Notes on the Senate Inquiry: Darwin

I’m proceeding slightly out of order in my summaries of the published hearings of the Senate Inquiry into Australia’s indigenous visual arts and craft sector, as I only found the transcripts of the February 19 session in Kununurra today, and haven’t had the chance to look them over yet. The transcripts from the half-day session in Darwin on February 20 appeared earlier in the week, and it is to them that I want to turn my attention now.

The morning’s testimony in Darwin began with NT Minister for Arts and Museums Marion Scrymgour, along with Diana Leeder, NT Executive Director, Arts and Museums, and Stephanie Hawkins of the NT Indigenous Arts Development Unit. Their testimony was succeeded by a panel representing ANKAAA that comprised manager Susan Congreve along with members of the Executive Committee Donna Burak, Miriam Charlie, Djambawa Marawilli, and Regis Pangiraminni. Paul Johnstone of the Cross Cultural Art Exchange and Apolline Kohen from Maningrida Arts and Culture rounded out the morning’s proceedings.

The testimony rendered in Darwin sounded many of the same themes that were heard in Canberra eleven days earlier. The Senators continued to query the witnesses on the problem of carpetbaggers, the feasibility of instituting droit de suite, and the soundness of a registry that would help establish provenance and perhaps aid in disrupting the spread of unethical trading. But as I think back over the general timbre of the day’s evidence, there are three themes that emerged more strongly than I remember from the Canberra depositions.

The first of these is a growing sense (on my part, at least) of how difficult it will be for the government to get a firm grip on the size and scope of the arts industry and, by extension, how hard it will be to implement programs that can effectively monitor its activity. This problem hit home for me at the very end of the morning’s testimony when Kohen provided a precise breakdown of the percentage of revenues Maningrida obtains from their gallery in Darwin (10%), from business conducted through exhibitions in the southern states (26%), from overseas sales (14%), internet sales (7%), and direct sales to private collectors and through other venues (the remainder). The contrast between her exactitude and the general lack of such data for the industry as a whole that many people have commented on gave me a new sense of how diffuse all these operations are.

Minister Scrymgour’s testimony was likewise instructive as she outlined the welter of different offices, agreements, and agencies whose work touches the industry and clarified for the Senators whether she was speaking about operations at the federal or territory level. Government employee that I am, I began to speculate on the herculean effort that would be required to coordinate all this information, much less make sense of it all, and began to feel very discouraged about the chances for practical outcomes from the Inquiry, despite the admirable determination and the record of success that Scrymgour is able to point to in her own portfolio. Similarly, Paul Johnstone spoke at some length about trying to determine the percentage of sales generated from overseas markets. Frankly, by the time he was done separating galleries from exhibitions, subtracting community art centres sales, estimating domestic demand and multiplying by…. Well, let’s just say I wound up feeling dizzy about it all, and was grateful to have a sense of balance restored by Kohen’s cool and very businesslike demeanor at the end.

My sense of the difficulties the government faces was heightened by Scrymgour’s comments on prosecuting malfeasants who prey on impoverished artists. Scrymgour was breathing fire in her address at Desert Mob last September, and she was certainly passionate in the few minutes the Senators offered her to address the problem of carpetbaggers in her remarks on February 20. Still it was discouraging to hear her admit in her final remarks to the practical limits she faces.

I could tell you many a horror story and give evidence, but we do not have time. I have received those complaints. We have put some of those complaints through the proper avenues that need to be looked at. Unfortunately, there are some barriers to that in terms of how you prosecute when consent has been given by that artist. It raises all sorts of dilemmas. As I said, if you are going to have such a scheme there needs to be more consultation, but at some point we will all need to bite the bullet and something will need to be put in place because it is an industry—and we have said this right throughout our submission—that needs to be protected (p. 15).

The second theme that arose in three of the four sessions (Mr. Johnstone excepted) was that of permits for entry onto Aboriginal land, and here again I found the testimony chilling for the new insights it brought to me. Prior to reading this transcript I had understood the utility of the permits in controlling who gains access to the communities. I understood that the permits could be used to deny entry to people of questionable intent–even if that rarely happens in many communities. But both Scrymgour and Kohen raised a possibility that I hadn’t considered.

If the requirement for permits were lifted, nothing could prevent an entrepreneur from moving into a community and literally “setting up shop” next door to an art centre. Kohen describes such a hypothetical scenario, noting that an outsider, unaffiliated with an art centre would most likely pursue the high profile artists, and if successful, could thereby decrease the art centre’s revenue and thus its ability to sustain operations. The reduced cash flow coming into an art centre from such “competition” would make it more difficult for the centre to support, train, and encourage emerging artists. It would additionally restrict the money available to support the wide variety of other activities like trips out to country and travel for sorry business that are a very real part of many arts centres’ activities and contributions to the community. However, Kohen remains optimistic about Maningrida Art and Culture’s ability to survive such competition. She believes that the Centre would still pay better than an outsider and would offer other opportunities such as providing travel to exhibitions in other capital cities, working to promote artists’ success in competitions and prizes, and generally enhancing the importance of culture. These are all activities that are unlikely to be of great concern to an incomer whose primary motive is quick profit. (Still, the possibility of such forms of competition undermining the more complex functions of the art centres remains quite real, and may be seen soon in communities in the southern desert.)

All parties, quite naturally, support the ongoing use of permits for entry onto Aboriginal land. The representatives from ANKAAA brought two perspectives to the discussion. Regis Pangiraminni from the Tiwi Islands was forthright in stating that in his community they use the permit system to ban entry by known carpetbaggers. Djambawa Marawilli’s take was interesting. He said, “I think we should keep permits because when people come then there is guidance for those people” (p. 24). This is a perspective I’ve not seen addressed in the hearings before, and only rarely elsewhere. It is not surprising to hear it from the Yolngu, who have long been known for using their art as instruction forbalanda. While protecting the most sacred inner meanings of their art, they have always seen its utility, from the days of the Yirrkala Bark Petition through to the Saltwaterexhibition, in educating outsiders to the Yolngu way of thinking. (The recent upholding on appeal of rights to the sea won by the traditional owners of Blue Mud Bay may be an indication, in part, of the success of this strategy.)

The third dominant theme was one of employment, and it centered largely, though not exclusively, on the benefits of CDEP to the communities. I’ve been following the news stories about CDEP reform, and was under the impression that although the programs were being eliminated in many urban areas, they would remain protected in the remote communities where they essentially form the backbone of employment. However, the Senators noted several times in quizzing the witnesses that in the future, participation in the CDEP for any individual will be limited to a single year. I hope I am misunderstanding what they are saying. Leaving the program in place but severely limiting participation is not much better than abolishing it outright in areas where there is no job market for people to move into. Similar “reforms” in America were designed to push people off welfare rolls, to use the stick to encourage job-seeking. The sad truth is that while welfare rolls have decreased in size, there is no evidence that the “mothers with dependent children” (part of the official title of the welfare system in America) are actually any better off in their personal economic situations for having entered the workforce. 

The participants detailed the varied ways in which CDEP is important to the communities and to the arts centres. It provides income now, while people are waiting for jobs to develop in their homelands, as Regis Pangiraminni noted. It can provide supplements to money earned through the sale of art, and it can help defray the cost of workshops that train new artists. It offers salaries to essential workers in the arts centres other than the managers and assistant managers. Johnstone noted that at Waringarri Arts, the assistant manager herself, a very competent worker, became such a valuable asset to the Centre through the apprenticeship she received while working for CDEP wages. Kohen cautioned that removal of CDEP funding from Maningrida Arts and Culture “would turn it from being a success story … into another failure in the making” (p. 45).

Johnstone raised another interesting point in relation to CDEP funding for training in remote communities. Apart from activities pertaining directly to the functioning of art centres, he suggests that training young people in technology and media may contribute to the continuing survival of culture and the flourishing of the arts. There is great appeal in video and audio technology especially to young men in these communities, and that appeal extends to computer technology as well. Coupled with school training programs, this interest in a variety of digital technologies can forge a link between youth and the older artists: imagine a young cameraman filming an elder, learning the culture (as content) while learning to handle a video device (the medium). I expect there is a potential there for developing new forms of artistic expression as well with digital media supplementing or replacing acrylic paint, for example. The point is to increase the interaction of youth with the existing guardians of the culture in ways that help to assure that it will continue to be passed along. (Will Stubbs has spoken of similar hopes for a media center at Yirrkala, where much archival footage exists on film: a project that allows young people to digitize and preserve this footage in cooperation with old people who still know the participants and the ceremonies recorded would be a brilliant example of two-way learning. Kim Christen, author of the blog Long Road is similarly engaged from an academic basis in creating the Warumungu Community Digital Archive Project, also with some assistance from CDEP.)

Although I said earlier that I found some of the complexities presented in the Darwin hearings bringing on a sense of discouragement, on reflection I have to say that, on the whole, what I have read so far of the Senate Inquiry’s proceedings gives me cause for hope. If nothing else, it is heartening to know that the Senators are being given the chance to hear from a broad representation of people involved with Aboriginal art today, from academics to artists, and from indigenous officials to members the business community. It is evident that the Senators are hearing things they did not expect to encounter, and they are probing their witness attentively, and I must repeat, with great courtesy and sensitivity. I just wish that the national press were as attentive to these proceedings. Given the depth with which the Senators are exploring the issues and the sophistication of many of the witnesses, I would be delighted to read an analysis of the hearings that reported on something other than the same tired (important, but journalistically exhausted) news of scandals, fakes, and forgeries that we heard about last six or eight months ago, before the Inquiry’s work began. Or will the journalistic reach forever exceed its grasp?

Other posts on the Senate Inquiry:
Alice Springs 

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