Art centres and the Indigenous art debate - Art Collector

Issue 49, July - September 2009

No matter what was included in the recently completed Aboriginal Art Code of Conduct it was bound to be a controversial document. A case in point is the provision for non-cash payment of artists by dealers. Given that the history of payment in kind – including the swapping of artworks for second-hand cars and alcohol – has sometimes been one of exploitation, Carrie Miller asked Lydia Miller from the Australia Council, which was responsible for managing the development of the code, to explain the decision to allow for non-cash payment. One of Australia’s leading art experts, Michael Reid, takes issue with the provision.

Christina Davidson
Chief Executive Officer, Association of Northern, Kimberley and Arnhem Aboriginal Artists

Art centres are the most reliable, secure and ethical source for acquiring art made in remote Indigenous communities. They are unique Indigenous enterprises, which have evolved to serve the specific needs of artists who work in these contexts, and are still the most effective model to support art in communities. It is of course a different matter when it comes to art produced by Indigenous artists living in cities, whose art is often marketed directly through reputable commercial galleries in the same way as other contemporary artists, with the gallery usually holding exclusive representation of the artist in that city.

There are some very direct benefits for collectors in purchasing art sourced from not-for-profit community art centres. Art centres offer guaranteed authenticity and provenance for art works (verified by certificates, systematic cataloguing, biographies and documentation). They also give important assurance that 100 per cent of money received on the first sale goes directly to Indigenous artists.

Collectors who wish to buy high quality art works are definitely best placed to start looking for works first sourced from art centres. This is because art centres provide a number of conditions for artists that are conducive to quality production. For example, they are usually located on country close to the intellectual and cultural source of the artwork, artists are not pressured to produce quickly and they maintain complete artistic control over production. Art centres ensure that artists are provided with quality art materials and/or assist them to gather authentic local materials such as ochres, barks and pandanas.

Art centres also sustain quality production by supporting the research and cultural activity that informs, and is at the heart of, great art emerging from remote contexts. This may be done by facilitating such activities as bush trips and return-to-country journeys planned by artists, assisting to organise activities intimately connected with visual production such as performance of dance and song, and sometimes by helping artists visit museums in Australian cities or overseas to view historical art from their region. Such activities contribute to the depth of art which has generated such extraordinary results in the internationally acclaimed contemporary Indigenous art movement.

Art centre staff living in communities are in a position to overcome language difficulties in documenting art through extensive dialogues with artists, so that documentation is produced that facilitates public understanding of artworks. This documentation adds depth and richness to the experience of viewers and adds value to the cross-cultural experience of art, as well as in the best instances also creating important records and stories for artists to pass on to their children and grandchildren.

Collecting art which has been originally sourced from art centres also offers other measurable gains which can be less immediately obvious. When collectors purchase art sourced from art centres they are doing more than just acquiring the object, they also build their investment through contributing to long-term sustainability of the industry. Art centres provide essential arts infrastructure and have the resources to invest considerable time in professional development for artists in remote communities.

Art centres sustain Aborginal art for the long-term. There is no equivalent to the art centre model in the non-Indigenous art world and it is very important that recognition is given to their rich and multiple functions.

Art centres are small businesses that sell and distribute art. They are also commonly: art studios and workshops; resource centres for artist members; cultural knowledge, maintenance and exchange centres; managers of museums and keeping places; and although not usually named as such, should be counted among the leading art schools nationally, where elders have educated successive generations of new artists and presided over the ongoing renaissance of Aboriginal art.

Since the 1970s community art centres have been central to the production and marketing of Indigenous Australian art, especially art produced in remote Indigenous communities. Aboriginal owned and operated art centres emerged in the era of Indigenous self-determination and in response to strong community need. Nationally their numbers have grown from a handful in 1970 to an estimated 16 in 1980 to over 100 Australia-wide today.

It is important that the art centre model is not seen as a static fixed structure limiting growth and innovation, limiting artists enterprising independence. Art centres are varied and constantly evolve so as to embrace both the democratic advantages of the centre and the free will and enterprising ambition of the individual.

Art centres remain the most effective model of support for art production in communities. Continuing requests from artists to start new art centres to support their practice are strong testimony to the fact that they are the first choice for the majority of artists, providing them with all-round support, career development assistance and helping them to achieve important cultural maintenance goals.

Founded in 1987, the Association of Northern, Kimberley and Arnhem Aboriginal Artists is the peak body for Aboriginal artists and 42 Aboriginal-owned art centres located in the Top End and Kimberley, an area which spans over 840,000 square kilometres, 80 different language groups and approximately 3000 Aboriginal artists. ANKAAA is governed by a board of 12 Aboriginal artists from communities across the regions. ANKAAA was the first of the four peak organisations for art centres, which now include Desart (Central Desert region), Ananguku Arts (the APY Lands of South Australia) and the more recently started UMI Art (Queensland).

Adrian Newstead
Director, Coo-ee Aboriginal Art Gallery

When visitors walk down Todd Mall in Alice Springs or enter an Aboriginal community for the first time, their initial reaction is likely to be horror. Sitting in the street displaying the demeanour of those under the influence of alcohol, Aboriginal people appear to be impoverished and utterly bereft of comfort. The thought that that they may be well-known artists prompts the immediate assumption that they are being “ripped off” and those who interact with them lack compassion, are exploitative, the cause of their misery, certainly not their allies. But like all first impressions, it is not just black and white and in the grey area between there is plenty of room for wild imaginings and mythconceptions.

The Aboriginal arts industry has been a modern miracle. Art is the biggest income earner in many communities after welfare and mining royalties; a goose that laid a golden egg. The sale of Aboriginal arts and crafts, worth just $900,000 to the Australian economy shortly after Geoffrey Bardon left Papunya in the mid 1970s, was more than $100 million by the beginning of the current millennium. The number of galleries involved rose from just 15 in the mid 1980s to the hundreds that operate today. They now include a vast number of galleries that know little of the history of the movement. No less than 30 of the top 50 artists of all time produced the vast majority of their work as independent artists. Many others chose to work throughout their careers outside of any art centre or representative relationship. This includes a number of the past chairmen and many of the shareholders of Papunya Tula. Today more than 5000 individual artists practice but no more than 800 in the history of the movement produced works of consequence. Less than 100 have accumulated secondary market sales in excess of $100,000. The few artists that make thousands of dollars a year disburse their income widely, reinforcing the impression that they receive little from their art practice.

While community art centres are valuable resource organisations there are literally hundreds of artists living throughout Queensland, New South Wales and states alongside those desert and Top End artists that attempt to forge independent careers by developing their own relationships outside of communities. Despite the protestations that tribal people are safer and better off living in remote communities, many Aboriginal leaders point to a future in which increasing numbers of well educated, ambitious and motivated Aboriginal people live increasingly outside of their communities and return only on important occasions. Those that wish to manage their own lives should be given every opportunity to do so free of paternalistic, separatist and neo-colonialist interference.

Those who seek to confine all Aboriginal people to places proximate to their land do them an enormous disservice. Aboriginal people have been semi-institutionalised, confined and isolated on country that white people simply didn’t want. Many live in the hope that they too, can become modern nomads in vehicles paid for through their art, just as successful independent artists of the past managed to escape the confines of sedentary life in communities overburdened by “sorry business” as and when it suited them.

The campaign to skew the market toward works produced only in art centres is a shameful one. Desart, ANKAAA [Association of Northern, Kimberley and Arnhem Aboriginal Artists] and those ACGA [Australian Commercial Galleries Association] members who promote and support it are prejudicing the livelihoods of hundreds of artists and their supporters. By insinuating that the provenance of independently produced works is unsafe, they undermine more than 50 per cent of the art currently being produced and a vast number of works created in the past that are sold through outlets other than elite exhibiting galleries and auction houses. In the process, they create prejudice toward hundreds of businesses and thousands of individuals who support artists through the sale of their works. In promoting this narrow interpretation of safe provenance and ethics, they exploit white guilt by staking out the moral high ground. In the wake of the prejudice they generate, art collectors who have bought perfectly good works for which artists have been fairly remunerated are compromised, and their collections are devalued. New collectors seeking a way through the ugly politics are dissuaded from purchasing, while those who enter into real and supportive relationships with Aboriginal people are compromised and their businesses threatened. This includes many dealers of Aboriginal heritage who market the work of their own relatives and countrymen as they make the first steps toward running their own businesses.

For almost 30 years I have been one of the most trenchant supporters of community art centres. Yet I see no incompatibility whatsoever with my support for the artist independence. The goose that laid the golden egg was a free-range goose. Its success lay in its freedom. The call to put the goose back in its pen may be well intentioned among some, but among its most ardent supporters is a desire to keep all those golden eggs to themselves. They should be thoroughly ashamed.

Adrian Newstead is the former head of Aboriginal art for Lawson-Menzies and former managing director of Deutscher-Menzies. Owner of an Aboriginal specialist gallery since 1980, he is currently completing a book on the history of the Aboriginal arts industry, due for publication in 2010.