The Whitlam Government provided unprecedented support to Australia’s arts sector, helping a generation of creative Australians to give voice to a new independent, confident and distinctively Australian cultural identity.
In his 1972 election campaign speech, Whitlam stated that his government’s arts policy would be guided by four cardinal objectives: ‘to promote a standard of excellence in the arts, to widen access to, and the understanding and application of, the arts in the community generally, to help establish and express an Australian identity through the arts and to promote an awareness of Australian culture abroad’. The purchase of Blue Poles is symbolic of the bold cultural shift; 'Never had such a picture moved and disturbed the Australian public.'
Created the Australia Council for the Arts | Established the National Gallery of Australia | Stimulated the Australian Film and Television Industries | Reformed Australian Radio and Introduced Triple J
Created the Australia Council for the Arts
Fulfilling a commitment made in his 1972 policy speech, Gough Whitlam created the Australia Council for the Arts as the Australian Government’s independent arts funding body. The Council was created with several specialist boards, to distribute funding in the areas of: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts; theatre; music; visual arts; craft; literature; film and television.
The government provided significant increases in funding to the arts through this new organisation by around 100% in its first year alone, and this led to a significant increase in creative output from the Australian arts community. The Australia Council continues this role today, providing government assistance for a diverse range of arts projects around the nation.
Established the National Gallery of Australia
The first steps to create the National Gallery of Australia began under the Menzies Government but had advanced very slowly under that, and subsequent governments. The Whitlam Government brought these plans to fruition. The contract for the construction of the gallery was signed in April 1973. Later that year, an interim gallery council was appointed by the government. The Whitlam Government created an Art Acquisitions Committee and the collection of works for the gallery began.
The committee attracted controversy through its purchase of Blue Poles, a work by the American abstract impressionist painter Jackson Pollock. The Whitlam Government’s authorisation of the purchase of the $1.1 million painting was seen by some as extravagant but by others as enlightened, bold and forward-looking. Whitlam publicly defended the purchase of the work, and defied critics by reproducing the work on his 1973 Christmas cards. The work is now widely regarded as one of the iconic artist’s best works. Estimates of its current value vary – ranging between 20 and 100 times what was originally paid for it.
Stimulated the Australian Film and Television Industries
The Whitlam Government saw the production of local film and television as an important part of the expression of a mature, independent Australian cultural identity. Accordingly, it provided significant support to the Australian film and television industries.
Whitlam’s government sought to provide increased support for local actors, film makers and producers by increasing the minimum Australian content requirements for commercial television networks. The ABC also conformed to these minimum content requirements, and was given a major boost in government funding to assist in the production of local television content.
The Australian Film Commission was created on July 7, 1975 and began making substantial grants to feature film, documentary, television and short film projects. It significantly extended on the support for the Australian film industry that began with the Gorton Government. This support contributed to the renaissance of Australian cinema that took place in the 1970s and 1980s, reviving an industry that had stagnated for decades. This support allowed the expression of a new confident cultural identity through film. Iconic and critically acclaimed films such as Picnic at Hanging Rock, Gallipoli and The Last Wave were produced with funding from the new Australian Film Commission.
The government also sought to foster the development of the Australian film and television industries by improving education and training opportunities. The centrepiece of this policy was the establishment of the Australian Film and Television School on August 31, 1973. Whitlam officially opened the school just two years later, and paid tribute to John Gorton for conceiving the idea for the institution.
Reformed Australian Radio and Introduced Triple J
The Whitlam Government supported Australian music by introducing minimum Australian music content for commercial radio stations. 10% of music broadcast by commercial stations was to be the work of Australian musicians. The Whitlam Government established 2JJ – now known as Triple J – as a station specifically designed to support Australian music and connect with young Australians. It began broadcasting on January 19, 1975.185 The Whitlam Government also introduced FM radio in 1974, allowing improved sound quality and the licensing of more radio stations. Multicultural radio services - 2EA Sydney and 3EA in Melbourne - were established and licenses were issued to community radio stations for the first time.