As applications were invited for a director of the National Institute of Dramatic Art, 22 leading arts figures wrote two weeks ago to its chairman, Malcolm Long, expressing alarm at the "apparent dismissal" of Aubrey Mellor, NIDA director for three years until told last November his contract would end at the end of 2007.
Signatories to the letter include Neil Armfield, John Bell, Cate Blanchett, Andrew Upton, Judy Davis, Colin Friels, George Miller, Robyn Nevin, Geoffrey Rush, Fred Schepisi and Hugo Weaving.
Praising Mellor as Australia’s finest acting teacher, they suggest he should become the artistic director and work alongside a new administrative head.
The letter follows more than two years of internal drama at NIDA, involving Mellor, the general manager, Elizabeth Butcher, and three consecutive chairmen: David Gonski, Jillian Broadbent and Malcolm Long.
In 2004, shortly before Gonski retired as chairman, John Clark retired as NIDA’s director. Along with Butcher, he had run the institution for more than 30 years.
The duo was keen for Clark’s successor to be the freelance director Gale Edwards, but the selection panel was unanimous in its choice of Mellor.
Mellor believed Butcher would retire within six months of his appointment. Not so. In 2006, Broadbent, then chairman, asked Butcher when she was going to retire. This remark galvanised NIDA staff to organise petitions on her behalf. Butcher and Broadbent did not get on; Broadbent quit the board last May. Butcher, close to her 70th birthday, is still there. She told PS yesterday she would retire this year, but remain involved, organising NIDA’s 50th anniversary next year. Clark didn’t vanish either – the former director joined the NIDA board in 2006.
Mellor also remains at his desk. He is on the staff list, albeit with no title, and is slated to direct a play there this year.
So many histories intertwined add up to a spot of bother for Long, the former executive director of the Australian Film Television and Radio School who succeeded Broadbent last May at NIDA’s annual general meeting. At that time several new NIDA directors were elected, among them Clark’s friend, the former senator Chris Puplick.
It doesn’t look like Armfield and co will have their way, as, under a planned restructure, the new NIDA director will be both an artistic and administrative head. The job advertisement calls for "an energetic and inspiring chief executive" with "artistic vision and strategic management skills". He or she will need them.
Applications close on Monday.