Fifty years ago, in the spring of 1973, two cultural milestones occurred within a month, and both resonate to this day.
The first time was on September 24, 1973 when then Prime Minister Gough Whitlam announced the purchase of Jackson Pollock’s Riot of Color and Movement. blue poles, for the new national gallery. The headline that appeared in The Sydney Morning herald The next day (a “bargain” for a $1.3 million painting) was much more generous than the one that came a little later daily mirror (Barefoot drunks painted our $1 million masterpiece!).
Three and a half weeks after this announcement, thousands of people gathered in and around Sydney Harbor as the Queen declared the Sydney Opera House open. This moment came 16 years after Finnish designer Eero Saarinen allegedly selected sketches by relatively unknown young Danish architect Jorn Utzon from the scrap heap. Finally Sydney had its own opera house.
We all know what happened next. Blue poles became one of the most valuable works in the National Gallery of Australia’s collection and is now valued at US$500 million. And the Opera House has become a World Heritage masterpiece, a community gathering place and one of the world’s premier performing arts centers, with a social asset valued at more than $6 billion. Those of us who work as stewards like to think of it as the symbol of modern Australia.
But as we prepare to celebrate the opera house’s 50th anniversary, it’s instructive to ask if Sydney has the capacity, imagination and courage to repeat such a bold, adventurous experiment. In other words: could we have built the opera house today? It’s easy to see just how different Australia will be in 2023 from 1973, from the regulatory environment to the nature of public debate to the technologies available to us all.
So maybe we should ask the question a little differently. How can the spirit be measured that made the opera house come into being in the first place? Under what conditions could this improbable vision become a reality?
Of course, there were debates about the name, the design, and the building process itself, and it went over budget sevenfold. But when the first stone was turned in 1959, a boundary was drawn in the sand. The Prime Minister who transformed that stone, Joe Cahill, promised a building that would help shape a “better and more enlightened community”, and his idealism reflected what this project meant for Australia’s largest city.
The mere existence of the opera house was a clear statement of our priorities. Far from shying away from culture, this was a country willing to erect a monument to creativity at its most conspicuous stage, not somewhere deep in the CBD or along the Bay or even at Mrs Macquarie’s Chair, but at Bennelong Point. right next to Circular Quay in the glittering heart of the city and harbor known to its traditional keepers as Tubowgule. The message was clear. This was a country that valued culture as a fundamental part of our identity. As with the Pollock purchase, this was a country willing to bet on itself when it came to art. (And did it matter that two of our most famous music creations, AC/DC and Cold Chisel, also originated in the same months?)