

The Trust’s charter was briefer: the establishment of Australian opera, ballet and drama. The Australia Council funds a wide range of visual and performing arts, all indigenous. It does not act as an entrepreneur. It does not import stars of the British theatre in British plays. However, it does have its own deficiencies, worthy of another paper.

The hero of our story has been Dr H.C. Coombs. His vision, personal culture and powers of persuasion were largely responsible for the Trust’s role in Australian culture. Its best achievements were with him as chairman.

His role is under-appreciated. So much credit is given to the Whitlam government for the nurturing of arts in Australia, but an historical opinion differs. Only with Coombs’ effort does this country have opera and ballet companies as well as state drama companies which are of an international standard.

The Trust’s role was largely over by the time Coombs retired from its chair in 1974. He must have seen the formation of the Australian Council for the Arts as a relief over the Trust’s possible conflict of interest in its role as adviser to government and as an entrepreneur involved with commercial managements.

His legacy was not only arts. He was also passionate about Aboriginal welfare. When he died in 1997, the Governor-General, Sir William Deane, paid tribute to him: ‘He was a visionary who had a tremendous effect on the shape of our society. We are all in his debt.’


Image credits

All images from Elisabeth Kumm Collection, except where noted.


1. David Marr, Theatre Australia, July 1977

2. Jeffrey Joynton Smith, Trust’s General Manager, Theatre Australia 1977

3. David Marr, Theatre Australia, July 1977

4. Tim Rouse, Arguing the Arts, 1985


Leslie Rees, The Making of Australian Drama 1973

Hal Porter, Stars of Australian Stage and Screen, 1965

Charles Lisner, The Australian Ballet, Twenty One Years, 1984

John West, Theatre in Australia, 1978

David Marr. ‘The Peanut Problem’ from Theatre Australia, July 1977

Richard Fotheringham, Performing Arts Policy in Queensland in the 1990s

Tim Rouse, Arguing the Arts, 1985