School of Arts (Brisbane)

“The promotion and extension of cultural interests was the raison d’etre for The Brisbane School of Arts” (Guide to the Records of the Brisbane School of Arts).  The School of Arts was Brisbane’s first institution established to cater for the cultural needs of the developing colony.  It had its beginnings in 1849 when meetings were held in the North Brisbane Court House (Guide to the Records of the Brisbane School of Arts 2).  Brisbane’s first colonial performance venue, the School of Arts, was never referred to as a theatre even in its day.  It opened in 1851 on the corner of Queen and Creek Streets on the site where the National Australia Bank stands today.  It was later moved to an Adelaide Street site where it subsequently changed its name to the Bijou Theatre, the Albert Hall, and the Gaiety Theatre.  The first School of Arts building was considered to be inadequate and was replaced in 1866.  “Owing to some error of nomenclature committed by its founders, the rickety old building which has within the last few months been removed was known as “the School of Arts”.  Even its best friends disputed its right to such a title” (Brisbane Courier 9 June 1866: 4). 

The new building was officially opened, after two postponements necessitated by inclement weather, on 17 June 1866.  The Queen Street front of the building included four shops and two offices and was the main entrance to the hall.  Access was also possible from Creek Street.  The hall was 80ft by 40ft and could house between 800 and 1000 patrons (Brisbane Courier 19 May 1866: 5).  “Next to the large room of the Town Hall, it is, without doubt, the most handsome public building in Brisbane….The only part of it which offends, or even which does not please the eye, is that monstrously ugly pepper-box, or, as some may call it, cupola, placed on the most prominent part of the building” (Brisbane Courier 19 May 1866: 5). 

This building launched the institution into financial difficulties; the supposed revenue to come from the shops at the front of the building was not forthcoming and they remained empty and the hall was not popular.  The financial woes of the organisation led to the sale of the site in 1872 to the Queensland National Bank (now known as the National Australia Bank) for £8000 (Guide to the Records of the Brisbane School of Arts 2).  The organisation purchased the Servants Home situated on Ann Street for £1000 in 1873 but did not move the library into the building until May 1878 (Guide to the Records of the Brisbane School of Arts 2).  The booklet entitled “The Brisbane School of Arts Centenary: 1849-1949” provides useful details about the organisation’s history as well as details of membership numbers:

Year

No. of members

1879

659

June 1882

903

June 1885

1449

1889

1605

1919

2040

1927-8

3075

Membership dropped severely during the Depression sending the figure almost back to 2000 (Hunter 39).  The School of Arts was an icon of culture; its presence perhaps demonstrating a developing cultural sophistication in Brisbane.