What future for the Aboriginal art economy?

In the global economic downturn all artists are doing it tough. How will the Aboriginal art industry ride it out? A CRC project will attempt to come up with some answers.

 

By KIERAN FINNANE

 

In any picture of the Aboriginal economy, especially on remote communities, the art industry would have to be seen as the shining light, for the way that it has engaged large numbers of people, bringing them purpose, cultural prestige, income and opportunity.  So why is it, in particular, the subject of a seven year research project by the CRC for Remote Economic Participation?

It’s not the only focus for the CRC of course – there are 12 research areas all up – but Aboriginal Art Economies is a flagship project with a $1.5m budget and will run for the entire seven years of the CRC’s life, with the final years devoted to “rolling-out” the research findings in practical ways.

Perth-based research leader Tim Acker has hands-on experience of the industry stretching back 15 years. He was for instance a manager of the famous Warlayirti Artists in Balgo, WA and more recently was one of the co-founders of the Canning Stock Route Project, whose acclaimed exhibition opened in the National Museum in 2010 and has just concluded its stint at the Australian Museum in Sydney.

Mr Acker acknowledges that the Aboriginal art industry is the “single most obvious and long-term success story to come out of remote Aboriginal Australia”, but he says it is still “characterised at pretty much every point by some form of fragility”.

“The way art is produced, the community circumstances, the art centres, the connections between artists and galleries, the GFC and the overall downturn in the art market in the last few years, all those things have put into sharp relief that there is nothing fixed about the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art sector.”

Isn’t a certain amount of fragility inherent in creative activity no matter where it occurs?

Mr Acker agrees, there’s something about the creative process that is intangible, impossible to nail down. But he suggests that the inter-cultural space which Aboriginal art occupies, that accounts for some of its extraordinary success, is an additional fragility.

“The last thing you want to do is to reduce that, but some of the business models or the professional choices that artists make, the information the government is using, the kind of commercial forces at work, there is no doubt that those things are labouring under some old assumptions, or working with evidence that is being overtaken by reality. It’s that end of the deal that the art economies project is looking at.”

And some of fragility has come about because the industry it has been “too successful”, he says. For example, there are issues of over-supply and in this regard, the marketing of art on the internet has been a double-edged sword.

The double-edged sword of the internet

“Art production can pull the rug out from under itself. For example, there’s an enormous amount of ‘Aboriginal art’ online – you can buy anything from any famous artist at any time and that upends those well-established rules of the art market about exclusivity and scarcity.

“An artist can choose to paint for an art centre on Monday, a gallery on Tuesday, a taxi driver on Wednesday, the storekeeper on Thursday. That art can all arrive at the market in the same way, on the same day even. Then a customer or collector will see a high profile artist through one channel being suddenly sold for different prices through untested sources. That then becomes a real problem for the market. Collectors will get cautious and not spend and walk away from the sector as a worst case scenario.

“It’s one of the things that destablises the art market that has been such a success for Aboriginal people, but you also can’t deny the power and potential of the online world, particularly for remote Australia. So how do you forge a business model that manages to balance some of those tensions?  It’s somethign we’ll clearly be looking at over the next couple of years.”

In the first place though the team will be getting a handle on the scale and scope of the industry. To date there’s been no strong analysis of this. Estimates of the industry’s value “range wildly”, says Mr Acker, from $200m a year to $800m a year.

There have also been guesses about the value of merchandising and licensing activity based on Aboriginal art, with some guesses putting it at half of the overall industry’s value. If that’s even half true  “it represents enormous potential for artists, art centres or galleries, or new collaborations between designers and artists”, he says.

Solid research in this area could be very helpful to governments in framing policy. For example, at present Australia does not have a cultural imports policy. That enables all sorts of appropriated products to be imported from countries like Indonesia or China.

“If customs didn’t allow the import of dot-painted didgeridoos anymore then Aboriginal artists could fill that space.”

A tough way to make a living

The research on size and scope will also help test assumptions that an Aboriginal artist will be automatically successful or that painting is a great way to make lots of money. These assumptions exist as much in remote communities as they do in wider Australia: “Fine-grained information will give people a much clearer sense of how difficult it can be to be an artist, and particularly in the last few years, how tough it is as a way to make a living.

“But the research will also link financial questions with some of the other questions we’ll be asking about why artists produce – questions about well-being, mobility and so on. Art is an important contributor to people’s lives out bush, it’s not just about moving units and making money, it’s part of that hybrid economy that people live in, it’s about people being able to make a life in the community and country of their choosing, and that life includes painting as one of those choices, not the only choice.”

Some might argue that the market will sort the industry out, that it will settle at a more sustainable level after the current shakeout, and that artists will eventually get the message. Does government regulation necessarily have a role?

“The long term solutions are clearly in the market,” says Mr Acker. “Beautiful art is being produced and will continue to be produced. There will continue to be buyers and global and national interest in the market. The scale of that and the confidence and the amount of money in that system is anyone’s guess.

“Some of the mechanisms within the market are due for some change. The market is the only thing that can make them work in the long run, but that’s not to deny that there is a role for government, for instance in continuing to support remote practice, and a role for some sort of regulation. Whether the code of conduct in its current form is the right configuration is up for debate, as is the resale royalty scheme.”

That scheme, which the Australian Government has just funded for another two years, will be the subject of some research by the team. The feedback from the industry last year was that the scheme as well as changes to the way superannuation funds can be invested had contributed to the changed dynamics in the market. The project hopes to produce evidence, including financial modelling, on these issues that will be useful for both government and industry players.

Art centres vs private dealers

There is a lot of tension in the industry around the art centre model versus private sector models, especially where, for example, a dealer might choose to nurture some key artists who have previously been associated with art centres. The project will approach this issue with an open mind.

“Art centres are one form of agency which connect artists and audiences. They are obviously a key one and fundamental in many ways in this industry but it’s not an art centre project and several of our research questions are completely outside of art centres. There will be analysis of the way galleries and private dealers operate, but it won’t be approached as an ethical or judgmental analysis. They have a clear place in the art economy. Our interest is to understand the links between them and artists, to look at the way artists use and choose to move between the different models. Clearly artists, virtually since the very beginning in the early ’70s, have chosen to work in a number of different ways for whatever combination of personal, financial and strategic reasons.

“We also need to understand the scope and scale of the private activity. It’s one of the growth industries of Alice Springs and has been for years: how much work is produced in that space? It’s a question we hope to answer.

“If one of the results of our research is being able to provide artists with a little more information to improve or refine their choices or increase their bargaining position when they’re negotiating directly, then that could be a good outcome for everybody.”

There is some criticism of the art centre model, in its attempt to treat everyone equally, the suggestion being that that does not do justice to artists with the greater talent.

What makes for a successful art centre? 

The research will certainly be taking a look at the model as “a micro enterprise project”, which even the bigger art centres are, says Mr Acker: “We want to get a handle on the success and failure factors, why this community has a successful art centre and 100 kms down the road that community has never had one or what they have had has fallen over five times. We’re going to do that in three zones, one in the Western Desert, one in East Kimberly and a cluster in far north Queensland, to get some sense of the different forces at work, different funding, different maturity in the market and so on.”

There’ll be modelling of the scope and scale but also a look at examples of artists with successful careers, their relationship with galleries, how that works financially, artistically and professionally.

Prominent Melbourne-based gallerist Beverly Knight, for example, has had quite a few artists who have had long-term relationships with her, some who work for art centres, some not.

“Sally Gabori would a fantastic case study of an artist whose entire career has been closely linked with one gallery – Knight’s Alcaston Gallery – and she has been enormously successful.

“Some art centres choose not to have that sort of superstar thing going on, they are much more of a social enterprise, see their role as much more diffuse in the community and not just about nurturing individual careers. Those choices that art centres and artists are making are sometimes counter to the way the art market works, but they are not made lightly and I’m sure understanding them and their implications is important information for people to have.”

In Mr Acker’s experience has the social enterprise model limited what a really good artist could achieve, or do really good artists manage to succeed nevertheless?

“I think the latter. One of the challenges in this space is that for every example on the left someone could pull up an example contradicting that on the right. There is such enormous variability. Looking back at 10 or 15 years of working in this industry I can say there is nothing in the art centre model, as a non-profit community cooperative, that inhibits an artist from having a successful individual career, assuming good management, good support, good relationships. There are lots of things that have to happen for any artist to have a career and that is true or even more true for a remote Aboriginal person.

“On the whole the community cooperative has far more strengths than it does weaknesses. It’s not perfect but it’s being refined and it’s allowing extraordinary art to be produced from a dazzling array of artists.”

One area of the cooperative model that needs strengthening is human resources – another domain where the project wants to make a contribution.

Getting and keeping good managers 

“In remote communities generally, it’s really difficult to attract and retain good people. That hasn’t changed in the time I’ve been involved in this sector yet recruitment still follows a very formulaic and un-changed model. We’re wanting to look at what it is that makes a good art centre manager, what are the qualities and characteristics that support a good human resource situation in an art centre and I’m hoping that will open up better systems of orientation, training, better support of good quality managers. That  will obviously have a huge impact on the life and success of an art centre.”

All CRCs have an emphasis on user benefits. The art economies project has the next two years to focus on research and then the emphasis will be on roll-out, with some overlaps. In the human resources area, for example, the team could work with peak bodies or possibly a recruiting company, or both, to provide greater recruitment resources for art centre managers and boards.

“Part of our mandate is to create the resources or present the business models or offer some training, present the findings in ways that are useful to people. So we’re not going to get to 2016 and say, ‘Here’s the report, see you later’.”

The way some of the business models link artists, art centres and galleries is up for examination.

“Because artists can be linked to audiences in a much more direct way if they choose, some of the business arrangements are difficult for them: two commission arrangements, for example, one between the art centre and the artist, the other between the art centre and the gallery. For some artists that is probably not the best option. We’re looking at a business model that tries to find some way to equalise that a bit so that artists can make a range of choices without disadvantaging themselves, their art centre or their career.”

There is also a research question looking at how Aboriginal art is marketed.

“We’ll be examining the way art audiences behave, at the way consumption and taste are understood. This could lead to improvements and change to the way Aboriginal art is marketed, both online and otherwise, and to different ways for state support to occur. There’s been some preliminary work done in the west, looking at new art centres in particular and one that’s slightly more established. There’s a growing amount of evidence that they carry out a lot of the work that would normally fall to other government departments like health and justice, yet they continue to attract only a very small amount of art-based funding.

“Some art centres succeed in sometimes attracting funding from other sources but overall FaHCSIA are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on programs that have been arguably far less successful than art centres, yet art centres are producing outcomes that are clearly in that space.”

‘Stories don’t sell art’

Beverly Knight has told the Alice Springs News Online that the old emphasis on “story and the artist’s Aboriginality and cultural identity” in the marketing of Aboriginal art is outmoded.

“That is not what it is about at all for the contemporary consumer. Stories don’t sell art, the aesthetics sell art. Where story is important is in the motivation and inspiration for the artist. People may have that deep cultural knowledge but their work is not selling. People who were collecting for that reason are no longer collecting, trust me, they’re not. The contemporary collector is looking at the aesthetics. We exhibit in Korea for instance. Being Aboriginal means nothing over there. What they want to know is ,’Is it fresh?’. This is what remote artists have over other people. They can actually come up with something totally different.”

Responding to this from his personal experience, Mr Acker refers to the many layers within the Aboriginal art sector, from tourist art to top level fine art that goes to auction houses: “There are crossovers and blurry lines between each, yet each has their own dynamic. I think what Beverly is talking about is true at certain levels of the market, yet only certain numbers of artists are working at that level.

“There is a growing number of possibilities in the more social enterprise type art centres, like Tangentyere, Tjanpi, Martumili to name a few. They produce interesting, valid pieces of art that will probaly never make it to the Sotheby’s auction but what their art is driven by is a very strong cultural engagement and what people are buying it for is stories. Margaret Boko’s paintings are an example. They are dealing with some pretty confronting issues in Alice Springs and have an audience that is interested in what she is talking about. They have a content that drives part of the market.

“I don’t think there’s a single way to categorise the industry and say people aren’t interested in content anymore. People overseas might not be interested in that work but there will always be people in Australia who are.”

Mr Acker mentions as another example the History Paintings by Warakurna Artists that were donated by art collectors Wayne and Vicki McGeoch to the National Museum. It’s interesting in this context to quote the museum’s Dr Mike Pickering about them: “The experience of the National Museum of Australia has shown that this is the sort of exhibition the public wants. Works characterised by artists’ own narratives. The donors have recognised the importance of the artists’ voices in communicating the meaning of their art. They have seen beyond the surface to the rich stories of culture, history and biography that the works encapsulate. In this they are to be congratulated for their openness and foresight.”

Says Mr Acker: “The history paintings have taken those artists in a different direction, even if it’s only for a little while, but that art centre still has artists who are very successful in the fine art market. The two don’t cancel each other out, they are different layers within the market.”

In the context of looking at art centres as micro enterprises, the project will also try to get a handle on a new layer of interest that many are encouraging, and that is work in multi-media by young Aboriginal people, particularly young males.

“We also have a research question which is about the community factors, the personal factors that are conducive to an artist producing work. Interviewing some of those young guys about why they’re producing videos will overlap with the micro enterprise project and might lead to some insight into what are the risks and the benefits of supporting non-traditional forms. It’s a very open-ended new question.

“There’s a million things people want to know and there’s only a few of us and a finite amount of time. We won’t be able to answer all the questions but I hope we answer well the ones we do and so help reduce the number of uncertainties in the sector.”

 

Photos, from top:

•Nancy Nyanyarna Jackson working on her painting in the Warakurna Artists studio. Photo by Rhett Hammerton

• Tim Acker speaking at the recent Same But Different forum in Alice Springs, about innovation in desert arts. Either side of him are Jo Foster from Tjanpi Desert Weavers (left) and Carly Davenport, co-founder of the Canning Stock Route Project. A painting by Margaret Boko is in the background.  Photo by Lisa Stefanoff, co-convener of the forum and a researcher with the Aboriginal Art Economies project.

• Among those attending the forum were (centre front) artist Marlene Rubuntja from Yarrenyty Arltere Art Centre in Alice Springs, and manager of the centre,  Sophie Wallace. Photo by Lisa Stefanoff.

• Desert Mob 2010, with paintings by Tjala Artists in the foreground. Photo from our archive.

• Desert Mob 2011, with soft sculptures by Yarrenyty Arltere artists in the foreground. Photo from our archive.

• Margaret Boko at work at Tangentyere Artists studio. Photo from our archive.

• Tjanpi weavers do inma (song and dance) at Tandanya in Adelaide.  Photo courtesy Tjanpi Desert Weavers.

• A story painting by Margaret Boko (detail), commissioned last year for the Darwin Festival. Photo from our archive.

• Joel Ken speaks at the Same But Different forum about IndigiTube, a site hosting Indigenous videos. It gets between 800 and 1200 views a week. In its top 20 are music clips alongside video records of traditional inma. Photo by Lisa Stefanoff.

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