This collective work by 12 Yunpalara Aboriginal women from Lake Blair, was auctioned by Sotheby’s in 2008. (Getty Images: Torsten Blackwood)
The art of remote Australia can often be seen in the background when corporate giants and political leaders appear on the evening news.
Depictions of waterholes, dreaming tracks and ancestral spirits animate the walls of many boardrooms and government offices.
But is there any meaningful connection between the corporate sector and the fragile bush economies that create these images of Australia?
Tim Acker from Ninti One, a non-profit organisation supporting 90 remote art centres across Australia, has his doubts.
“It’s a bit of a sport — you can watch those talking heads and pick: ‘that’s a piece from Kiwirrkurra’ or ‘that’s a piece from Warmun’ — and I would guess that very few people in that building would understand what that art meant,” he says.
“That’s an opportunity in my view, not a problem. But there are clearly better ways people can understand those connections.”
Importance of remote art centres
Income from the sale of artwork can often be the only non-welfare funds available to Aboriginal people in remote communities.
But the remote art centre business is fragile.
Mr Acker, Ninti One’s principal research leader, says it’s a very tough business to sustain.
“Staffing remains the biggest difficulty for art centres,” he says.
A core group of eight art centres have remained financially stable over the past 10 years, while the vast majority have experienced some difficulty.
“Only around ten per cent of artists make what you could call a living wage out of their art practice.” (Marianna Massey)
Oversupply, low consumer confidence and the impact of the global financial crisis have been cited as some of the key threats to the remote art sector over the past decade.
The ground-breaking Art Economies Project within the now-defunct Cooperative Research Centre for Remote Economic Participation at Alice Springs found that the economic value of the industry may have been overestimated.
Meantime, a Senate inquiry in 2007 tallied various assessments in a bid to value the remote art economy, but failed to define what was being measured.
Painting by the numbers
According to Mr Acker, the 90 remote art centres surveyed for the Art Economies Project generate a combined $30 million in sales each year.
Remote art centres can be the only source of non-governmental income for some Indigenous artists (Getty Images: Charles Allmon)
But that’s only taking sales made at the art centres — or on their books — into account.
“While they’re all part of the bigger supply chain, auction sales and secondary sales … don’t benefit artists at all in a financial sense,” Mr Acker says.
On average, when art centres make sales, 60 per cent of the revenue goes to the artists, while the other 40 per cent is reinvested.
A review by Ninti One found that only a small group of established artists at the height of their powers were guaranteed an income from the consistent sale of their work.
“There’s a steep hierarchy of artists in terms of production and financial success. Only around 10 per cent of artists make what you could call a living wage out of their art practice,” Mr Acker says.
Ninti One’s research is crucial in identifying the business models that work — and understanding why, Mr Acker says.
“It was about coming up with the best possible picture about how that art economy worked: where any barriers were, the scale of what was happening in those centres, and being able to articulate the values that that art economy created for its users and Australia more broadly,” Mr Acker says.
More pressure placed on art centres
Further complicating matters is the fact that art centres are increasingly being asked to act as government service providers — implementing measures under the Closing The Gap and Stronger Futures policy imperatives of successive Commonwealth governments.
However Mr Acker says despite these challenges, there are opportunities to build strategic partnerships with the corporate sector.
Businesses recognise Aboriginal art as central to the national identity, Mr Acker says.
It’s the default choice when people want images of Australia to present to the world.
But there’s “a little disconnect” when corporates — and others — use it to present a certain image of Australia overseas.
“City-based corporations and individuals can address this disconnect and partner with communities or art centres,” he says.
“The strength that this cultural and creative practice brings is sometimes under-acknowledged, but it’s something that I think should be foregrounded.”