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May 5, 2006

Jeff Kennett, arts messiah

While most commentators are wondering why he'd bother, should Jeff decide to make a comeback there would be more than a few, normally left-leaning, arts types in Melbourne quietly hop


While most commentators are wondering why he’d bother, should Jeff
decide to make a comeback there would be more than a few, normally
left-leaning, arts types in Melbourne quietly hoping that he pulls it

As premier and arts minister he did much to raise the profile of
the arts in Victoria and he certainly made life exciting for the arts
media. What endeared Kennett to so many people in the arts was the same
characteristic that also ultimately alienated a big chunk of the
electorate – his larger-than-life, crash-through-crash enthusiasm. Although it did lead to some alarming, ill-conceived
and downright eccentric decision-making.

Under the heading of alarming was his seat-of-the-pants 1998
declaration that the National Gallery of Victoria would purchase one of
finalists in the Contempora Art Award competition. Fiona Hall was the
judges’ choice but Kennett, particularly taken by the sound
installation by Nigel Hellier, instructed the NGV to buy Hellier’s
work – breaking the long-established convention that
politicians leave it to the arts advisers.

Under the heading of ill-conceived was his last minute decision to
house a gallery devoted to Australian art in Federation Square. Taken only weeks, if not days, before
the Fed Square plans were unveiled, it certainly wasn’t on the agenda
of either the architects or the NGV, which was forced to dramatically
restructure itself by splitting its operations into two separate

Nevertheless, history may judge that it was an inspired
choice. Fed Square is certainly popular and no one in the visual arts
can complain about the amount of space the NGV now devotes to
Australian art.

Under the heading of eccentric was a move that directly benefited, but
ultimately probably harmed, Crikey’s new Arts Correspondent. Back
in 1998, I was hosting a Melbourne-based arts program, Express, on ABC
TV. Despite various criticisms we’d made of him, he was one of
our biggest fans. When the ABC decided to axe the show, Jeff was so incensed that he
launched a state parliamentary inquiry into the ABC’s allocation of
resources – a more than novel action given that the state had
absolutely no authority over the federally funded broadcaster.

The inquiry provided us with a temporary reprieve but ABC management
was furious and never forgave me, so a year later, when the heat had
died down and Jeff had gone, I was shown the door.

Aside from a lot of
shiny public edifices – the remake of the NGV, Fed Square, Jeff’s
shed, the Melbourne Museum – it’s debatable whether Jeff improved
cultural life in Victoria, but as arts minister he definitely wasn’t
boring, which is more than can be said for arts policy in the Garden
State today.


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