Ethically Sourcing Aboriginal Art & How to be Certain of Provenance - Art Collector

It is critical for both artists and the Australian art industry that the adverse issues surrounding the sourcing and provenance of Indigenous art be minimised. Carrie Miller looks at the various ways collectors can be certain pieces for their collection are ethically sourced.

It’s well-known that as the demand for Indigenous art has increased, so too has the number of art dealers who employ dubious tactics to obtain such work – a situation compounded by the remoteness and poverty of rural Aboriginal artists and their communities.

Buying from a recognised art centre is one way of ensuring you’re buying an authentic work of art acquired through ethical means. Art centres are Aboriginal-owned and managed businesses that operate with the specific aim of facilitating and supporting the ethical creation, distribution and collection of Indigenous art within remote communities and via representatives in all of Australia’s capital cities and some of the major regional centres. John Oster, executive officer of Desart, explained to me the importance of their function: “Importantly art centres are owned and operated by Aboriginal people – the artists themselves. This means fundamentally that the integrity of artworks is authenticated by the governance procedures of that organisation. Art centres are often the only viable enterprise on communities and fulfil a wide range of community roles.”

Aboriginal art centres are more than mere shopfronts for the sale of work then. Not only do 100 per cent of the returns from the sale of artworks go directly back to Aboriginal artists and their organisations, they perform a range of functions which provide support for Indigenous artists in a culturally sensitive way. As Christina Davidson, executive officer of the Association of Northern, Kimberly and Arnhem Aboriginal Artists (ANKAAA), has put it: “Art centres are small businesses that sell and distribute art. They are also commonly: museums or keeping places; art studios and workshops; cultural knowledge, maintenance and exchange centres; and while they are often not named as such, are among the leading art schools nationally – where elders have educated successive generations of new artists and presided over the ongoing renaissance of Aboriginal art.”

To further guarantee the integrity of Aboriginal art centres, a number of peak advocacy bodies have been established to support the centres, their activities and the artists themselves. The main organisations are Ananguku Arts and Culture Corporation, ANKAAA, Desart, UMI Arts, Kimberley Aboriginal Artists, as well as the newly founded Western Australia Aboriginal Art Centre Hub which, combined, cover most art centres and the various Indigenous regions they represent. As Tim Tracker, co-ordinator of KAA, describes the primary purpose of that organisation, KAA links: “a network of community-based art centres that assure the artist, their art centre and community of the sale’s benefits. All artwork produced by Kimberley Aboriginal Artists has cultural integrity and enduring provenance.”

Acquiring work directly from art centres or their representatives is therefore the obvious safe bet for primary market purchases. But there are some secondary market dealers (including auction houses) that also trade in works of good provenance which have been obtained through ethical means. So, while the various Indigenous art centres, established to ensure that Indigenous artists were protected from the exploitative practices of the past (that unfortunately still persist today) are the ideal source for Indigenous work, there are also reputable galleries trading in such work. As Paul Sweeney, manager of Papunya Tula, has previously told this magazine: “The work should trace back to an art centre but it doesn’t necessarily mean that it has to be bought from that art centre because that art centre may have representation, as most art centres do, in galleries in most cities”. If you do buy from galleries Sweeney suggests that collectors “talk to the dealers or the art galleries that they’re buying the work from … people need to be asking questions and talking to gallery owners and finding out a bit more about where artists come from and how they should go about buying their paintings”.

Of course, galleries with formal ties to art centres are the most reliable source of work, but this is not to say that all galleries outside the art centre loop are necessarily unethical operations.

At first glance it would seem self-evident that those advocating the purchase of Indigenous artworks from outside of the Aboriginal art centre model would be the gallerists who themselves operate outside of the system – and certainly these gallerists have taken issue with the belief that art centres are the only legitimate source of Indigenous work. Their principle arguments, while not necessarily antagonistic to a codified Indigenous art industry, are that a regulated system may inadvertently lead to the adoption of “paternalistic” or “prescriptive” approaches that may be antithetical to the artist’s “self determination”; that may not take into account the reality of artists and agents/dealers “working relations”; and that it may be “undemocratic” to prescribe how artists are to be paid for their work.

There are also Indigenous artists who share some of these opinions and concerns. Some artists, in submissions to the draft Indigenous Australian Art Commercial Code of Conduct, raised the following issues: the feeling that they have “little practical control of their art centre and decisions made on their behalf”; difficulty obtaining representation for their work as “certain key people [within art centres] are only interested in representing very few high end artists”; a disinclination to be “confined to exclusivity”; and a desire to “work where they want” and the freedom to “sell to whom they want”.

The reality is that some Indigenous artists “move around a lot and for significant periods of time”. They therefore may be in circumstances where they desire to sell their work but are unrepresented in the locations they find themselves in and are constrained by exclusivity contracts or agreements with art centres that they have not attended for some time due to their proximity.

Given that there are some circumstances where it may make sense to purchase Indigenous work outside the art centre model, it’s important to remember that if you’re looking to buy Indigenous art and are concerned with questions of authenticity and integrity, then the onus is on you to do your research about the gallery you’re purchasing from. There are a few key questions that a collector should ask which are likely to ensure they are acquiring high quality, ethically sourced work of good provenance: Where does the gallery source its artworks? Is the artist’s name, their art centre and a catalogue number noted on the work? Can the gallery provide an artwork certificate for the work? What is the method of payment for the artist and what percentage does the artist get from the sale? Is the product made in Australia?

While a work sourced outside the art centre loop is not necessarily a work of poor provenance, provenance can be used to determine if a work of art, most particularly Australian Indigenous art, has come to be offered for sale via ethical sources. Provenance tracks a work from its initial creation to its arrival on the art market and subsequently through its ownership history. Just because a work is by an artist who comes from a community with an art centre but hasn’t originated from that centre does not necessarily mean that it’s unethically sourced. But if this is the case, you need to do your research – find out where it originated and what kind of business relationship the artist had with the entity that acquired it.

In simple terms, an unethically sourced work is one where it is proven that the artwork has been obtained by any one or a combination of dubious means. As Elizabeth Tregenza, general manager of Ananguku Arts and Culture Corporation, has described the practice: “The typical example of unethical dealing would be an external dealer trying to lure an artist away from an art centre through cash payments or payments in kind, in some cases offering [4WD cars]. Or trying to convince an artist’s family to take an artist away from an Art Centre.”

The first and most obvious thing to ask yourself is, if you didn’t purchase your work from one of the recognised Aboriginal art centres, did you ask the right questions of the dealer or seller at the time of purchase? The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has suggested that consumers seek the following information before buying a work: the name of the artist and their language group or homelands; the title of the work and when and where it was created; the details of any story it tells or other cultural information; whether the artwork was created by one artist or collaboratively by two or more artists; if it was collaborative, who the other artists were; whether the seller has a good reputation either in the art industry generally or in the Indigenous art industry; and whether the seller is a member of a reputable industry association or a signatory to any industry code of practice.

It’s important to remember that while it may be vital for the wellbeing of Indigenous communities for collectors to purchase works through ethical means, it is also the case that by doing so, collectors are giving themselves the best chance to buy work that will appreciate with confidence. As Christine Scoggin, coordinator of the Western Australian Aboriginal Art Centre Hub, reminds potential collectors: “The Aboriginal art industry is highly unregulated. Therefore, smart collectors will only buy works that are well provenanced with a certificate of authenticity and legitimate proof of sale. Without this documentation, the value of any particular work may increase in a theoretical sense but the ability to re-sell the work at that value will be hampered. Buying artworks from Aboriginal art centres not only ensures that the money paid goes to directly support the artist and his/her community, but it also guarantees that the work purchased is of the highest provenance.”

ANKAAA’s informative brochure Australian Aboriginal Art – A Consumer Guide, published in four languages since 2005, is an invaluable resource for collectors looking to investigate how to source Indigenous art. To download it visit:

Published in the Guide to Indigenous Art Centres, April 2010