Gough Whitlam 1916–2014

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Gough Whitlam, 21st Prime Minister of Australia, has impacted the lives of every Australian, whether they realise it or not. He ended conscription, recognised Aboriginal land rights and introduced universal health care. I, for one, can thank him for my tertiary education, which may well have been out of financial reach had he not abolished university fees. And the art world also has much to thank him for. It seems almost impossible to fathom now, but his approval of the purchase of Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles, in 1973, created a scandal. The National Gallery of Australia was only able to authorise purchases up to $1 million, so Blue Poles, at $1.3 million (a world record for a contemporary American painting), required Whitlam’s approval. The purchase brought into question the perceived financial ineptitude of the government and elicited public debate about the value of abstract art. Blue Poles is on permanent display at the NGA now, but I first saw it at the Art Gallery of NSW during its first showing. I don’t remember how I got there—I can only think that my mother took me—but I do remember the long line of people waiting to view it. The line snaked out of the front door and down the steps, and we had to wait patiently, shuffling along until it was our turn in front of the great work. I loved it then and I love it now. As for Gough’s investment, Blue Poles has gained status as one of the major works of abstract expressionism, is significant in terms of Australia’s politics and history, and is now valued at many more millions of dollars than the purchase price.