Arts Flashback

To celebrate Arts Victoria's 40th anniversary we've hit the archives
and uncovered some choice moments in the development of
Victoria's arts sector.

Click on the images below to view the stories and photo galleries, share them with others, and find out how Victoria grew to be the arts and cultural powerhouse it is today.


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Bell-bottoms, handlebar moustaches, platform shoes, our daring approach to fashion (and facial hair) belied an era of serious social change and political drama in 1970s Australia.

We scrapped the White Australia Policy and welcomed an era of multiculturalism. Aussie troops were withdrawn from Vietnam, and in 1975 our PM was controversially dismissed.

We had more leisure time that ever before. Norm coaxed us off the couch with Life. Be in it and we got fit. But when we weren't out BMXing, ten-pin bowling or roller-skating, we were listening to Skyhooks and Sherbet, tuning into the new world of FM radio, and watching Number 96 on our brand new colour TVs.

Here in Victoria, a creative community of artists, craftspeople, theatre-makers and musicians were laying the foundation of the mighty independent arts sector we enjoy today.

Premier Rupert Hamer put the arts firmly on the Government's agenda with the creation of Australia's first state Ministry for the Arts. Its first priorities? Getting the construction of Southbank's Arts Centre complex moving, creating a chain of regional performing arts centres, and bringing art out into the public.

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Race Mathews at the Science Museum, 1983
Race Mathews at the Science Museum, 1983


Race Mathews becomes Arts Minister

1982 brought a change of government in Victoria and with it a new Minister for the Arts, Race Mathews. After an early career as a primary school teacher and speech therapist, Race embarked on a political career that would span 25 years.


After serving as private secretary to the then Leader of the Federal Opposition, Gough Whitlam, he was elected to the Australian Parliament in 1972. Following the dismissal of the Whitlam Government three years later, Race had a stint as private secretary to the Victorian Leader of the Opposition, before becoming State Member for Oakleigh in 1979.

When the Cain Labor Government was elected in 1982, Race was appointed Minister for Police and Emergency Services and Minister for the Arts. He held these portfolios for five years.

A passionate supporter, and regular attender, of the arts, one of his earliest arts memories was the second Melbourne Film Festival in 1953.

"The first Melbourne Film Festival was at Olinda and I missed it: I was just out of school and didn't know about it! I read a glowing review of it in The Age and swore to myself I wouldn't miss the next one!

"It [the second festival] triggered a lifelong enthusiasm for the movies. That experience played its part in my priorities as Minister for the Arts.

"I also remember [flamboyant Australian actor and theatre figure] Frank Thring's productions at Arrow Theatre in Middle Park in the 1950s – particularly his Oedipus Rex and Othello."

Though it was an area of personal interest, Race did not expect to be Minister for the Arts.

"I had shadowed Economic Development in Opposition. Right up to the morning when the Cabinet was settled, I expected to be Minister for Economic Development. I was called to see the Premier who informed me I was to be Minister for Police and Emergency Services.

"I said: 'This is no time to be joking!' But he said, 'No, we need a diplomat to get on with the police and you are the only one we have.' If this was the way it had to be, I wanted the Arts as a balance. It was a brilliant combination."

Race cites securing Spoleto Melbourne – Festival of the Three Worlds (now Melbourne Festival), the opening of the Melbourne Concert Hall, and the Easter Fairs at the Meat Market Craft Centre as highlights of his time as Arts Minister, as well as a memorable New English Shakespeare production at the second Spoleto Festival.

"[Another highlight] was when a South American puppeteer [Aldo Gennaro, brought to Melbourne by Arts Access] undertook a series of workshops – including a set piece performance in the Arts Centre. The final outcome was excellent. He redefined the whole notion of puppetry for me and probably for most people in this city."

On the policy front, Race says access and inclusion were his focus.

"[Access and inclusion] applied to both participation in the arts and consumption of the arts. For example, the introduction of the requirement for subsidised companies that affordable tickets be provided.

"They also figured in the support for the expansion of the community theatre groups."

Employment in the arts was another keynote.

"On the employment side, support for [manager of the Ministry's Community Development Unit] Sue Clark to put in bids for Federal and State Government funds, led to the establishment of the St Anne's Community Resource Centre in East Melbourne – the Job Creation Scheme. This enhanced opportunities for both employment and the arts."

Race says community arts blossomed at that time, crediting Clark, who is now Head of the VCA's Centre for Cultural Partnerships. Other people who had a significant impact included Dinny Downie at Arts Access, Marjorie Johnson at the Meat Market Craft Centre, and Russell Grimwade and Patrick McCaughey at the National Gallery.

Of the latter he says: "It was a very stimulating relationship with the Gallery. Patrick was very good at extracting money from the Trustees for controversial purchases."

That relationship took on a different dimension in August 1986 when one of the NGV's most prized works was stolen from the gallery, less than a year after it was purchased. Picasso's Weeping Woman was taken by a group of self-described Australian Cultural Terrorists, as a protest about a lack of funding opportunities for local artists. It was found days later in a locker at Spencer Street station.

To this day Race doesn't know who the Australian Cultural Terrorists were but he does concede that the NGV's security arrangements at the time were deficient.

Race's greatest regrets of his term as Arts Minister include the failure to get the Meat Market Craft Centre on a viable financial footing, "… one of the apples of my eye … I think the crafts are very much the poorer for its demise"; being unable to keep [founder and director of Anthill Theatre] Jean-Pierre Mignon in Victoria, "the most innovative director in Australia and we let him slip through our fingers"; and not doing enough for municipal libraries.

Reflecting on the strength of the arts in Victoria and its leadership nationally at the time, Race says it came from being ahead of the pack.

"It was in Victoria that the idea of an arts portfolio first arose, it was in Victoria that an arts portfolio was first established and it was in Victoria that the most extensive and sophisticated structure of the portfolio was developed. It was established and held for a significant period by the Premier as Minister. And as a consequence of all that we had, I think it is fair to say, the most effective voice nationally."

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