Do art centres have a future? - Art Collector

Issue 53, July - September 2010

The demise of the Jirrawun Art Centre has raised fresh questions about the purpose of community-owned Indigenous art centres and how they should be run reports Carrie Miller. At the heart of the debate is the role played by art centres in supporting emerging Indigenous artists.

The recent decision to wind down Jirrawun Arts – an art centre once described by arts writer Jeremy Eccles as the “Rolls Royce of new systems for the management of Aboriginal art” ­­– brings into focus the tension that exists between the competing aspirations and expectations at work in the marketing of Aboriginal art: is Aboriginal art-making a commercial or a cultural activity? From its inception, Jirrawun was held up as a model to which other Aboriginal-run art centres could aspire: entirely self-funded and paying its artists retainers for their services. In 2007 things were so good that the building of its new $475,000 studio was financed completely from painting sales. But this year a decision has been made by the board of directors to “wind down” the operation and sell the art centre’s property.

Why the sudden downturn? The short answer lies in the non-traditional business model which underpinned Jirrawun. According to art critic Susan McCulloch, quoted by Katrina Strickland in the Australian Financial Review, Jirrawun “really operated more like a private company than a community arts centre and its demise once its star artist (Paddy Bedford) died and manager Tony Oliver moved overseas proves how fragile that structure was”.

Unlike traditional Aboriginal art centres, Jirrawun was regarded by some as an attempt to give commercial interests primacy over the cultural while maintaining the quality of its product. Distinct from other art centres, it wasn’t community-based in the conventional sense and it moved more than once. (The new studio’s location was chosen because of its distance from Kununurra to prevent its artists being hassled for money or distracted by grog.) Jirrawun also focused on a narrow range of artists.

Historically, it could be regarded that the first time Indigenous Australians were concentrated in time and place to engage in cultural activities with the promise of financial gain was in northern South Australia in the late 1940s. The Aboriginal art centre phenomena as we know it effectively came into being at Ernabella in 1948, out of the need to find employment for Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara women from traditional wool spinning activity.

Similarly in the 1960s, Christian missionaries envisaged a situation where the cash economy could be introduced to remote mission communities. Their intent was to demonstrate the role of missions in the protection and preservation of the cultural vibrancy of Indigenous Australians via the production of artworks that were later distributed to missionary society shops in Sydney and Melbourne.

From the very outset then, two seemingly dichotomous forces ­– Aboriginal art-making as a commercial enterprise and Aboriginal art-making as a cultural activity – have been held in delicate tension.
Today, with the ever-expanding market for Aboriginal art creating fierce competition at the commercial end of Aboriginal cultural production, certain sectors of the urban art world bemoan having to deal in unknown and emerging Aboriginal artists via the type of group shows that art centres organise. These city dealers prefer instead to deal directly and exclusively with senior, high price-point artists with established careers, and believe it is their right to choose whose work they trade in. The experience of Jirrawun Arts, however, may prove that art centres – and subsequently commercial dealers of Aboriginal art, which do not nuture young talent – will create an art-making environment that is ultimately unsustainable.

As one art centre manager, Skye O’Meara of Tjala Arts, puts it: “Art centres are simply not sustainable if the income generated is dependent on one or two elderly artists. Galleries will always prefer to work with artists with established careers, they come with a far higher price-point so it’s [a] low-risk exhibition. Emerging artists, mainstream and Indigenous, may come with a financial risk for galleries and collectors but also with far greater reward in the contribution to building the career of an artists with a big future.”

Rather than painting for the market, O’Meara claims the artists she works with have successfully “invented the market and reinvent the market every year through every exhibition. The future of this market will be driven by the art making of the young and emerging artist.”
Against the view put forward by some urban dealers that they are unfairly at the mercy of art centres when it comes to what art they get to exhibit and sell, art centre managers argue that they work closely with galleries to develop strategies to help drive individual artists’ prices, as well as ensuring a fair split of high-demand work by major artists. Of course, art centres do expect loyalty in return: “We ask that the galleries support our emerging artists and promote the work to institutions and high profile private collections, to pursue media opportunities and to sell,” explains O’Meara.

In the end, commercial aspirations and cultural ones need not be at odds. According to O’Meara, art centres are often “the only source of non-government income” within a remote community, and simultaneously a place “where the intergenerational exchange of culture occurs on a daily basis” which, combined, is what makes them – and ultimately the Aboriginal art market – sustainable over the longer-term.