When visitors walk down Todd Mall in Alice Springs or enter an Aboriginal community for the first time their initial reaction is likely to be horror. Sitting in the street displaying the demeanor of those under the influence of alcohol, Aboriginal people appear to be impoverished and utterly bereft of comfort.
The thought that that they may be well known artists prompts the immediately assumption that they are being ‘ripped off’, and those who interact with them lack compassion, are exploitative; the cause of their misery, certainly not their allies.
But like all first impressions it is not just black and white and in the grey area between there is plenty of room for wild imaginings and mythconceptions.
The Aboriginal arts industry has been a modern miracle. Art is the biggest income earner in many communities after welfare and mining royalties; a goose that laid a golden egg.
The sale of Aboriginal arts and crafts, worth just $900,000 to the Australian economy shortly after Bardon left Papunya in the mid 1970’s, was more than $100M by the beginning of the current millennium.
The number of galleries involved rose from just 15 in the mid 1980’s to the hundreds that operate today. They now include a vast number of galleries that know little of the history of the movement.
No less than 30 of the top 50 artists of all time produced the vast majority of their work as independent artists. Many others chose to work throughout their careers outside of any art centre or representative relationship. This includes a number of the past chairmen and many of the shareholders of Papunya Tula.
Today more than 5000 individual artists practice but no more than 800 in the history of the movement produced works of consequence. Less than 100 have accumulated secondary market sales in excess of $100,000. The few artists that make thousands of dollars a year disburse their income widely reinforcing the impression that they receive little from their art practice.
While community art centres are valuable resource organizations, there are literally hundreds of artists living throughout Queensland, NSW, and states alongside those desert and top end artists, who attempt to forge independent careers by developing their own relationships outside of communities.
Despite the protestations that tribal people are safer and better off living in remote communities, many Aboriginal leaders point to a future in which increasing numbers of well educated, ambitious and motivated Aboriginal people live increasingly outside of their communities and return only on important occasions. Those that wish to manage their own lives should be given every opportunity to do so free of paternalistic, separatist and neocolonialist interference.
Those who seek to confine all Aboriginal people to places proximate to their land do them an enormous disservice. Aboriginal people have been semi institutionalized, confined, and isolated on country that white people simply didn’t want. Many live in the hope that they too, can become modern nomads in vehicles paid for through their art, just as successful independent artists of the past managed to escape the confines of sedentary life in communities overburdened by ‘sorry business’ as and when it suited them.
The campaign to skew the market toward works produced only in art centres is a shameful one. Desart, ANKAAA, and those ACGA members who promote and support it are prejudicing the livelihoods of hundreds of artists and their supporters.
By insinuating that the provenance of independently produced works is unsafe, they undermine more than 50% of the art currently being produced, and a vast number of works created in the past that are sold through outlets other than elite exhibiting galleries and auction houses.
In the process they create prejudice toward hundreds of businesses and thousands of individuals who support artists through the sale of their works. In promoting this narrow interpretation of safe provenance and ethics, they exploit white guilt by staking out the moral high ground.
In the wake of the prejudice they generate, art collectors who have bought perfectly good works for which artists have been fairly remunerated are compromised, and their collections are devalued. New collectors, seeking a way through the ugly politics are dissuaded from purchasing while those who enter in to real and supportive relationships with Aboriginal people are compromised and their businesses threatened.
This includes many dealers of Aboriginal heritage who market the work of their own relatives and countrymen as they make the first steps toward running their own businesses.
For almost 30 years I have been one of the most trenchant supporters of community art centers. Yet I see no incompatibility whatsoever with my support for the artist independence. The goose that laid the golden egg was a free-range goose. Its success lay in its freedom. The call to put the goose back in its pen may be well intentioned amongst some, but amongst its most ardent supporters is a desire to keep all those golden eggs to themselves. They should be thoroughly ashamed.