The Art of Friendship
by Amy Walters
When I was leaving school and professed my intention to study a Bachelor of Arts, my teachers and some extended family members told me I was wasting my time. Do something concrete, they said. Something that will actually get you a job and an income. But that’s not the point of a university education, I argued back. I want to study subjects that enrich my existence and engagement with the world around me.
Cultural institutions face a similar dilemma. How do they communicate the value of their work, when their primary value is intangible? It’s great that scientists at the CSIRO patent technological inventions. It’s great that government-funded research institutions are also striving to cure cancer. But isn’t it wonderful to preserve and reflect on our cultural heritage, so that both ourselves and future generations can understand our place in national and world history?
‘Friends organisations’ are one way that cultural institutions can keep the public and their funders on side. Some Friends bodies, such as those run by the National Museum of Australia and the National Portrait Gallery, are run internally, but others are external and incorporated, such as the Friends of the National Library of Australia Inc. Externally-run bodies are able to speak publicly in support of their institutions or to raise awareness of the impact of budget cuts, which museum staff, as public servants, are unable to do. Having a network of supporters in the community is also a convenient way for cultural institutions to highlight their value to government.
Friends of the NLA is a vibrant body of passionate individuals and is a good example of how Friends organisations can nurture a sense of community. In addition to getting discounted tickets to official Library events, they also hold their own events and gain privileged behind the scenes access. For the Library, it is beneficial to have a strong supporter base in the community who can advocate for the Library’s interests. Friends have also helped to fund some of the Library’s work, including sponsoring travelling and creative arts fellowships, and supporting the digitisation of The Canberra Times
In a happy coincidence that made researching this article less time-consuming, my mentor Sue Terry happens to be the Secretary of Friends of the National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA). She advised that recently the Friends of the NFSA wrote a letter to the Editor of the Canberra Times to raise concerns about the stark disparity between the funding received by the Australian War Memorial and the amounts received by other cultural institutions. Friends of the NFSA also contributed to the parliamentary inquiry into Canberra’s cultural institutions that has been running throughout the year. (The Friends of the ABC are another group not afraid of making their views on the broadcaster’s purpose and future known to the government).
Sue also passed on to me a handy volume called Not Without A Fight: The story of the Friends of the National Museum of Australia. The development of the National Museum of Australia has a long and checkered history, and its Friends body has been instrumental in advocating for both its establishment and direction. Plans for a national museum date back to before Federation, but it wasn’t until 1974 that Gough Whitlam got the ball rolling. He asked Peter Piggott to conduct a review of Australia’s existing museums, culminating in the release of the Piggott Report in November 1975, which identified a site at Yarramundi Reach. A few days later, Gough Whitlam was sacked in the infamous dismissal. After falling in and out of favour with various governments over the following decades, the museum finally opened at the former site of the old Canberra Hospital on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin in 2001.
The museum’s Friends — a group established in 1989 with the involvement of Australian actor Jack Thompson – was formally incorporated in 1990, and played a critical role in its establishment. When progress instituting the museum stalled under the Hawke Government, the Friends established a National Circle of eminent people, including Margaret Whitlam and Quentin Bryce, who advocated publicly for the museum. Over a number of years the Friends held Open Days at the Yarramundi site, and organised events in Sydney and Canberra to raise awareness of the need for a fully-fledged national museum.
The museum drew controversy upon its opening in 2001, and the tenure of its Director, Dawn Casey, was short-lived. In 2003 a major review of its exhibitions was announced, which culminated in the release of the Carroll Report. Friends mobilised to provide submissions and engage with the review. Then in 2008, the federal Parliament’s Joint Committee on Public Accounts and Audit held an inquiry into the effect of budget cuts on “smaller agencies.” As the Museum had a budget of less than $150 million, it was included in the review. Again, Friends provided submissions and gave evidence which was reflected strongly in the committee’s report. In 2012-13, cultural institutions were exempted from a further efficiency dividend of 2.5 per cent.
In 2013, the direction of the museum changed which lead to the absorption of the group back into the museum’s internal structure. Following their dissolution, the Friends gave $80 000 to the museum for new acquisitions.
It is possible that the National Museum we know today would never have come to fruition without the work of its Friends. It drew ire from some quarters during the height of the culture wars, and has weathered budget cuts and efficiency dividends. Throughout all of these times, its Friends body provided the necessary advocacy and public mobilisation, and today remains a valued institution, architectural landmark, keeping place, and repository of research and cultural outreach. Just like my arts degree, the museum pushes me to consider my place in both Australia and the world, and my existence is richer for it.
Thank you to Kathryn Favelle and Melanie Olde at the National Library of Australia for assisting me with research. And of course to Sue Terry, helpful as always.