ABC Radio on Painters in Alice Springs

On December 3, ABC Radio’s AM program broadcast a brief report by Sara Everingham that appeared on their website under the title “Concerns Aboriginal artists open to exploitation .” The lead in to the story were remarks by Minister for Indigenous Affairs Amanda Vanstone at Parliament House on the occasion of the opening of an exhibition of works by artists from the Jirrawun Corporation. She noted (again!) that Aboriginal art was “Australia’s greatest cultural gift to the world.” The story was also reported in The Weekend Australian for November 29.

The ABC report was given over largely to comments by three other individuals: Davis Ross of the Central Land Council, John Oster of Desart, and representing a dealer’s perspective, Chris Simon of Yanda Aboriginal Art. Since the topic is one I’ve taken up before in my posts on The Painter in Alice Springs, I couldn’t resist doing a little background digging on the perspectives introduced by each of the principals involved in the ABC story.

In addition to the somewhat fuller coverage of Vanstone’s remarks in The Australian, I was able to locate a media release by the Central Land Council, also dated November 29, which gave a more extended version of Ross’s remarks. I found that John Oster had likewise been quoted at greater length in another story on ABC Radio’s Background Briefingfrom September 25 of this year. Unfortunately, I was unable to locate any further information about Chris Simon’s remarks, which I will quote in full below.

What I also found in these published reports was a great confusion of issues. The concerns about exploitation inevitably seem to lead to discussions of authenticity, forgery, paternalism, fair trade practices in the industry, auction houses, and copyright. And while all of these are extremely important issues, I believe that the constant conflation of all of them prevents any real progress towards understanding and resolving any one of them.

My strategy here is to use the interviews presented on December 3rd’s AM broadcast as a framework for the larger discussion and reporting on the other news stories, and as a springboard for my own observations and admittedly limited conclusions.

First, then, to Minister Vanstone’s remarks. While ABC only quoted her remarks on “Australia’s greatest cultural export,” in The Weekend Australian’s story she went on to note that maintaining the integrity of the market was important. “There are good (painters), people who are pretty good and people who would like to be pretty good. We have to recognise that and learn to manage it so the people who are really good get the credit for that and the people who’d like to be good and aren’t don’t spoil it for the rest.” It seems clear to me that by integrity she means a kind of critical assessment and grading of work. There are good painters and not so good painters, and we need to be clear about who’s in which category. That is not what I usually think about when I worry about the integrity of the art market, and it seems that it’s not what ABC Radio was thinking about either, for their report goes on to express concerns that “the popularity of the industry has left Aboriginal artists open to exploitation.” 

Noting that “as the market booms, more people are trying to cash in,” ABC provides a clip from an interview with David Ross of the Central Land Council saying that “there seems to be a hell of a lot of money washing around in Central Australia. There are a lot of people who seem to be fairly well off, just recently. People can’t understand how these things have happened.” Everingham goes on to say that Ross claims that there are dealers operating art sweatshops whose dealings are undocumented, and that he has asked for an investigation by the Australian Taxation Office. Everingham’s comments seem to have been drawn from the press release from the Central Land Council published on November 29, the same day that Vanstone’s remarks were reported in The Weekend Australian. Ross’s statements in that press release are worth quoting here.

Unfortunately the popularity and high prices of Aboriginal art attract unscrupulous people who set up ‘sweat shops’ around Alice Springs and exploit poverty stricken Aboriginal people by various means. These dealers are the beneficiaries of this exploitation and the CLC urges the Australian Taxation Office to investigate this enormous, undocumented cash economy. There are many cases of Aboriginal people unable to leave the premises until they have discharged ‘debts’ run up with these dealers by painting more and more pictures in an endless vicious circle. The longer they stay in town, the more debt they run up. Often the prices paid by these dealers are far below the proper value the painter should receive but it’s instant cash and therefore attractive to people who are in a feast or famine cycle of poverty. Aboriginal people on dialysis are particularly vulnerable to these dealers. They have to be in town for treatment and are left with virtually no spending money after paying accommodation costs. Many of these people are from the Western Desert and their art is highly sought after. There is a practice of paying the families of well-known painters good money for low quality paintings in an effort to entice the famous painter into the circle. It appears to be a successful strategy as now many of the great names can be found in a hot tin shed in the back streets of Alice Springs producing canvasses of varying quality.

I would like to note that I think there’s a discrepancy between what Everingham said (that Ross “has asked for an investigation by the Australian Taxation Office”) and what the press release says (that “the CLC urges the Australian Taxation Office to investigate this enormous, undocumented cash economy”). Maybe it’s just a matter of semantics, but the ABC wording sounds much stronger while the CLC release makes me think that there’s no more to it than that statement, which is too bad if that’s the case. I hope that the CLC would make a formal request for an investigation, as it seems to me that the Taxation Office could have an enormous role to play in curbing these kinds of abuses in the Central Desert. But as Mark Twain once famously said of the weather, “Everybody talks about [it] but nobody does anything about it.”

The ABC report goes on with remarks by John Oster of Desart, who claims that while art centres give the artists about 40 per cent of the final sale price of their works, these private dealers typically pay at a rate of about 10 per cent. In the Background Briefing story broadcast on September 25, Oster also said that cash payments aren’t the only way in which these artists may receive “compensation” for their work: 

I’m talking about commercial dealers who encourage groups of artists to come and paint in a shed, for which they are paid wages. These are garages in Alice Springs; they’re very hot places. Artists are not necessarily paid the value of the paintings that they paint, they are paid in terms of slabs of beer, clothing, other benefits like being run around town, having their family looked after. … We need to be clear that sometimes Aboriginal people see benefits in relationships, in being helped out with various problems, rather than cash values. But these are desperate places too, and the practice in these places is open to question. And I believe there is regular unconscionable conduct, entrapment, artists placed under legal duress, and fraud.

Everingham, in an attempt to allow both sides of the argument expression, also interviewed Chris Simon, who owns Yanda Aboriginal Art in Alice Springs and Melbourne. Simon operates a compound in an Alice Springs residential neighborhood where artists such as Naata Nungurrayi, George Tjungurrayi, Linda Syddick Napaltjarri, Nyurapayia Nampitjinpa, and Willy Tjungurrayi were painting earlier this year.

SARA EVERINGHAM: While it’s not known which particular dealers the CLC wants investigated, one private dealer in Alice Springs, Chris Simon, says artists can decide for themselves who they want to work for.

He told ABC Local Radio this week the art centres are being paternalistic and don’t like competition.

CHRIS SIMON: It’s been a closed industry for a certain few select whites in Melbourne and Sydney to have the works funnelled from the co-ops directly to them. No effort, no outlay of money, the co-ops are there to… you know, for the welfare of Aboriginal people. They’re probably not geared for direct marketing, so they’ve had to use agents interstate.

And in my personal opinion there’s certain people in Melbourne and Sydney have had it just too good for too long.

On the face of it, Simon’s remarks are stunning in their logical inconsistency. 

He accuses the art centres of being (first) paternalistic, and (second) fearful of competition. On the former, I think “paternalistic” is a loaded word that can suggest just about anything you want it to. If the co-ops are, as Simon says, “there…for the welfare of the Aboriginal people,” is that paternalism? If so, what’s wrong with it? Is paternalism only a problem when it interferes with the artists’ freedom of choice? 

I think that this touches on a fairly central point of black-white relations, and perhaps one that is unresolved and rife with contradictions in itself. In Aboriginal society, as I’ve written before, authority and responsibility go hand in hand. Caring for country, or growing up young men, implies both. These are the duties of the “father” and in this light paternalism is a high positive value. I think that most people would agree that indigenous people in remote communities such as those serviced by Papunya Tula expect that the company’s employees are there to take care of them and that in general whites in communities like Kintore are expected to “help Aboriginal people.” 

One of the things that confuses this discussion is that “helpers” in Aboriginal society are usually in subordinate roles in communities. The white people who work for the art co-ops are employees of the communities, and subject to the authority of the co-op’s members, even though the co-ops themselves often rely on government funding. In contrast, Aboriginal people look to “bosses” in Canberra (to change the focus a bit) to take care of them, and so cast the white government in a paternalistic role.

This is a fundamental and perhaps unresolvable contradiction in relations, and I think it is a condition that unfortunately allows almost anyone to argue any point of view in constituting “proper” dealings among artists, art centres, and dealers. What is lacking is an understanding that these relationships must be truly reciprocal, that both sides must be able to dictate terms and conditions, and to negotiate on relatively equal terms. But if the “economics of the marketplace” structure the rules, Aboriginal people are immediately disadvantaged, since the “marketplace” necessarily plays by whitefella rules. (I’m reminded of an argument that raged about a decade ago on the University campus where I work over the creation of a “Black Cultural Center.” Opponents claimed that there was no “White Cultural Center” on campus, overlooking the obvious fact that the University is essentially a white cultural center in itself.)

Simon also states that the co-ops are fearful of competition, but his complaint on that score is really directed at a “certain few select whites in Melbourne and Sydney.” If he believes that the co-ops aren’t equipped to do direct marketing and so rely on “agents interstate,” then I don’t see how he can claim that the Melbourne and Sydney galleries who do that marketing undertake “[n]o effort, no outlay of money.” More importantly, these arguments strike me as being essentially irrelevant to the question of getting a fair deal for the artists. In fact, as so often happens when this topic is brought up, it changes the locus of the discourse and allows the issues to get muddied to the point of hopelessness. Rather than discussing conditions under which art is produced and paid for in Central Australia, our attention is diverted to the operations of the market in the capital cities. 

And perhaps the fault here lies as well with ABC Radio, whose point of discussion was supposedly the exploitation of the artists. Simon seems to be arguing here that the behavior of the art centres is improper, not so much because they don’t give the artists a fair shake, but because they discriminate against certain dealers in favor of others. He implies that by placing themselves between the artists and the art dealers, the co-ops are being unfair to the artists in denying them freedom of choice in whom they work for. But if that were true, Willy Tjungurrayi wouldn’t be sitting in Simon’s compound and painting for him. 

What’s sad is that there is so little transparency and so little accountability. I’ve never met a dealer who claimed he did wrong by the artists who work for him. But I have met and talked at length with at least one dealer who was operating in Alice Springs when I was there in 2001 (and for the record, it’s not Simon to whom I refer) who assured me that he gave the artists a fairer deal than anyone else in town when they painted for him. And I’ve heard from several people whose opinions I respect that this dealer ought to be the first subject of any investigation by the Taxation people. (Said dealer offered me a substantial discount if I could pay cash on the barrel.) But all I know is what I’ve heard, and in a court of law, I suspect it all comes down to hearsay. As John Oster of Desart said on Background Briefing, despite discussions about pursuing unscrupulous dealers under the Trade Practices Act, “often there is a lack of evidence or a lack of consistent witnesses and a lack of understanding about artists’ rights and the law.”

Barring intervention by the authorities, and perhaps before such actions can be undertaken, there still needs to be some clear, responsible discussion among the parties involved. We need to define and separate the issues. I’m grateful that ABC Radio pays attention to them, as do my friends at the Alice Springs News. But if I can point the finger at ABC for a moment, I find their September broadcast to be emblematic of the problems of media scrutiny and public discussion in general. Entitled “Black Art Gold Rush,” it bounces from discussions of “dots for dollars” (let’s strike that catchphrase from all future conversations, please), to the injustice of the secondary art market and the auction houses selling paintings for extraordinary profits, to the problems of poverty in Aboriginal communities, to exploitation of artists in the remarks by John Oster I’ve quoted above, to the dynamics of the relationship between the markets and the major museums, to the production of works of “Aboriginal art” by non-Aboriginal people, to infringement of copyright, to the tensions between remote communities and urban artists, to the economics of running a gallery in Sydney, to the forgeries of works by Clifford Possum, back to the pressures on the auction houses, to questions of authenticity, provenance, and documentation, back to Clifford Possum, to droite de suite … I hope you get my point. 

All of these are important issues, and to some extent they are interrelated. But unless some critical discussion that doesn’t confuse them can take place, we’ll be forever lost in a muddle.

References and Readings:
The Painter in Alice SpringsAboriginal Art & Culture blogpost, October 6, 2005
Reader Response: The Painter in Alice Springs , Aboriginal Art & Culture blogpost, October 22, 2005
AM – Concerns Aboriginal artists open to exploitationAM ABC Radio broadcast, December 3, 2005
Blacks’ art ‘our greatest cultural gift,’ The Weekend Australian, November 29, 2005
Unscrupulous art dealers destroying aboriginal art market, Central Land Council media release, November 29, 2005
Black Art Gold RushBackground Briefing ABC Radio broadcast, September 25, 2005
Aboriginal art: the way ahead, by Kieran Finnane, Alice Springs News, March 31, 1999
Move towards more honesty in arts deals, by Kieran Finnane, Alice Springs News, April 7, 1999
Black art: self-regulate or Big Brother?, by Kieran Finnane, Alice Springs News, April 14,1999

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