H.C. ‘Nugget’ Coombs 1906-1997
H.C. ‘Nugget’ Coombs
The most influential arts administrator this country has so far produced was born in the Perth suburb of Kalamunda, Western Australia, on 24 February 1906.
He became a teacher and studied arts at the University of Western Australia.
Making dreams come true
‘I do not know where Dr Coombs’ vision came from,’ wrote John Sumner. ‘It is interesting that, like John Maynard Keynes (who was behind the formation of the Arts Council of Great Britain and became its first chairman), Dr Coombs was an economist. Perhaps this gave both men an appreciation of the true value and purpose of money and how it should be used for the general good. They also had something else in common: both were influential figures in government circles. This leads to an important point. In Australia, as in the UK, if a champion of the arts is close to the head of government, the arts will flourish; conversely, the lower the arts portfolio is relegated, the less will the arts prosper. Proof of this is seen in the decline in the fortunes of the Australia Council, and of the arts ministries in various states, when the arts are lumped in with several other portfolios and, even worse, appointment to the resulting ministry is referred to as a demotion. Fortunately, when Dr Coombs decided to commemorate the visit of the Queen, his love of the arts came to the fore and the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust was formed. Fortunately also for the arts, their champion, as well as being Governor of the Commonwealth Bank, had worked under Prime Ministers Curtin, Chifley and Menzies: he was experienced and influential in the political world. He was a remarkable and humane man.’
The most influential arts administrator this country has so far produced was born in the Perth suburb of Kalamunda, Western Australia, on 24 February 1906. He was christened Herbert Cole Coombs, but he hated both ‘Herbert’ and ‘Bert’ and was not particularly keen on ‘Cole’. But he really liked his affectionate nickname, ‘Nugget’.
A scholarship enabled him to study at Perth Modern School. He became a teacher and studied arts at the University of Western Australia. At that stage in his life Coombs was not particularly interested in the performing arts, though he acted in Shaw and Barry plays at teachers’ college, and heard Melba sing and saw Pavlova dance when they visited Perth.
In 1932 a further scholarship took him to the London School of Economics where he completed a PhD on central banking. He was greatly influenced by the economic theories of John Maynard Keynes, whose dissertation General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money Coombs described as ‘the most seminal intellectual event of our time.’ He was a frequent visitor to the Old Vic, seeing classic and contemporary drama, ballet and, somewhat less receptively, opera.
Delivering the 1991 Kenneth Myer Lecture Photograph courtesy National Library of Australia nla.pic-an23352296
John Andrews: ‘H.C. Coombs’, in Companion to Theatre in Australia. Currency Press, 1995
John Andrews and Katharine Brisbane: ‘Guthrie report’, in Companion to Theatre in Australia,Currency Press, 1995
H.C. Coombs: Trial Balance, Macmillan, 1981
Helen Musa: ‘Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust’, in Companion to Theatre in Australia, Currency Press, 1995
Leslie Rees: ‘National theatre’, in Companion to Theatre in Australia,Currency Press, 1995
John Sumner: Recollections at Play, Melbourne University Press, 1993
The Australian Elizabethan Trust – The First Year, AETT, 1956