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Frances and Gough - theatre, politics and volunteering over 45 years

Female Orphan School volunteer Frances recognised the 1974 newspaper advertisement in our new exhibition: “We did something like that.” And then, a moment later: “Oh, this is it. I was there, I’m in this photo.”

Frances at the Female Orphan School, 2019

Frances at the Female Orphan School, 2019

Featuring in Dedicated to the Dedicated: Whitlam, the Arts and Democracy, the advertisement in the Australian newspaper proudly declares support for Whitlam on behalf of more than 200 members of Australia’s arts community: ‘We artists have been given the chance as never before to make our work relevant to our community.’

The Australian, Saturday 11 May 1974

The Australian, Saturday 11 May 1974

It’s just one part of a story of mutual and fruitful support between Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and Australia’s artistic community in the 70s. The exhibition shows how Gough Whitlam viewed the arts as not just as a means of enriching quality of life, but as a fundamental human right and a precondition for a healthy democracy.

The highlight of the exhibition is the Whitlams’ Folio, a unique object being displayed in public for the first time. Gifted to Gough and Margaret Whitlam in 1979 in recognition of their landmark support for the Arts in Australia, the Folio includes works by John Olsen, Brett Whiteley, Lloyd Rees, John Coburn, Arthur Boyd and more, and is inscribed with a message of thanks to Gough and Margaret Whitlam for ‘the marks they have made on the Australian canvas’.

Frances told us she pitched in $10 to help fund the advert, which was authorised by the late Ken Horler, a noted barrister, civil rights campaigner and theatre aficionado. The artists listed include John Bell, Les Darcy, Tom Keneally, Frank Moorhouse, David Malouf, Liz Mullinar, Jacki Weaver, among many others.

She remembers the photo shoot. “It was on a building site near the then-new Nimrod Theatre in Surry Hills (later renamed Belvoir Street Theatre). It was rough underfoot and the photographer was perched on a nearby wall. But we were all happy to do it.”

Frances was working as Box Office Manager at the Nimrod Street Theatre at the time. “The Whitlam Government was supported strongly by people in the theatre industry because of the support given to the theatre and arts generally. When Gough and Margaret had attended a Nimrod performance, they had to push through quite a crowd of supporters.” 

Forty-five years later the advert is on display at the Female Orphan School, where Frances has volunteered for nearly six years. She’s passionate about this remarkable heritage building, now home to the Whitlam Institute and the Margaret Whitlam Gallery, and with a yellowed photo of her now on display, things have come full circle.