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Land of Opportunity: Australia's post-war reconstruction

Cultural reconstruction

Before World War II the involvement of the Commonwealth Government in the cultural life of Australia was quite limited. There were only two national cultural institutions. Since 1923 the government had provided funding for the Commonwealth National Library, an offshoot of the Parliamentary Library. After it moved to Canberra in 1927, its collections and services gradually became accessible to researchers and the general public. In 1925 the government formally established the Australian War Memorial and its monumental building was opened in 1941. Ever since Federation, there had been calls for the creation of a national gallery. The Historic Memorials Committee was established in 1912, but for a long time confined its activities to commissioning portraits of notable Australians. In 1938 it took a broader view and authorised the Art Advisory Board to purchase valuable art works that should be secured for the national collection. As a result of this decision, paintings by artists such as Frederick McCubbin, Blamire Young and E Phillips Fox were acquired in the immediate post-war years for the future national gallery. In 1967 the government finally committed itself to building the National Gallery of Australia.

In March 1945 John Dedman issued a statement stressing the importance of the educational, cultural and community aspects of reconstruction. He claimed that they were the essential counterpoint to plans for jobs, homes and rising living standards. A number of staff in the Reconstruction Division and the Department of Post War Reconstruction shared this belief in the cultural dimension of reconstruction. As early as 1941, Flora Eldershaw suggested that reconstruction plans should include the fostering of literary, aesthetic and cultural interests in the life of the nation. She pointed out that bodies such as the National Theatre Movement, the Guild of Australian Composers and the Fellowship of Australian Writers had made submissions urging government encouragement of literature and art. In later years officers of the department's Public Relations Division, in particular Lloyd Ross, Ulrich Ellis and Colin Dean, urged the government to increase its support for cultural activities. In 1948 Ross wrote of the revival of cultural activities during the war, with large numbers of people attending orchestral concerts or taking an interest in Australian literature. Post-war reconstruction would be incomplete if this wartime renaissance was not expanded continuously.

In November 1944, acting on the advice of Lloyd Ross and Colin Dean, Coombs recommended to Chifley that a cultural council be set up to advise the government on possible participation in cultural activities and to broaden the appeal of these activities 'so as to assist the people's movement'. Curtin and Forde were sympathetic to the suggestion and in the early months of 1945 an inter-departmental committee considered the proposal. It suggested that a Commonwealth Cultural Council be created to advise the government on cultural developments, prepare proposals for the government on cultural matters, and control and make grants from a trust fund to assist cultural organisations. The Treasury representative on the committee was scornful of the vagueness of the term 'cultural activities', which could cover an enormous field, and he dismissed the possible use of public funds to finance 'village glee clubs'. Chifley, who by then was no longer the Minister for Post War Reconstruction, was equally unsympathetic. In May 1945 he told Dedman that he doubted whether the Commonwealth Government should 'sponsor a project of this kind at any time'. It certainly could not spend money during wartime on what was essentially a post-war proposal. More than 20 years were to pass before an Australian Council for the Arts was established, with Coombs as the first chairman.

Another post-war cultural proposal was summarily rejected by the Treasury. In 1948 the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Broadcasting recommended that an Australian Music Composers' Fund be created, along the lines of the Commonwealth Literary Fund. It would provide grants, pensions and fellowships to composers and assist with publishing and recording Australian compositions. HJ Goodes, an Assistant Secretary in the Treasury, rejected the Commonwealth Literary Fund analogy, claiming that Australian music enjoyed a sheltered market and composers needed less time for research and writing compared with writers. He was particularly concerned about precedents, with the risk of artists, singers, instrumental musicians and actors all expecting Commonwealth assistance.


The Treasury, however, was not always obstructive. In September 1944 the departments of Information and Post War Reconstruction organised a films conference that recommended the establishment of an Australian National Film Board. The board would promote and coordinate the production, distribution and importing of films for use in education, rehabilitation, social development, immigration, trade and tourism. The functions were closely linked to post-war reconstruction and Treasury officials were supportive. An inter-departmental committee discussed the proposal and its report was approved by Cabinet in May 1945. The board held its first meeting on 25 June 1945.

Colin Dean and other Post War Reconstruction officials had looked to the Canadian National Film Board as a model and envisaged the board being a corporate body, with its own staff, carrying out the functions of production and distribution. The Department of Information was more concerned with building up its own production unit and was less interested in distribution or the acquisition of films produced overseas. Its views generally prevailed and the National Film Board functioned largely as an advisory body, especially after the position of Film Commissioner was left unfilled in late 1946. The National Library accepted responsibility for acquiring overseas films and distributing them to film societies, libraries and other organisations. The Film Division of the Department of Information, led by Stanley Hawes, concentrated on production and by the end of 1953 it had produced more than 150 films. It employed some outstanding writers and producers, such as John Heyer, Colin Dean, Maslyn Williams and Catherine Duncan.

Literature and theatre

Government support for Australian literature had begun in the most tentative way with the establishment of the Commonwealth Literary Fund in 1908. For 30 years it provided modest pensions for elderly or infirm writers or their families. Following representations by John Curtin and JH Scullin, major changes took place in 1938. The size of the fund was tripled and an advisory board was appointed, comprising writers and librarians. In addition to the pensions, fellowships were awarded to writers so that they could buy time to undertake the research and writing of major books. In the period 1940–50, fellowship holders included not only established writers, such as Mary Gilmore and Miles Franklin, but also emerging writers like Dymphna Cusack, Kenneth Mackenzie, Judith Wright and John Morrison. The Commonwealth Literary Fund Committee also made grants to publishers to assist in publication of particular works, made grants to literary magazines, and sponsored annual lectures at universities to promote the study of Australian literature. The scope of the fund's activities remained largely unchanged until it was superseded by the Literature Board of the Australia Council in 1973.

The campaign for a national theatre, or a national theatre company, aroused widespread public support in the wartime and post-war years. The government received numerous proposals and submissions from the National Theatre Movement, the Council for the Encouragement of Music and Art, the People's Council for Culture, the JC Williamson Company and various theatres, as well as influential individuals such as LF Giblin (who consulted JM Keynes on the subject), Douglas Copland, HS Nicholas and Les Haylen. The Inter-Departmental Committee on Education, chaired by RC Mills, considered these proposals in 1947. Taking the view that a national theatre company was more important than a building, it argued that a government-supported company would enable Australians to see live drama, including Australian plays, produced to the high standards found in overseas countries. It recommended the establishment of a National Theatre Board, responsible to a minister, with funding of £25,000 in the first year. The company would be based in either Sydney or Melbourne. Dedman supported the proposal, but Chifley was unimpressed, fearing a national theatre could be 'a sink for public money'. He thought the first task should be extending cultural activities in Canberra. In April 1948 he convened a meeting of cultural bodies in Canberra to discuss assistance for the development of the arts. As a result of these talks, a Committee for Cultural Development was set up in 1949 and grants were made to the Canberra Repertory Society and other organisations.

Coombs did not give up the idea of a national theatre and quietly plotted with local representatives of the British Council. They arranged for Chifley to see one of the Old Vic Company productions and hear the views of Laurence Olivier on a national theatre. In 1949 the British Council brought the director Tyrone Guthrie to Australia and he wrote a brief report on an Australian national theatre. Although his proposals met with a mixed reception, Chifley became more accommodating. Coombs, Mills and Goodes suggested that a trust fund of £60,000 be set up, to be administered by a National Theatre Board with Commonwealth and state representatives. The Commonwealth would provide half the funds and also pay for scholarships for actors and technicians to train overseas. The plan was discussed at the premiers conference in August 1949 and approved by Cabinet in October. Three state governments subsequently agreed to contribute, but the scheme foundered when the Chifley government was defeated. It was revived in a different form when the Elizabethan Theatre Trust was established in 1954.


The immediate post-war years were an exciting period in orchestral music in Australia, largely due to the commitment of the Australian Broadcasting Commission. Led by Charles Moses, its General Manager, and William James, the Controller of Music, the ABC had established studio orchestras of varying sizes in all the state capitals by 1936. Most of them provided public concerts in addition to their radio work. During the war there was a surge of popular support for these concerts, with huge numbers queuing for the Beethoven Festival in Sydney in 1943. In July 1944 the American conductor Eugene Ormandy completed a report for the Prime Minister on the need for large permanent orchestras in Sydney and Melbourne. He suggested that the government take advantage of the many European musicians who were living in Australia. Curtin and the state premiers were mildly supportive, but it was left to Moses to bring about changes. In 1945 he began negotiating with state governments and city councils to create six permanent symphony orchestras. In January 1946 the Sydney Symphony Orchestra was established, with annual commitments of £20,000 from the New South Wales government and £10,000 from the Sydney City Council. In the next five years similar arrangements were made in each of the capitals. The ABC operated as a nation-wide concert agency and introduced celebrity concert series, concerto and vocal competitions, and youth concert series. It also brought famous overseas musicians to Australia: Eugene Goossens (1946), Lili Kraus (1946), Solomon (1946), Isaac Stern (1947), the Boyd Neel Orchestra (1947), Otto Klemperer (1949) and Elizabeth Schwarzkopf (1949). Together with Musica Viva, which was founded in 1945, the ABC had transformed the performance of classical music in Australia by 1950.

The establishment of UNESCO in 1945 (see chapter 29) also led to a greater involvement by the Commonwealth Government in Australian cultural life. The Commonwealth Office of Education, headed by RC Mills, coordinated UNESCO activities in Australia and the selection of Australian delegates to UNESCO conferences. In 1947, 12 national coordinating bodies were set up, including committees on libraries, films, music, drama, literature and the visual arts. The members of the committees were predominantly representatives of state institutions and non-governmental organisations, but there were a few Commonwealth representatives as well. They discussed UNESCO conference resolutions and draft conventions, and specific issues ranging from the operation of copyright law to the promotion of Aboriginal art.

Series: A2700
Appointment of seventh member of the Australian National Film Board, 30 April 1945 834
Australian National Film Board, 20 November 1945 834B
Book Publication Committee, 4 June 1946 1174
General educational and cultural activities, 5 November 1946 1256
Assistance to the publishing industry, 10 December 1946 1274
Assistance to the publishing industry, 10 December 1946 1274A
Assistance to the publishing industry, 5 April 1948 1274B
National Theatre Company, 25 October 1949 1652
Australian Broadcasting Commission

Correspondence concerning establishment, administration and staffing, including orchestras, radio programs and concerts.

Series: B2111
Australian composers and compositions, 1941–48 (6 parts) MUS 22
Myer free concerts, 1938–46 MUS 28
Melbourne Philharmonic Society, 1937–48 (5 parts) MUS 40

Files on policy, regional administration, concert policy, program policy, artists and other subjects.

Series: SP613/1
Sydney Symphony Orchestra, 1945–47 6/1/3
Sydney Symphony Orchestra: personnel, 1943–56 (2 parts) 6/1/7
Victorian Symphony Orchestra: personnel, 1944–56 6/2/2

Files on policy, regional administration, concert policy, artists and other subjects.

Series: SP724/1
Sydney Symphony Orchestra: establishment of permanent orchestra, 1944–46 (2 parts) 6/1/1
Sydney Symphony Orchestra: Advisory Committee, 1946–61 (4 parts) 6/1/2
Sydney Symphony Orchestra: recordings, 1944–56 6/1/9
Commonwealth Office of Education
Series: A1361
Correspondence on Australian National Theatre, 1946–55 (3 parts)

Papers and correspondence of RC Mills on a National Theatre, including letters of HC Coombs, AS Brown, HJ Goodes, Dorothy Helmrich, F Clewlow and C Wilmot.

Meetings of Australian National Theatre Committee, 1947–55 (2 parts)

Minutes and papers of the Inter-Departmental Committee on Education and letters of RC Mills, WJ Weeden, AS Brown and others concerning proposals for a national theatre.

Committee on Publishing Industry, 1948–50

Records of the Committee on the Publishing Industry (RC Mills, HL White, A Day), set up by Cabinet in 1948, which considered measures to assist Australian publishers and authors.

6/5/1 Pt 1
Publishing Industry Committee – report to Prime Minister's Department, 1950–51

Drafts and final report of the Publishing Industry Committee, submitted to the Prime Minister's Department in July 1950.

6/5/5 Pt 1
Committee on Publishing Industry, 1946–48

Records relating to the Inter-Departmental Committee on the Publishing Industry, set up in 1947 and chaired by AS Brown, which considered various measures to assist the Australian publishing industry.

6/5/6 Pt 2
UNESCO: Australian Committee for Visual Arts – minutes, 1948–59

Minutes, proceedings and correspondence of the Australian Committee for Visual Arts, one of the national cooperating bodies represented on the Australian National Advisory Committee for UNESCO. The 1948–52 meetings were chaired by J Burke and H Missingham.

16/32/4 Pt 1
UNESCO: Australian Committee for Visual Arts – Conference of Art Specialists, 1948
Agenda papers, proceedings, resolutions and correspondence of a conference (September 1948) of art specialists of the state education departments, chaired by TL Robertson. Its purpose was to exchange ideas on the teaching of art and consider ways of implementing UNESCO resolutions on the place of art in general education.
16/32/6 Pt 1
Department of Information

Records relating to administration, film production and distribution, administration of the Australian National Film Board, overseas broadcasts, tourism exhibitions and publications, and immigration publicity.

Series: CP815/1
Australian National Film Board – general correspondence, 1945–48 (2 parts) 023.01
Australian National Film Board – S Hawes (policy), 1946 023.14
Australian National Film Board – training school, 1945–46 023.18
Department of Post War Reconstruction
Series: A9790
Cultural Council and National Theatre, 1943–49 (2 parts)

Correspondence and minutes concerning a national theatre and the proposed Commonwealth Cultural Council, including the report of the Inter-Departmental Committee on a National Theatre (1947) and letters of JB Chifley, HC Coombs, L Ross, RC Mills, C Dean and G Johnson.

Council for the Encouragement of Music and Arts, 1941–48

Correspondence and other papers concerning the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts, established in Sydney in 1944, and the British Council, which began working in Australia in 1945. The correspondents include Dorothy Helmrich, HC Coombs, L Ross, AS Brown, Margaret Sutherland and B Heinze.

Series: A9816
National Film Board conference, 1944
Records relating to the proposed Australian National Film Board, including minutes of a conference (September 1944) and letters of HC Coombs and L Ross.
Australian National Film Board: establishment, 1944–46 (2 parts)
Records relating to the establishment, functions and policies of the Australian National Film Board, including reports, minutes of meetings, and letters and minutes of AA Calwell, JB Chifley, EG Bonney, HC Coombs, C Dean and UR Ellis.
Department of the Interior
Series: A431
Cultural facilities in the ACT: provision, 1948–58 (2 parts)
Correspondence between JB Chifley, HV Johnson and Sir Robert Garran concerning Commonwealth assistance for music, drama and the arts in Canberra and the formation in 1949 of the Committee for Cultural Development.
Series: A463
National Art Gallery, Canberra: policy, 1929–55
Correspondence (1944–45) between J Curtin, JS Collings, JB Chifley and HV Johnson about recommendations of the Historic Memorials Committee on the construction of a national gallery.
1967/3976 Pt 1
Department of Trade and Customs
Series: A425
Assistance to Australian publishing industry, 1946–48
Letters to the Prime Minister and the Department of Trade and Customs and other records concerning the problems of the Australian publishing industry, particularly the use by newspapers of imported syndicated material.
Prime Minister's Department
Series: A461
National symphony orchestras and theatres, 1944–47
Proposals for orchestras and a national theatre, including a report (July 1944) by Eugene Ormandy and letters and minutes by J Curtin, FM Forde, J Martin, EG Bonney, LF Giblin, DB Copland, HC Coombs and others.
AK 344/1/12
Aid to Australian composers, 1947–52
Records concerning a recommendation of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Broadcasting in 1948 that a fund be established to assist Australian composers with publication, recording, fellowships and other means.
BC 344/12
Development of Australian art: encouragement, 1946–47
Correspondence concerning a proposal of the People's Council for Culture for the commissioning of paintings and sculptures in Australian public buildings.
BD 370/1/4
Will Ashton's scheme for encouragement and development of Australian art, 1946–47
Minutes of meetings of the Art Advisory Board and Historic Memorials Committee referring to the acquisition of Australian works of arts for a future national gallery.
BH 370/1/4
Historic Memorials Committee, 1947
Minutes of a meeting of the Historic Memorials Committee referring to the acquisition of works for the future national gallery, including a painting by Frederick McCubbin.
O 370/1/11
Art Advisory Board, 1946
Minutes of meetings of the Art Advisory Board and the Historic Memorials Committee referring to the proposal of Will Ashton that competitions be held to encourage the restoration of 'the Australian spirit in art'.
P 370/1/11
Cultural Council, 1944–46
Statements by J Curtin and JJ Dedman concerning cultural aspects of reconstruction and Commonwealth support for a national theatre, national orchestra and cultural development.
X 387/1/1
Series: A571
National Theatre, 1944–54 (2 parts)
Correspondence and minutes concerning proposals for a National Theatre, the Inter-Departmental Committee on a National Theatre (1947), negotiations with the British Council, and Tyrone Guthrie's report (May 1949) on a national theatre. The correspondents include JB Chifley, HC Coombs, HJ Goodes and RC Mills.
Australian National Film Board, 1944–47 (3 parts)
Records relating to the establishment and functions of the Australian National Film Board, including reports, minutes of meetings and letters of HJ Goodes, R Foster, EG Bonney and UR Ellis.
Commonwealth Cultural Council, 1945
Letters and minutes of JB Chifley, AC Joyce and J Brophy concerning the proposal for a Commonwealth Cultural Council and discussions at an inter-departmental meeting chaired by L Ross.

Further reading

Adamson, Judy, History of the Australian National Film Board 1945–1967, typescript, NLA MS 9963.

Alomes, Stephen, 'The search for a national theatre', Voices, vol. 3, no. 3, 1993, pp. 21–37.

Andrews, Barry, 'The Commonwealth Literary Fund and the Literature Board, 1908–1980', Australian Cultural History, no. 1, 1992, pp. 59–69.

Buzacott, Martin, The Rite of Spring: 75 years of ABC music-making, ABC Books, Sydney, 2007.

Green, Pauline (ed.), Building the Collection, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2003.

Guthrie, Tyrone, 'Report on Australian theatre', Australian Quarterly, vol. 21, no. 2, 1949, pp. 78–83.

Moran, Albert, 'Nation building: the post-war documentary in Australia (1945–1953)', Continuum, vol. 1, no. 1, 1987, pp. 57–79.

Remington, GC and Metcalfe, J, 'The Free Library Movement – 1935–1945', Australian Quarterly, vol. 17, no. 2, 1945, pp. 87–97.

Stout, AK, Making Films in Australia, Australian National Film Board, Sydney, 1946.

Tunley, David, William James and the Beginnings of Modern Musical Australia, Australian Music Centre, Sydney, 2007.