Moving Aboriginal art off the front page - Art Collector

Issue 57, July - September 2011

Almost a year since its launch, the Indigenous Art Code of Conduct finally has a CEO. John Oster spoke to Carrie Miller in the early days of his appointment about his plans to ramp up the code and his hope that it will ultimately put an end to the negative media stories about Aboriginal art and, more particularly, the airing of personal agendas in public forums.

If you relied on the mainstream media as a primary source of information about the state of the Indigenous arts sector, you would be very concerned indeed. A recent article in The Australian newspaper, for example, gave the impression that the industry was marked by entrenched conflicts between Aboriginal-owned art centres and private dealers and a generally negative view of the Code of Conduct for Indigenous Art.

John Oster, recently appointed as the first CEO of the Indigenous Art Code of Conduct, believes that one of the many benefits of the code will be to reduce the negativity currently circulating in the media. “There is a lot of negative press about Aboriginal art and every time that happens it affects all of us – it affects artists, it affects art support agencies, it affects the Australian public who are interested in Aboriginal art. Now the code provides a mechanism for people to have their complaints heard and have them dealt with and they no longer need to pursue their personal agendas in a public forum because the complaints can be dealt with under the code and the code has a board of committed professional people to deal with complaints so that it’s upholding good professional practice.”

While the general perception is that the code has been less than successful, Oster believes this view doesn’t allow for the facts. First, the code has been operational for less than a year. Second, it has had a CEO for only a few months. As a result, he sees the fact that there were 95 signatories before his appointment in April as a positive thing, considering that there was no formal mechanism for recruiting members or promoting the code generally.

Oster, previously executive officer of industry body Desart and with 20 years’ arts administration experience, aims to change this with the speedy implementation of a marketing and recruitment campaign that he claims “will ramp up the code enormously”.

Against the view there is widespread resistance to the code, Oster believes that it’s primarily an issue of awareness that needs addressing. He points to the fact that in his first month he spoke with 50 organisations and significant individuals and didn’t “receive a single knock back”.

His message is clear. “What we need to point out is that, across the board, this is an important industry reform. And it gives the industry, via the government through the senate inquiry, an opportunity to self-regulate.”

While his attention is focused on dealers in the first instance, Oster does recognise the importance of raising the awareness of collectors as well. Accordingly, he says the organisation will embark on a public awareness campaign. The organisation is currently developing publications and Oster is travelling extensively to meet with communities.

In the end, he hopes to communicate the real function of the code – that it’s essential to the health of the sector and Indigenous art generally. As he explains it: “There are two fundamental reasons for the code. The first is that artists get a fair go, not a special go, not a fairer than anyone else go, the same rights that apply to every Australian citizen through the Trade Practices Act. The second thing is that Aboriginal art is a national treasure, a national icon, and we have to protect the brand – we’ve got to stop trashing the brand.”
In a pointed reference to the unconstructive ways in which the Indigenous arts sector is represented in the press, Oster says: “We’ve got to get Aboriginal art off the front page of The Australian and back into the arts pages.”

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