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Policy mismatch and Aboriginal art centres: The tension between economic independence and community development

Gretchen Stolte, Australian National University, 10 November 2009

GRETCHEN STOLTE: The Indigenous visual arts sector is hailed as ‘one of the outstanding successes of arts policy making and patronage in Australia since the early 1970s.’ A key factor in the success of the Indigenous arts sector is arguably the presence and support of the community art centre. This paper will look into the roles of the Aboriginal art centre and how the 2007 Senate Standing Committee report conceptualises and understands these roles Moreover, this paper will examine definitions of success in relation to what an art centre is expected to be and what it actually is using Howard Morphy’s concept of cross-cultural categories.

One of the things made clear from the Senate’s 2007 report is the committee’s belief that Aboriginal art centres can achieve economic independence from the government if only a good model and pathway can be found and/or developed. However, the more an art centre becomes involved in its community, the more its activities move away from art production and marketing, and in these scenarios art centres are in need of more government funding and the likelihood of achieving economic independence dims.

I want to put forth the argument that an Aboriginal art centre needs to be seen as a fundamentally different thing than a mainstream community art centre. As a consequence, an Aboriginal art centre’s engagement with its community is directly proportional to the amount of commonwealth funding it should receive because that community engagement makes up for the lack of government presence and services as well as mainstream infrastructures.

It will become clear that the correlation between making money and making a community in very remote Australia is inherently contrary and can only happen in very specific and rare circumstances. It is possible to combine economic independence with community development, but as this paper will show, it comes at a price and is based somewhat on serendipity rather than good business practice. These unique situations are not the models on which to base an arts policy.

In August 2006, the Senate Standing Committee on Environment, Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, hereafter the Senate report, began an inquiry into and report on the Indigenous visual arts and crafts sector. The aims of the inquiry are well known by now and are presented behind me. As illustrated in the number of references, the concept of sustainability was an important one for the committee.

However as will become evident, implied within ideas of sustainability are issues of economic independence from government funding. This implication is made apparent in the report’s association of success with the amount of funding an art centre receives from the government; that is, an art centre is successful if it is financially independent from commonwealth funding, and is therefore unsuccessful if it is still receiving such funding. The committee then mentioned two out of 110 art centres which achieved such success.

Associating the success of an art centre with its level of government funding is tantamount to defining success in such a narrow framework as to ignore the numerous activities in which an art centre engages. I wish to use Howard Morphy’s concept of a cross-cultural category of art historical anthropology to illustrate the pitfalls such associations can create.

Morphy writes that anthropology by definition is ‘a form of cross-cultural discourse which establishes equivalences through the creation of cross-cultural categories.’ Some examples of cross-cultural categories include religion, kinship, marriage, land rights or artistic practices. The challenge of a cross-cultural definition according to Morphy is ‘allow what was and is to be different to remain despite its placement within a more inclusive category.’ Morphy warns against taking this concept too far, writing that some categories are more limited than others and universalisms must always ‘be open to question.’

I would argue that the art centre needs to be treated as a cross-cultural category, and that the Senate report does neither recognise such a distinction nor question the assumption the report’s universalisms entail. This lack of critical awareness is evident throughout the Senate’s findings.

On Wednesday, the 21st of February in 2007, the Senate report held a hearing in Alice Springs to hear from stakeholders within the Indigenous arts and crafts sector. When talking with Papunya Tula manager Mr Paul Sweeney, Chairman Eggleston made the following statement/question:

‘I love the fact that you are not getting any government money. At the same time you are doing that community development work, and I acknowledge very clearly that the art centres do that community development work. It’s not just an art area, it is a community development area as well. But you seem to be doing the same, and you are doing it all without a cent of government money. Why isn’t your model the right model for everyone?’

Mr Sweeney’s response was understandably vague, stating that his experience was limited to Papunya Tula only and that he couldn’t speak for other art centres. Eggleston’s assumption though, ‘you seem to be doing the same,’ reflects his lack of knowledge of the local art histories which created the Central Desert Art Movement and Papunya Tula’s success. I’ll come back to this point in a moment.

The next section of this paper will outline some of the definitions, functions and roles of an art centre as well as provide a comparison of two art centre models in order to complicate the chairman’s question/assumption. The cross-cultural category of art centre is not a universal one and must be understood in both a Western and Indigenous framework.

Community art centres are defined in many different ways. Australia’s Council for the Arts defines community art centre as a creator of ‘bridges of understanding, regeneration and opportunity.’ Definitions of an Aboriginal art centre can vary according to their functions and obligations. The Senate report defines an art centre as ‘an Indigenous owned and operated entity generally located on an Indigenous community.’

This definition is too general to have any real meaning though. 10 years earlier in the art and craft centre story, Felicity Wright defines an art centre as ‘any organisation operating in remote Australia that is owned and controlled by Aboriginal people where the principal activity is facilitating the production and marketing of arts and crafts.’ Wright’s definition focuses on the commercial aspects of an art centre, although the rest of her report does much to describe the sociocultural aspects as well.

The Association of Northern, Kimberley, and Arnhem Aboriginal Artists or ANKAAA, defines an arts centre’s role as protector of cultural property, as a resource for materials, and as a general arts and culture facilitator.

As other definitions of art centres have also emphasised art centres are located on Country, where opportunities for Aboriginal people are limited. Desart, the Association of Central Australian Aboriginal Art and Art Centres outlines seven roles of the art centre. As a place of cultural maintenance, as a place of emotional and personal renewal, as a place of work and earning income, as a distributor to market, as an avenue for strengthening the community, as a place of learning, and as a place of respite and care.

Desart is also quick to point out the many other services provided beyond art production and marketing. The social benefits include a safe place to meet and talk, a place to help for filling out government forms, accessing the Internet, finding a ride to another community, and allowing for space in which youths can engage in cultural activities. Another key benefit and service provided is cultural maintenance, for art centres are quote ‘A significant contributor in sustaining a cohesive and socially healthy community.’

As may be coming clear, art centres do more than just art production. Given the diversity of the Aboriginal community across remote Australia, one cannot define an art centre based on a single model. Of note, the Department of Communications, Information Technology, and the Arts (DCITA), states ‘Some arts centres operate as highly successful enterprises, while others have more of a community arts development focus.’

The juxtaposition of a highly successful enterprise next to and even against the community arts development focus is an important one. When DCITA’s statement exists at the crux of the problem in which desiring a single art centre model can be.

Which one of the arts centres is the one to be modeled after? This is especially problematic in the arts industry where fads and trends can dictate success as much as hard work and sound business practice.

With a strong idea of the variety of different functions and objectives art centres occupy in general, it is now beneficial to compare two art centre models in order to appreciate how complicated the desire for a single model can be. I have chosen Papunya Tula Artists, or PTA and Maningrida Arts and Cultures, or MAC as the two models to compare based on their differences in structure and success. More importantly this comparison will demonstrate how the arts centres’ approach to their communities and their artists create a very complicated model for economic independence.

Papunya Tula Artists is an arts organisation owned and operated by Aboriginal artists comprising Luritja and Pintupi language groups. PTA supports 160 artists in three communities and functions with nine full time staff and two part-time staff and a fleet of four Toyota troop carriers. The company is self-funded, and has been without government support for over 10 years. The aim of the PTA is to quote ‘To promote individual artists, provide economic development for the communities to which they belong, and assist in the maintenance of a rich cultural heritage.’

PTA’s community involvement work includes helping to raise over 900,000 dollars for a swimming pool in the Kintore community, and from 2000 to 2007, donating over one million dollars towards a remote renal dialysis unit and associated programs.

PTA’s approach towards its artists is fundamental to its success. The troop carriers are used to deliver canvas and art materials to the communities, where the artists execute their work on Country. And PTA states that they are committed to their artists and admits to quote ‘Being very fortunate, in that there is a great deal of natural talent in the area where we work.’ Basically, it comes back to a very good product which compares well on the market.

Maningrida Arts and Culture or MAC is located in central Arnhem land, and is one of the oldest Aboriginal art centres in Australia, supporting over 790 artists in over 34 out stations. MAC has a total acquisition policy, which means that the art centre buys all work presented to its doors. As stated in their submission to the Senate report, this practice ‘Creates certainty and security for artists, ensures that their work is treated with respect, encourages the career of young and emerging artists, and provides an income to aging artists who are no longer producing their best work.’

MAC has 10 full-time staff with the National Arts and Crafts Industry Supporting Strategy program funding the salaried positions, and six Aboriginal staff under the CDP scheme. During the financial year 2005 to 2006, MAC’s turnover was 1.7 million dollars, with 1.1 million given directly back to artists.

In addition to buying and selling art, MAC engages in many cultural maintenance activities, such as production of dictionaries, musical recordings, preserving community archives, supporting researchers and students, and has exhibited in over 20 exhibitions across Australia and the world. MAC is also one of the largest employers of Aboriginal people in their region.

So if economic independence from government funding is the most desired trait in an arts centre, then why is PTA not the model for all arts centres? In summing up the committee’s view on the success of arts centres, it is clear PTA was held up as one of those models of success along with the Jirrawun Arts Corporation, the reports states ‘These organisations currently require no government support while delivering significant benefits to their communities.’

The committee recommended that an understanding of these organisations will help ‘will help identify potential pathways for success in indigenous arts business.’ Moreover, ‘The committee is aware that there is a range of views about how arts centres should do business, but it is clear that one of the secrets to Papunya Tula’s commercial success has been its aggressive and disciplined approach to the market as well as its careful nurturing of long term relationships with artists.’

What should become apparent, however, is that the major difference between MAC’s engagement with community and PTA’s engagement is that aggressive and disciplined approach. How does that translate into community development and involvement? If one were to compare dollars donated to large scale projects funded, PTA would be the ideal model. However, MAC’s total acquisition policy is not without its drawbacks, either. Sometimes MAC acquires material that is hard to turn around and sell. For example, there can be an overabundance of fibre work and beaded jewelry.

However, PTA’s funding and financial success is based on circumstances which border on luck. The Papunya Tula, as Mr. Sweeney has stated, does have extraordinary talent. The 2007 show at the National Museum of Australia, ‘Papunya Painting: Out of the Desert, ‘ showcased the rare and amazing talent within the Central Desert.

This type of international claim, cultural transformation, does not happen more than once if it happens at all. As Peter Thornley and Andy Greenslade have demonstrated in their paper on the importance of the interpersonal in creating a viable art market, there are many mitigating circumstances in art centre success.

Building models and circumstances such as Papunya is really to look at a unique situation, one that cannot be expected to be replicated. Thinking otherwise is to ignore the unique historical underpinnings of Aboriginal art success. As Howard Morphy writes regarding the success of Yirrkala bark paintings, there is a tenuous thread that connected those events and collectors, which produced a viable art market.

Acknowledging art centres as a cross-cultural category includes recognising those local art histories and complexities, which give rise to the many different Aboriginal art centres that exist in Australia and also the different levels of success.

So community work at PTA is not the same as community work in other art centres. In Maningrida it’s not just a matter of scale or priorities, or resources. It is all of those things. The cultural archiving, the support of researchers and students, the production of dictionaries… All of these things are a few levels of the levels of cultural maintenance and community involvement MAC engages.

Maningrida’s total acquisition policy involves more Aboriginal people in the arts development program. And if MAC were enforced to be more economically responsible, one of the first challenges would have to be to change their acquisition policy.

Importantly, let me make it clear that I’m not proposing one model over another. PTA and MAC have different arenas of success and different priorities. One is not better than another. It is because of this difference and the difference of all art centres across Australia that it is problematic to choose one art centre model over another.

So this paper started out with trying to critically engage with the senate report and complicating the need for a single art centre model. While all agreeing that art centres need to be understood within a cross-cultural category, such recognition would require a nuanced definition regarding what an art centre is and what it should do in its priorities.

Morphy states that the ‘distinctive art styles associated with different community art centres are in part the product of local art histories, making people working together in a community and creating works that express their contemporary regional identity.’ This conference is about Indigenous participation within the Australian economy.

To make a business economically independent and sustainable, and this is no small feat either, PTA’s aggressive and disciplined approach is necessary. Given the huge amount of community involvement most art centres engage in, why jeopardise an art centre’s ability to function in a healthy socio-cultural capability?

As Judy Lovell has already demonstrated in her presentation of the Keringke Art Centre, art centres are engaged with so much more than just art production and yet are continually under government pressure to be self-funded. In investing in art centres, governments must take into account what the art centre does and what it does not do in policy expectations of economic independence.

Funding must take into consideration levels of community involvement in which the commonwealth is not participating or present. Aboriginal community art centres must not be viewed through this same lens as a mainstream business located in downtown Sydney. Art centres are so much more than just a business, and that needs to be recognised. Thank you. [applause]

MAN IN AUDIENCE: Thanks very much, Gretchen. I really enjoyed that, and I think you very effectively exposed the flaws in the senate committee’s arguments. Just an observation about Papunya Tula: Pintupi’s own recollection of Papunya Tula history, the history of the whole community, and the outstation movement generally, people have always seen themselves as initiators and drivers of their own return to Country, and that art has been a pretty critical part of that in helping them to achieve their own ends.

People explain it as not sitting around and waiting for the government to do things, that they’ve really taken the initiative themselves to build their community and the art market. I think you’re quite right in saying that that’s probably something quite distinctive about that individual community.

I think it’s recognised that in some other communities that same sort of desire to be seen as initiating is not there, where they’ve waited around. Whether that’s true or not, that’s just the way Pintupi look at their own history. So I think that was really good. Thanks.

GRETCHEN STOLTE: Thank you.

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: Yes, and not really a question. It’s a brief and ironic comment. At the Selling Yarns forum that we had here earlier in this year, a government instigated business development organisation suggested that Aurukun could develop their particular business by designing their sculptures on paper and sending them out for some sort of mechanical production to be returned for paint up.

GRETCHEN STOLTE: Nice.

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: Sometimes the artists and the art centres know best. [laughs]

GRETCHEN STOLTE: Yeah. Yeah. Well, I actually plan on going to Aurukun to buy one of their sculptures, so we’ll talk about it when we get there.

MODERATOR: That’s a fabulous ending comment. Thank you very much, Gretchen. [applause]

Date published: 12 July 2010