Over 150 Spectacular Years: The Wagga Wagga School of Arts

In celebration of this weekend’s opening of ‘Stagelights: 160 Years of Wagga Theatre‘, a joint exhibition between the CSU Regional Archives and the Museum of the Riverina, we thought we’d have a look at the history of the Wagga School of Arts. This post was previously published as one of our ‘At the Archives’ articles by Nancy Blacklow.

The School of Arts and Mechanics’ Institute, as it was known originally, first opened its doors to the public on the evening of 20 July 1859, following a month of planning and organisation to establish an institution which would provide educational and entertainment facilities for the then small town.

A group of the small town’s foremost figures led the new organisation, with local member of the Legislative Assembly, William Macleay, as its patron, and the town’s first resident doctor, Allen Bradley Morgan, as the inaugural president. More than 40 local people enrolled as members on the first night.

The Wagga Wagga Express confidently predicted a bright future, noting ‘…we have no hesitation in expressing our opinion that the inaugural meeting of the Wagga Wagga School of Arts was a decided success, and we have no doubt of the institution progressing favourably.’

In its first few decades, the School of Arts (having dropped “Mechanics’ Institute” from its title by the turn of the century) established itself as a permanent fixture for education and culture in the town. At the heart of its activities was a library and reading room, plus billiards and games facilities. The institution also fostered entertainment, debates, elocution classes, a literary club and chess club in its early years.

In the 1860’s a building had been erected on land fronting Johnston Street, with an extended frontage to Fitzmaurice Street in 1874. Major additions and renovations in 1901 resulted in the building which is still visible in Fitzmaurice Street. The Wagga Wagga and District Historical Society’s website have a number of photographs showing the exterior and interior of the building taken around 1900. Further rebuilding was undertaken in 1935 – the last substantial change until the sale of the premises in 1959.

Wagga School of Arts, 1960s
The Wagga School of Arts building in Fitzmaurice Street has undergone quite a few changes over 150 years. This photograph taken in the 1960s shows the remains of the ornate facade which can still be seen today [from the Lennon Collection, RW1574].
Significant changes in School of Arts activities took place in the 1940’s. In May 1946, the School of Arts handed over its substantial library collection to Wagga City Council for the establishment of a public library.

The 1940’s also saw the emergence of two groups which would be the central focus of the organisation from that time: the School of Arts Music Club started in 1944 to bring recitals by visiting and local artists until the mid-1970s, while the School of Arts Players began their ongoing theatrical presence with the first full-length performance, Home and Beauty, in May 1945.

Wagga School of Arts Players performing Hedda Gabbler in 1948.
A scene from Hedda Gabler in 1948 by Wagga Wagga School of Arts Players, Jean Blamey and Terence O’Connell [from the SoACT Collection, RW3170/374].
Over the past 60 years, the provision of theatre has consolidated the School of Arts’ central role in Wagga’s cultural life.

The School of Arts played a major role in the establishment of Wagga’s Civic Theatre. After several years of discussion and negotiation, the group sold its Fitzmaurice Street assets and handed over more than $100,000 to Wagga City Council towards the construction of the theatre.

When the new theatre opened in June 1963, the organisation had the honour of presenting the first public performance – the comedy Teahouse of the August Moon, complete with a jeep onstage testing out the new facilities.

Wagga Wagga School of Arts Players performing Teahouse of the August Moon
Scott Croaker and Louise Blackett in the first production in the Wagga Wagga Civic Theatre, ‘Teahouse of the August Moon,’ 1963 [from the Lennon Collection, RW1574]
In recent years, the School of Arts, now known as SoACT, has turned to its Basement Theatre (in the Civic Theatre), the Riverina Playhouse and a variety of local venues for its theatrical offerings. In 2009 SoAct celebrated 150 years with the publishing of a book (“150 Spectacular Years”) and an exhibition at CSU Regional Archives, and it continues to this day to maintain the aims of the institution formed so many years ago to enlighten, educate and entertain the citizens of Wagga Wagga.

The official opening of ‘Stagelights: 160 Years of Wagga Theatre’ will be 10:00am tomorrow at the Museum of the Riverina.  For more information, head over to the Museum’s website: www.museumriverina.com.au

2 thoughts on “Over 150 Spectacular Years: The Wagga Wagga School of Arts

  1. What a significant and wonderful part of Wagga’s history. It makes me sad to see how butchered the building is a street level. It should never have been allowed to happen.


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