Notes on the Senate Inquiry

I. Preliminaries

The newspapers were full of stories this week about the Senate Inquiry into Australia’s Indigenous Visual Arts and Craft Sector. Particular interest was aroused by the February 20 testimony in Darwin by NT Minister for the Arts Marion Scrymgour. Unfortunately, the media seemed most interested in Scrymgour’s comments on the flood of fake didjeridus coming in from Asia. I say unfortunately because Ms. Scrymgour also addressed the importance of art centres as “custodians of tradition and ongoing cultural development.” But allegations of fraud and fakery, important as they are to this Inquiry, play better in the tabloids than the hard work of managing the central economic engine in bush communities, and we’ll have to wait until the transcripts of the testimony become available in the Hansard to hear the full story of what was said in Darwin, as well as in Kununurra, Alice Springs, and Sydney over five days this past week.

The good news, though, is that the testimony that was taken in Canberra on February 9 is now available online at the Senate Hearings website. I must say, if anyone had told me six months ago that I’d spend hours glued to the Hansard, and look forward to reading it all again, I’d have laughed. But the transcripts, all sixty-five pages of them, are compelling reading. Granted, they start off a little slow. Occasionally I was painfully aware that I was in the middle of a governmental and bureaucratic investigation; sometimes, early on, I found myself getting impatient with the Senators. But by the end of the afternoon’s proceedings I was rapt and almost cheering.

The morning’s sessions in Canberra began with testimony from the Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts (DCITA), given primarily by Lynn Bean, Acting Deputy Secretary for Arts and Sport. Wally Caruana, formerly of the National Gallery and now a private consultant, came next on the schedule. The morning’s testimony was concluded by Patrick Donaldson and John Odgers of Austrade. These sessions did much to establish a factual infrastructure for the Senators, providing them with basic information about the arts industry, and allowing them to clarify points that had emerged during their readings of the various submissions to the Inquiry.

The afternoon began with testimony from indigenous members of the arts community, first by Dr. John Moriarity of the National Indigenous Council, followed by indigenous curators Brenda Croft of the National Gallery and Hetti Perkins of the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Following a belated afternoon tea break, the academics weighed in mightily in the persons of Howard Morphy, Director of the Centre for Cross-Cultural Studies at the ANU, and Jon Altman of the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, also of the ANU. I found these reports especially engrossing, often inspirational, and at one point I actually laughed out loud for an extended moment at the apt observations of one of the Senators.

For among all the starring roles listed above, I should give the Senators themselves a good deal of credit. I had read the witnesses’ submissions a couple of months ago, and of course know several of them through their published works, their reputations, and in a few cases, have actually been fortunate to meet them. The Senators, however, were unknowns to me before this morning, and I can’t say that I’ve quite sorted them out yet. One of the reasons I look forward to a second reading is to track the various comments and personalities of these men and women a bit better. 

Senator Alan Eggleston (Western Australia), as Chair, does emerge a bit from the crowd on first reading. He is to be commended for the manner in which he ran the day’s hearing. He was scrupulous in reminding his fellow Senators not to compromise the government officials who appeared by asking them to comment on official policies; he kept the proceedings moving nearly on schedule without seeming to cut off the witnesses; and he displayed considerable tact and courtesy throughout. (I was disappointed that Deputy Chair Andrew Bartlett (Queensland) was not in attendance, as I’ve recently enjoyed following reports about Palm Island in his blog, The Bartlett Diaries. He writes frequently about indigenous affairs, but has remained silent in that forum on the arts.)

Overall, I found that as the day went on, and more information was presented, the Senators did a good job of assimilating what they heard. Although they clearly had some points they wished to make with each witness–such as trying to determine the percentage of the arts market that is affected by the unethical behavior that has in part sparked these proceedings, or how the witness regarded the issue of droit de suite–I found that they listened and responded to each witness’s testimony; they were engaged. And they were prepared and they clearly had done their homework in reading each of the submissions prepared by the witnesses in advance of the hearing. The Chair opened each session by asking the witness if he or she wished to add anything to their written submissions, and all listened attentively before proceeding with their own questions. Watching the United States Congress on C-SPAN doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence, and so I was unprepared to be quite so impressed by the performance of these officials.

II. Testimonies

I am not going to try to summarize six hours of testimony here. The transcripts deserve to be studied, especially in that the Senator’s often took points raised by one witness and asked another’s opinion or perspective. I frankly haven’t had the time to digest the material that well yet. But there were highlights that I would like to selectively share with you, perhaps as an enticement to read the testimony in full.

With due respect: 
Before commenting on any of the substantive points raised, I want to say a word about John Moriarity’s eloquence and dignity in a situation that he found, by his own immediate admission, unusual and disconcerting. Perhaps I can do better by letting him speak for himself, as the Chair urged him to do. Here he describes his background:

I am on the National Indigenous Council, but my background is that I am from the Northern Territory and a place called Borroloola. I have an Irish father and a tribal Aboriginal mother. At the age of four I was loaded onto the back of an Army truck from Roper River and sent south through to Mulgoa, which is 40 miles west of Sydney. After a few years there, under the auspices of the church and the government, we were removed from Mulgoa to what we thought would be back to the Northern Territory. But a priest started a home in Adelaide and I was unloaded there. I made contact with my family at Borroloola and, after an absence of 10 years, I have kept in touch ever since (p. 29).

I can’t say why, but I found that paragraph, for all its simplicity and brevity, to be one of the most moving stories of the Stolen Generation that I’ve heard. I was equally struck when later in his testimony, attempting to describe how to ensure that artists get a fair go from those who represent them in the market, he said, “I do not have the right or the experience to talk about how best to do that thing” (p. 31). I think only an indigenous person would say in these circumstances “I do not have the right”; following on his earlier explication of rights in designs used in artworks, I suspect–or at least hope–that simple statement conveyed an important point to the Senators. Similarly, his subtle and incisive summary (pp. 30-31) of how art centre managers are perceived in their communities–as mediators between the aspirations of the community and those of the individual–provides a unique indigenous perspective.

On “freedom of choice”:
Much has been made in the newspapers, and in the submissions to the Inquiry, about the issue of artists being given “freedom of choice” in the decision concerning to whom they sell their work. Usually, this arises in discussions of artists who are affiliated with community art centres but opt to sell their works to independent dealers in towns like Alice Springs. The dividing lines in this controversy are usually pretty clear, and I have repeatedly written about my support for the art centres and my fundamental disagreement that this is really an issue of freedom of choice. I was therefore delighted to hear Hetti Perkins take a sledgehammer to the carpetbaggers’ logic.

We feel that the efforts of this small group to increase their private profits through the promotion of a false legitimacy for their businesses is increasingly focussed on the strategic and active undermining of the work of artist run and government run agencies. We take issue with those people that claim Aboriginal artists should be given free choice and that to do anything otherwise is racist and discriminatory. We feel that it is racist and discriminatory to presume that artists particularly in the more remote areas or the more disadvantaged areas are able to make free choices, given their circumstances (p.35).

Senator Stephen Parry (Tasmania) went on to explore just what those circumstances are, and once again, Perkins nailed it quite simply:

I think that sometimes they are vulnerable just because they are hungry and poor. Desart’s executive notes on Desart’s committee meeting said, ‘Our kids sit down and they are hungry’ (p.39).

On Accountability:
In discussions of government funding for Aboriginal affairs in general, the issue of accountability is a constant theme, usually in reference to budgets and audits. In the context of the Inquiry, many of the submissions dwelled on the burden of paperwork that this creates for overworked and undertrained arts centre managers. Jon Altman addressed the issue in his testimony, but raised an important point about accountability within the indigenous community that is far too often overlooked.

This indicates to me that we may have a best practice model in Indigenous affairs that good public policy should ensure is maintained and, if possible, replicated widely. That model is the community controlled arts centre that is publicly funded in part, hence ensuring external accountability, but is artist controlled, hence ensuring internal accountability, artistic independence and integrity. In places where this model works most robustly, as a general rule there is least opportunity for unethical informal operators to make opaque and informal deals with artists.

On Success:
The success of the Aboriginal art movement in the last 40 years is a theme that the witnesses returned to over and over again. Morphy and Altman in particular lay emphasis on this fact, while arguing persuasively that such success does not and should not do away with the need for state support and patronage. Sadly, their testimony also offers evidence that successful art centres often do lose funding. There is a wry commentary on this state of affairs, arising from the Senators’ early inability to understand, when speaking to the DCITA representatives, how they can not have a precise count of the number of art centres in operation. Posing the same question to Jon Altman late in the day, they are told that one explanation for the loss of contact with art centres might be as simple as this: “You defunded us last year. We’re not talking to you anymore” (p. 57).

Altman also makes the important point that the pressures for arts centres to be commercially successful, and the threat of defunding if they are may actually exacerbate the problems of unethical dealings in the communities, rather than ameliorating them.

A problem I highlight in my submission is that lack of overall state patronage of the sector is resulting in undue pressure on arts centres to become commercially viable. Thus misunderstanding their service delivery role and their fundamentally mixed cultural and commercial character. This in turn might be a factor in enhancing rather than ameliorating unethical practice (p. 53).

While in general agreement that the arts centres offer a model for successful initiatives involving communities and government, the witnesses are less uniform in their ideas about what expectations can be raised by this success. Caruana is optimistic, noting that “when an arts centre is robust and working properly within a community the social wellbeing of that community improves dramatically” (p. 13). Later, Senator Ruth Webber (Western Australia) raises the issues of expectations, particularly in the communities themselves, but also among her constituents and among government agencies. She is concerned the people will believe that support for the arts can be a “panacea to the economic challenges they confront.” Caruana agrees “[t]hat is one of the things that you have to be careful of” (pp. 18-19). In his opening remarks, Altman bluntly states that “organisations that deliver arts infrastructure are just that. They will not be cure-alls for the many problems faced by many indigenous communities” (p. 54).

On Exhibitions, At Home and Abroad:
Given that two of the witnesses in the Canberra hearings were representatives of Austrade, it is not surprising that questions of economic support for exhibitions of Australian art abroad arose repeatedly through the day, and particularly so in light of the recent publicity generated by the opening of the Musee du Quai Branly and the retrospective exhibition of John Mawurndjul’s work in Basel and Hannover. As also might be expected, the fact that the latter failed to find a venue in Australia was the subject of repeated critique. In my mind this was most strikingly addressed by an exchange among Professor Altman and Senators Webber and Parry. It was Senator Webber’s conclusion to this conversation that provoked my hearty if rueful laughter, and so I will excerpt it at some length here.

Prof. Altman—There is not the level of engagement that, for instance, any of us would expect in terms of feedback in terms of our performance. This is a common complaint from community based arts centres. Again, we are very happy to laud them when artists from these arts centres feature, for instance, at Musee du Quai Branly in Paris. But, again, you rarely get a follow-up letter from a minister of the state or a senior bureaucrat saying, ‘It was terrific that an artist from your remote art centre represented Australia overseas or was involved in a retrospective exhibition’, as John Mawurndjul was in Basel at the Jean Tinguely Museum. I would not want to suggest any differentiation on ethnic grounds, but I suspect that if a living non-Indigenous artist had a retrospective at the Jean Tinguely Museum they would get considerable public acclaim.

Senator PARRY—Would that be, though, because of the networks involved? A minister is not going to become aware of every person who has a painting hanging somewhere or works exposed somewhere. Networks inform people and, if the Indigenous network is not as great as non-Indigenous networks, I am sure that would be a contributing factor.

Prof. Altman—I would not dispute that networks are important, but when you get—and I will repeat this—a living Indigenous artist having a retrospective in a major public art institution in Europe, in Basel and then in Hanover, in their own lifetime—and I do not think that there is a living Australian artist who has had a retrospective like that—and that artist does not get any political acknowledgement is pretty surprising. I should say that people in Europe note that with some surprise.

Senator PARRY—If that is correct, then that is poor.

Senator WEBBER—That is correct. Obviously, the network is there if people overseas know about it. I do not want to in any way diminish the contribution these people make, but every second Australian cricketer gets an Order of Australia and they are all over the place. But where people make a significant contribution to our own Indigenous culture, people overseas know about them and we do not.

The problem of a lack of support for exhibitions in Australia was also addressed by Howard Morphy, who made the connection between the lack of critical writing, university courses in Aboriginal art, limited curatorial expertise, and the small number of such exhibitions. All of these things contribute to the lack of sponsorship for such exhibitions in both intellectual and financial terms. He made the excellent point that limits on funding forced the Art Gallery of New South Wales to present Papunya Tula: Genesis and Geniusas a paying exhibition, thus further limiting attendance, interest, and understanding on the part of the general public (p. 49). Croft and Perkins, who represent the new wave of informed indigenous curators who are beginning to make inroads on these issues, spoke of their relative isolation, especially from other indigenous curators, and the need for funding that will allow them to cooperate more and to learn from one another (p. 43).

Morphy laments the manner in which “the Australian art establishment, shall we say, is still quite conservative in its reception of Australian Aboriginal Art” (p. 49), after presenting the Senators with an overview of how slow the National and State galleries were in beginning to collect the art at all. I suspect that the competition among galleries that he alludes to–in direct contrast or in support of the curator’s complaint about their isolation?–does not help. My memory is undoubtedly faulty, but apart from the retrospectives for Albert Namatjira, Clifford Possum, and Paddy Bedford, I can’t remember a major exhibition traveling among the state galleries in recent years. Each of those exhibitions had significant corporate sponsorship, as did Crossing Country, which did not travel. From a quick look at the galleries’ websites, it appears that last year’s Michael Riley: Sights Unseen and AGNSW’s Papunya Tula did not have corporate sponsorship. I certainly don’t know the Australian tax laws, but might not one outcome of these deliberations be ways to incent such sponsorship? Would it not be a boon if the annual NATSIAA exhibition could be seen outside Darwin? I realize there are numerous problems with that suggestion, probably starting with Telstra and certainly extending to the complications of touring an exhibition whose works are for sale (just whose capital–communities, galleries, collectors– would be tied up for the six months such a tour might last?) But might not the prestige of the Award Show bring in audiences in another capital city? And might not the regularity of schedule make smooth some of the difficulties in planning?

And Much, Much More:
In summarizing the testimony so far, I have barely touched on many other themes that arose: education for both artists and the public; provenance, authentication, and regulation; the special problems of artists in the southeastern states; training and professional development for arts centre managers; or the all-important discussions of reliable funding for infrastructure of the community art centres so eloquently argued by Jon Altman in both his submission and his testimony. But for the moment I want to go back to the transcripts themselves, and give them another read-through. I hope you will, too.

Other posts on the Senate Inquiry:
Alice Springs 

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