Howard Morphy at Desert Mob

A few weeks ago I was delighted to receive mail from Howard Morphy, Director of the Center for Cross-Cultural Research at the Australian National University and author of numerous articles on the art and culture of Australian Aborigines as well as the monographs, Journey to the Crocodile’s Nest, (Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, 1984),Ancestral Connections: Art and an Aboriginal System of Knowledge (Chicago, 1991), and Aboriginal Art (Phaidon, 1998). He sent along the text of his speech given at the Desert Mob conference back in September. I feel privileged to have the opportunity to reproduce those remarks here, as they constitute the most incisive summary of the current state of the art market I have read, and beyond that, a sharp-eyed plan for how to enhance its value, both to the nation and to the Aboriginal people themselves. To say any more at this point seems presumptuous when I can simply let you read what Howard has said for yourself. I’m grateful for the chance to share this essay with you.

Creating value, adding value and maintaining value:
the complexity of Aboriginal art as industry.
Howard Morphy
Centre for Cross-Cultural Research, ANU
The success of Aboriginal art is something that is widely acknowledged, that politicians are proud of; it is seen as a success story. Aboriginal art is used to market Australia, from the interior and exterior designs of QANTAS aircraft to the Quay Branly in Paris. Aboriginal art should not be a problem that requires solutions. And yet Aboriginal art is perpetually being the subject of enquiries, as to how it could be better. People offer solutions that will magically increase the return to artists, increase the value of the product and protect Indigenous copyright better. The issue of authenticity is continually being produced as a problem requiring solutions; people advocate direct marketing via the internet as the means of ensuring a better return to the artists. Most of these interventions are well motivated, and many do point to long-term intractable problems, but they are problems that on the whole have not prevented the market for Aboriginal art increasing and the return to Aboriginal artists rising over time. There is a danger that many people will try to hop on the bandwagon of success where it is easier to achieve results than deal with intractable problems where the solutions have evaded others before. However my argument would be that if it were easy to solve problems associated with the Aboriginal art industry they would have been solved before and that solutions proposed by people with limited knowledge of the industry are likely to create more problems than they might solve. The often-promoted idea of a label of authenticity is one example of a solution that is perpetually being rolled out and which I have yet to be convinced will ever work.

In the case of a successful industry in a domain where few successful industries have been created it seems to me that it is vital to build on its success by using the knowledge and experience of those in the industry before we look outside for solutions. My own opinion is that the experts in the industry know very well where the problems lie and in many cases what is needed to solve them. I am not saying that they have a magic pill. They may actually be able to say with conviction that there is no magic pill, but they have an idea where the long-term solution lies. Above all the people in the industry have been involved over a thirty year period in a remarkable increase in the market of Aboriginal art in almost every area an industry could achieve, — increasing the size of the market, its diversity and the price of the product.

In order to understand how this has been achieved it is useful to view Aboriginal art as being entangled in a number of value creating processes. The success of Aboriginal art has depended on value creation processes that are both internal and external to Aboriginal society. Unless one knows how this has been achieved and the basis upon which success has been built there is an ever-present danger of destroying it and at the same time limiting chances of building on its success. If you do not identify the strengths of an industry you cannot build on it as a model that can be applied in other areas. And when we think of Aboriginal communities in remote Australia we really need to be able to build on successful models. So an example of an enquiry I would like to see governments fund, coming out of left of field, would be “how can the successes of the arts industry be applied to the development of business enterprises in other areas?’ Let the industry take care of itself, support it, but add value by acknowledging the strength of Indigenous art as an indigenous cultural activity and try and build on it. Use the success of rates of participation in the arts industry as a basis for the development of training. Use the arts industry as a model for other kinds of industry — cultural and environmental tourism, the developing Indigenous knowledge centres, the development of ranger programs for safeguarding and monitoring the Australian environment and so on.

What do I mean by a value creation process? We tend to think of value initially in terms of money; the most valuable thing is the thing we have to pay most for. But value is clearly a much more general concept and many things that we as individuals value highly have nothing directly to so with money and may indeed not be easily converted into monetary value: a quiet time at home with the children, a photograph of my father in the garden. However in the case of commodities, things that can be bought and sold, there is a close relationship between value in the broadest sense and the monetary value of things. Art works are prime examples of how value can be converted into high prices. And in such cases normal factors of supply and demand are a main driver of price. The more people desire to have a particular artist’s work the more people will compete with one another to acquire it, the higher the price it will achieve. In the art market people convert aesthetic, cultural and historical values into monetary values. Art is not valued by the scarcity of the raw materials, the amount of labour that goes into the work, the licensing cost of the technology, but by how desirable people find the product. Of course elements of fashion and status competition enter the process too. Some people might want a work of art because it is in the national collections or because every millionaire has to own one. There is clearly a relationship between fine art and other prestige commodities — housing location for example. However my own feeling is that in the case of art the quality of the product is a major factor in the development of a market, — all other things being equal.

So we can see how art is entangled in value creation processes. I will look at value creation in three areas: the historical or global process of value creation, the role of the art and culture industries in creating value, and value creation processes in Aboriginal society. And then I will look quickly at some areas where dangers lie and where opportunities exist.

What is the history of value creation in Aboriginal art? A simplistic answer would be to say that in a very short period of time Aboriginal art has moved from being a low valued product to being one of the highest valued arts in the world. For most of the 1970s into the early 1980s artworks produced by some of the great names in Indigenous Australian art could have been purchased for $100, and indeed were often unsaleable. I am thinking of artists such as Rover Thomas, John Mawurndjul, Mr Warrangula. Today works produced by Mawurndjul may be sold for up to $30,000 and similar prices will be achieved by leading Desert artists for major works. And outstanding examples of Rover Thomas or Mr Warrangula may go for $500,000 at auction. No one can argue against those figures but in order to understand the nature of the value creation process one needs to take a long-term perspective. It is only by doing that that one will be able to understand the strengths of the industry and the dangers that certain interventions may involve.

Although Aboriginal art as a commodity was not recognised widely until the latter third of the 20th century, Aboriginal culture had gained a global recognition. Indeed it is fair to say that Aboriginal cultures, of all Indigenous cultures, had close to the widest global recognition. And although some of the reasons for that recognition would now be seen to be quite erroneous and negative, for example as ‘living examples of stone age cultures’, others were very positive. Over the 20th century Aboriginal society came to be viewed in terms of its deep religiosity and its spiritual relationship with the land and sea. While we may see the concept of the Dreamtime, or Dreaming, as a great simplification, it was none the less a very positive image that captured the Western imagination. This background of world renown and deep spirituality provides an important basis for the success of Aboriginal art outside Australia. It is also the case that for most of the 20th century Aboriginal art was continually being ‘discovered’ and collections of it being made and distributed among the world’s museums. Aboriginal art was not invented in 1971 at Papunya. One needs only mention the names of Spencer and Gillen, Charles Mountford, Ronald Berndt, Tony Tuckson, Karel Kupka. The basis of a history of Aboriginal art was there. And even if the art works themselves were not highly sought after, images of Aboriginal art had spread widely across the world. It is also important to note that a market for Aboriginal art had been developed from the middle of the 20th century, and in some cases much earlier, through mission stations and Aboriginal settlements. Although the value of Aboriginal art was not high, a lot was being produced and there were a lot of passionate collectors in Australia and overseas, in particular, in the USA. So when the popularity of Aboriginal art began to increase in the 1970s, first of all through greatly increased sales of art in the Top End and then from the major intervention of Central Desert acrylics, many of the bases for a global market had been established.

What had been absent almost until the 1980s was an interest in Aboriginal art from the fine art world and the art gallery scene. The Art Gallery of New South Wales under Tony Tuckson had acquired the magnificent Scougall collections twenty-five years earlier but then rested on that achievement, and the Museums and Art Galleries of the Northern Territory had consistently developed its Indigenous collections from its foundation in 1969. However on the whole Australian Galleries neglected to purchase Aboriginal art. It is hard to believe but it was not until the early 1980s that the National Gallery in Canberra began to seriously develop its collection of Aboriginal art. And the collection of art by major art institutions is an integral part of the value creation process in Aboriginal art. However I am not one to argue that the intervention of the galleries itself was causal. I believe that the National Gallery had to start acquiring Aboriginal art because it sensed that it was gaining recognition elsewhere. The number of wealthy private collectors was increasing, the number of exhibitions escalating, the number of outlets increasing and so on. However, whatever the details of the history, Aboriginal art had become part of the normal process of value creation of art in Australia. And that normal process includes that mix of private collectors, institutional collectors, art dealers, artists agents, auction house, prizes, exhibitions, catalogues, art writers and reviewers. All of who have important roles to play. However it is important to note that these roles had to be developed and most people cannot do them. It is easy to create art whose value has been created by others’ efforts.

This second stage in the value creation process is of crucial importance and has been a triumph both of Indigenous artists and those involved in the industry. Insufficient recognition has been given by government and people outside the art industry to skills in this area. Now all of these parties are integral to the process, they have different roles to play but they ultimately depend on each other. While there is inevitably going to be competition within and between sectors there is need to work together. When one talks about good practice in the art industry one should be talking about ways in which different sectors work together to enhance the value of the product. Bad practice is something that may achieve short-term gains at the expense of the long-term health of the industry.

However I have not yet mentioned the most important area of value creation — the society and the artists who produce the work. If the value of art is not maintained and enhanced within the producing societies then the success of much Aboriginal art will be threatened.

What is that internal process? The most general thing is that in Aboriginal society art is a mode of action that enables people to achieve certain things. Art, and here I include song dance and all other forms of aesthetic expressive action, is a way of passing on knowledge about the world, the creation of the landscape, the characteristics of natural species. It is a form of eduction, it can establish spiritual connection with the land, it can help transport the soul of the deceased, it can bring comfort to the dying and the bereaved and so on. It achieves this through its aesthetic power but also because of the system of knowledge and the structure of rights embodied in it. Aboriginal art has to be learnt. And in Aboriginal society these values can also be converted to value in other domains — status, prestige, establishing relations between groups, to granting rights of access and so on.

Aboriginal art has a strength that exists quite independent of any market. That strength comprises the value it has to Aboriginal people, in its local context.

Outsiders sometimes see the local context of Aboriginal art as a factor holding the artists back, for example, that an artist is constrained by certain rules of their society to produce only certain designs forms. However the fact that in certain cases rights in the form of certain designs are carefully protected has not prevented a continuous process of innovation in Aboriginal art, and in many respects has been a source of strength. For a start it is a sign that art means something to Aboriginal people and hence people in the outside world — the market — hope to share something of that value when they acquire it. The sale of Aboriginal art is also the gift of something of value. But the rights in Aboriginal art are also reflected in the diversity of the paintings that are produced. In a community the system of rights is a generator of difference and hence is a factor in producing the local diversity of Aboriginal art. Diversity is as much a market factor as individuality and there is plenty of room for that. Aboriginal art is an arena for competition, and this adds to its vitality at the local level.

The other great advantage that Aboriginal art has is its regional diversity. Australia contains a large number of Indigenous art regions, the Wanjina of Western Australia, the X-ray art of western Arnhem Land, the geometric art of central Australia , the clan based abstractions of Northeast Arnhem Land; and within each region exists its own sub-styles, the mimih figures of western Arnhem land in contrast to the geometric art of the marrayin, the x-ray art and the fluid forms of the dynamic figure tradition. This is one of the reasons why Aboriginal art has been so successful globally. It has the interior dynamics to produce a diversity of different art forms that in many ways are synergistic with the history of world arts.

To summarise the features of Aboriginal art that give it strength on a global basis: it is an art that is highly valued internally, artists have their own art schools producing highly trained artists who have the capacity to develop over time, Aboriginal art is very diverse across the continent, yet at some levels has the coherence of a tradition.

We might now be able to see what some of the threats might be to the continuing success of Aboriginal art. I will look first of all at the production context, then at marketing, then at the global historical context.

The Production Context

1) One of the surprising strengths of Aboriginal art has been the fact that it has been able to accommodate readily to the commercial context. It is a sign of the adaptability of Aboriginal artists. The production of art for sale in most places has been incorporated into the internal dynamics of Aboriginal societies and has added strength. This strength depends on Aboriginal artists being in control of production and training and on limited intervention from outside. If a particular style were to be over-encouraged by the market, if young artists, instead of learning from the beginning, started to produce replicas of the senior generation’s work, then there could be a danger in the longer term.

2) If governments and education departments fail to recognise the importance of Indigenous knowledge and Indigenous social organisation and values to the success of art production then it is likely to be threatened. In Arnhem Land and elsewhere in northern and central Australia, much of the art is produced in outstations; there is a direct relationship between the success of Aboriginal art and the strength of Aboriginal culture in these places.

The Industry Context:

I can only give a very few examples.

1) In the case of art advisers, a main threat has been the failure to recognise the multi-sided nature of their jobs and the role that they have in mediating between two different domains of value creation — the Indigenous sphere and the outside market. Failure to see certain kinds of activity other than the sale of art as a necessary part of their job, for example helping to support and get funding for cultural activities, sorry business and so on, helping guard against infringement of copyright, developing the art centre as a knowledge centre and community space. It is often going to be a core part of the job in that if they don’t do it the quality of the product will go down. They are jobs that if the art centre isn’t doing them still need to be done. They also need to be involved in other regional developments, which may adversely affect the art centre, even if people argue that it will support it.

2) At first glance it may seem self-evident what tourism can do for the marketing of art: it can increase the market by shortening the distance between the artist and the market, and increase the return by increasing the number of purchasers. Of course tourism in the major centres like Alice Springs and Darwin can do wonderful things for the marketing of Aboriginal art in all its forms, but one must neither exaggerate the effect of numbers alone nor neglect the situation of remote areas where tourism is going to succeed according to how much people are prepared to pay rather than the numbers who get there. The art industry comprises very different kinds of products. All are valuable in one sense or another but only a very few get converted into objects of high value and those high value objects are enormously valuable compared with low valued objects. Major artworks by well-known Indigenous artists can sell for $1,000-$30,000 at first point of sale. The job of those involved in the marketing of art is to edge works towards the higher end and those involved in the business have been very successful in doing that. But how many tourists are actually buying works at the high end? Very few — one hopes some, because that is where you might get them hooked. Most collectors at the high end of the market go looking for the works and rely in part on the mechanisms of preselection — galleries, dealers, exhibitions and auction houses, and developing a relationship with art centres. Mass-market local tourism is unlikely to increase the return to artists and it may indeed diminish the return by disrupting the relationships between art centres and dealers and galleries, and distracting the artist from art work by taking up his or her time with other activities. Before anyone gets the idea that I am opposed in any way to the development of tourist industries in Aboriginal communities, the opposite is the case. It is simply that I would rather ask what Aboriginal art and the Aboriginal art industry can do for the development of high-end tourism rather than what can tourism do for the art market. I will return to this question towards the end of my talk.

3) I won’t consider here the issues of that other part of the commercial sector, the commercial galleries dealers and artists agents, since that is going to be addressed by others. However I would like to briefly address one issue that is often raised as a future panacea for the marketing of Aboriginal art that may have negative consequences: the internet. The process of marketing an artist’s work to achieve long term increase in sales and value is a nurturing process, a process of persuasion in which the gallery mediates between the artist and the buyer. Simple solutions that cut out that process are the greatest dangers to value creation in art even if on the surface they seem totally reasonable. One area that cuts across this process is the world of the carpetbagger, another is a careless sale through tourist outlets. Another is the internet. The internet appears to provide an easy solution to the problems of distance in the marketing of Aboriginal art. It can however be a disaster in that direct marketing of an artist’s work can lead to price reduction and to a loss of quality of the product that will result in a loss of confidence in the quality of the artists work and contribute to a downward spiral. Again. don’t get me wrong, I am not a Luddite. The internet is going to be a great asset to Aboriginal art and to its marketing, but only in the hands of those who have an expertise in the art world and who know the importance of maintaining the value and quality of the product and who know how to sell which works where. I think in the case of the internet it might be useful to fund an enquiry or some action oriented research into the potentials and dangers of internet marketing of art.

The global sector:

What are the dangers of this? What can you do about history? I don’t really need to ask that question to an Australian audience! The simple answer is to continually rewrite it. However in the broadest sense this area is one that really needs addressing. In short the danger is neglect.

There are some areas where there is a dearth of expertise if we are looking from the perspective of value creation processes. And in areas where there is expertise we are not necessarily using it as well as we might. An example of what I mean might be the moderate state of Aboriginal art journalism in Australia and the low level of writing about Aboriginal art in general. I must make it clear at this point that I am not referring to the excellent contributions of Nicholas Rothwell or the writings of those few authors like Wally Caruana and Susan McCulloch who have tackled the task of informing a general audience, or the Art Gallery curators who have done their jobs well. However there are far too few of them and the general standard of writing has been reduced to the uninformative cliché. The lack of personnel working on Indigenous collections in Australian museums is another example. The absence of courses in Indigenous art in most Australian Universities, the lack of doctoral students coming through who are producing the future art history.

Related to this is the poor support for exhibitions of Aboriginal art from the public and private sector. And here I don’t mean the independent gallery sector but major industry sponsorship. Exhibitions with accompanying catalogues and reviews are one of the prime areas of value creation in art. To me it is extraordinary that an exhibition such as that of John Mawurdjal’s art can be sponsored by a major Swiss pharmaceutical company to tour Europe but is not taken by any Australian Gallery. How many exhibitions of individual Indigenous artists are currently touring compared with non-Indigenous artists?


The final area I would like to turn to is that of building the expertise that exists in the area of art and transferring it to other areas of community development. We are not capitalising enough on the success of the industry. We need to analyse why art centres work and recognise the enormous achievement that this reflects.

And three factors are crucial:

1) it is an industry that involves Aboriginal people centrally in the process of production, capitalising on unique skills and cultural knowledge, and on relatively autonomous aesthetic practices.

2) the people who are working in the art industry are themselves people of tremendous knowledge skill. Running art businesses is a tremendously difficult thing to do and if people with the skills to do it could be attracted to other areas of business development within Aboriginal communities then that would greatly increase the chance for success. This is not going to be easy because clearly art advisers, and commercial gallery directors are self selected for by people with a passion for art. Many fail but those who succeed do so because they are good at the business. If the art centres become a fulcrum for business enterprise then perhaps we can persuade those same people to stay with the enterprise and add value to the community.

3) The success of the industry has depended on the development of relationships between local producers and staff in the communities with people working in urban centres who, in turn, are linked to global networks. While these relationships can be improved they are the kind of relationship that it is important to develop in other areas from education and training to tourism, environmental monitoring and protection.

Why is that governments and local community managers have resisted moving in this direction? Why have they been so reluctant to build on the growth of the art centres to facilitate their diversification? I think there are a number of reasons why this has not happened.

1) People have failed to recognise the skill levels of people in the industry.

2) Governments have been reluctant recognise the economic value of art, to see art as business, to see the economic value of culture; they see culture as a luxury or “recreation” and that art is not a proper job. I learnt that early on when I returned to Yirrkala after an absence of a year and asked how one of the really brilliant young artists was doing, to be told that fortunately he now had got a proper job as a house painter. I suspect that people once held similar attitudes to sportspeople. Subsidies for culture are often thought to be subsidising things people really ought to do for themselves, like playing sport. The fact that the art industry now contributes more to the Northern Territory economy than the cattle industry, without taking into its account its substantial role in tourism, should be a wake up call.

3) The idea has been that businesses in Aboriginal communities should be self-sufficient. Hence, as soon as art centres begin to stand on their own, the subsidy is removed. This may be rational on the surface, but it means that far from success being rewarded it seems that almost the opposite happens. If one looks at what art centres do with the surplus they tend to use it to diversity their enterprises, either by increasing the training resources, increasing their cultural activities within the community or diversifying into, for example, tourism.


Let me conclude finally by giving some examples of how other sectors might learn from the Aboriginal arts industry. So how can tourism in communities on Aboriginal land be helped by art? The answer lies in a number of different areas .

1) Helping to establish markets at the high end by providing a unique cultural and artistic experience. The holistic nature of much Aboriginal art means that art provides an entry point into landscape and the natural environment. It taps a particular kind of tourist— the adventurous tourist with a passion for art, nature and so on.

2) Building tourism in conjunction with the art industry can mean that each will potentially add value to the other and that tourism will develop in such a way that it does not undermine high value art production, and indeed may be away of attracting high end tourists.

3) Following some of the methods of the art advisers in developing the industry, the use of a highly skilled pool of workers from which to draw presenters and guides for particular occasions and train apprentice Indigenous experts, people with aptitude and a desire to learn in the administration and logistical side of the service.

4) Employing managers who have a passion for Aboriginal knowledge as well as business skills, seeing it as a potential widening of the career opportunities for the kind of people who work as facilitators in the culture business area. Importantly DESART and ANKAAA have played an significant role in developing the career structures and broadening the skills base of those employed in the industry.

5) Widening the uses of Indigenous culture in the market economy is indirectly going to support the continued production of art at a high level since as I have shown high quality art comes out of the internal value creation processes of Aboriginal society.

Art centres are successful Indigenous institutions. We try to build on them by developing knowledge centres linked to schools, linking them in with ranger programmes, making them components of multifunctional Indigenous centres for which there is no direct equivalent in Euro-Australian society, making them a central plank of regional development and one that is in touch with the community and community values. One in which community elders can be seen hard at work in areas in which their unique skills re recognised.

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