Notes on the Senate Inquiry: Alice Springs

The fourth day of testimony before the Senate Inquiry into Australia’s Indigenous Arts and Crafts Industry took place in Alice Springs on February 21, 2007 in Alice Springs. If one thinks of the emergence of Aboriginal painting into the fine arts market as beginning at Papunya with Geoff Bardon, and one considers Papunya Tula Artists to be the model of community arts centres (though it is not the oldest), then it should be no surprise that much of the testimony given in Alice, the hub of the Central Desert, tended to focus on the operations of art centres. In a surprising way, it also focused on the operations of the marketplace in parts of the Central Desert marked by the absence of incorporated art centres. For as long as Papunya Tula Artists and Warlukurlangu Artists have been driving forces in the desert art movement, the work of painters from the area loosely known as Utopia has also been a powerful presence, and the region around Utopia it is an area in which art centres have never thrived. The differing outcomes for artists and communities served by incorporated art centres (such as Kintore and Yuendumu) as opposed to those not so served (those around Utopia) could be lesson learned from this day of testimony.

The theme of funding for art centres has been a constant throughout the hearings, and was sounded again by John Oster of Desart, Cecilia Alfonso of Warlukurlangu, and Paul Sweeney of Papunya Tula. As it was repeatedly pointed out in the Alice hearings, Papunya Tula receives no government funding–not even from CDEP wages–and this anomaly proved endlessly fascinating to the Senators. At times, reading the testimony, I found the emphasis on Papunya Tula’s success disheartening, as some of the Senators seemed not to take in the unique circumstances of Papunya Tula’s history and position that account for its strength. I’m not even sure they appreciated how extraordinary it is for PTA to have had Sweeney in its employ for ten years, let alone realizing Daphne Williams’ twenty-year tenure with the company. Sweeney and Luke Scholes did their best to make these circumstances comprehensible, citing both the early emergence of the company as an Aboriginal-owned entity and the attraction of its prestige in recruiting and retaining field workers. And although Sweeney joked that he would like to be the owner of such a successful company rather than its employee, he did not fail to stress the need for funding to continue to flow from the government to art centres throughout the region.

It’s impossible to tell from transcripts exactly what was in the Senators’ minds, but they seemed to take the company’s success as a beacon of hope that Aboriginal art centres might survive and flourish in the absence of support from the government. I hope that I’m misreading the line of questioning, but the theme of Papunya Tula’s independence emerged repeatedly in the day’s testimony. I thought Warlukurlangu’s Alfonso did quite a nice job of pointing out a level of disparity in arts funding later in the morning. After noting that Warlukurlangu’s ration comes to a grand total of A$60,000 a year, she remarked further on the need for support of the infrastructure of the arts centres, including not just obvious needs like buildings (here again, Warlukurlangu has recently opened a new building financed out of their own monies), but for facilities like broadband connections that serve the marketing needs of the communities. She went on to point at that while there is a pot of one million dollars a year for such enhancements for all the desert art centres, the government allocates $84 million a year for the national orchestra. 

The differences between the Aboriginal art industry and other sectors of the economy was the subject of commentary when issues of licensing and governance arose. The Senators, to their credit, have keenly pursued this issue in an attempt to understand how the bugbear of unethical behavior might be contained. Many of the witnesses have expressed some skepticism about the feasibility of schemes that have been floated, while not denying the seriousness of the problem they are trying to address. Sweeney did note that the lack of monitoring seems a bit strange:

How you introduce that monitor, I have no idea. I would have to give up my current job and take it up full-time to work out how to do that. I was thinking about it over the weekend and an ad for a furniture business cropped up on television. At the end of the commercial they made it a point to note that this company was an accredited furniture removalist business who was therefore monitored by the Institute of Furniture Removalists. I thought, ‘You have to be accredited to move a chair from Sydney to Perth and yet millions of dollars are flying around the country virtually completely unmonitored.’ I believe there is room for consideration (p. 14).

Similarly, John Oster of Desart tried to point out differences with respect to the dollar value of the Aboriginal art industry (the figure of $500 million estimated by Michael Reid was mentioned several times) and the number of indigenous artists in Central Australia (2,500) versus similar figures for the cattle industry (about $30 million and 1,600 employees).

The interesting point about this is that the cattle industry has a long and valued history. The kinds of infrastructure that are put into this territory to support the cattle industry in terms of roads, saleyards and those kinds of things have a lot of government support. The cattle industry is a national icon. It is something we define our nation by. We put the same case to you for Aboriginal art. We believe that there is a case for greater support for this industry (p. 28).

In her testimony, Cecilia Alfonso of Warlukurlangu Artists reiterated the theme of education for the artists, and did so strikingly well in the context of economics. Both Alfonso and Andrea Nungurrayi Martin talked about the employment of local people at the Art Centre in Yuendumu, and how the amount of work always exceeds the numbers of available workers. Moreover, for these workers to be effective in many of the roles in which the art centre could employ them, they need basic literacy and numeracy skills. Alfonso noted with regret that the sorry state of the school’s performance at Yuendumu has actually resulted in declining rates of literacy over the five years she has been resident at the settlement. She went beyond the basics as well, noting that even with these skills in place, a tremendous amount of work needs to be done. Addressing the question of Centrelink and the payment of taxes, she noted that, where these artists are concerned, the state “cannot undo an economic system that is thousands and thousands of years old and expect them to pick up a new one overnight.” And while this statement is an important message in its own right, there is an implicit and important truth hidden within it. Prior to the advent of cash, to the development of an art market, there was an economy in place among indigenous people. Too often we equate economics with finance; but doing so fundamentally misrepresents Aboriginal culture.

On the question of unethical behavior, a couple of new themes arose. Both Sweeney and Oster brought eBay into the discussion for the first time in these hearings–unsurprising given that much of the work sold on eBay comes from the Central Desert, but surprising in that the problem did not surface until the Alice Springs hearing. (I was also surprised that Tim Jennings did not refer to eBay, since a vast majority of the work that is sold there comes from the Utopia region.) 

Oster’s implication (pp. 25-26) that the Central Desert art trade provides a locus for money laundering came as a shock to me, despite the biting exposition of unethical trading practices outlined in Desart’s submission to the Inquiry. Although once again the evidence can only be classified as hearsay, the reports of a roll of cash ten centimeters in diameter certainly got my attention as well as the Senators’. Once again the lack of hard evidence seems to protect malfeasants, and the fact that so much of the cash economy obviously goes undocumented seems to mean that government investigations rarely begin and, when they do, quickly go nowhere. (See, for example the ABC’s PMstory “Calls for tax office to clean up Aboriginal art fraud” from March 31, 2006.) Nor could I escape the irony that, in Oster’s words, “In the past 18 months there has been a revised strategy apparent from Centrelink. Centrelink has apparently become far more aggressive in seeking out artists and their compliance with Centrelink” (p. 30), that is, payment of taxes. My guess is that a roll of money ten centimeters in diameter exceeds the taxable income of most artists in the Centre.

As a sidebar here, let me note that in trying to keep up with reading and reporting on the transcripts of the Hearings, I have not always gone back to reread the original submissions by the individuals and organizations who are being interviewed. However, several comments in the course of Oster’s testimony did take me back to Desart’s submission, and I would recommend them to you, especially for their blunt and startling description of some of the abuses of artists that they document. The third attachment to Desart’s submission, Report of Organisational Audit, Irrunytju Arts, November 2006, is likewise relevant to the remainder of the Alice Springs testimony.

Another surprise that shouldn’t have been a surprise was to hear the issue of John Ioannou and Agathon Gallery’s takeover of Irrunytju Arts baldly addressed in the testimony by Narayan Kozeluh, the former manager at Artists of Ampilatwatja. Kozeluh’s testimony is a broth of bitterness. He has been involved in a long series of disputes with the Central Land Council (partially reported in the Alice Springs News for May 18, 2005) and with ATSIC, and with what he refers to as “a lot of private interests in the Utopia region” (p.54). In his submission to the Inquiry and in his testimony, he condemns the scourge of painting for money, and points to Agathon as an example of the trouble that ensues when profit overtakes aesthetic and cultural concerns. What struck me as I was reading the testimony, however, was a “bureaucratic” parallel between Artists of Ampilatwatja and Irrunytju Arts: neither was officially incorporated as an arts centre within the community. Although I don’t fully understand the implications of incorporation, it seems that the lack of it has meant in the end a lack of protection for the artists. 

Throughout the testimony , the Senators have been at pains to document how money flows through the art centres to the artists, often quizzing the witnesses as length on the percentage of receipts that is returned to the artist, and how that money is distributed, whether by direct purchase by the centre, through advances against sales on consignment, or by some other mechanism. Generally, if the artist sells the work through an art centre, the figures that have been quoted indicate they receive, on average, sixty percent of the sale price of their work. When asked the same questions, Tim Jennings of Mbantua Gallery in Alice estimated that he has expenses of about $1.7 million a year against receipts of approximately $2.5 million, and that payments to artists in the same period totaled $750,000, or about thirty percent of the annual turnover. Now I must immediately note that Jennings operates a private business, and that he receives no subsidies from the government; he obviously must bear the full cost of his operations, and his own profit is estimated at under twelve percent. Additionally, he operates a large gallery in Alice Springs and sponsors a cricket league in the town. He acts as a reliable outlet for many of the artists in the Utopia region. But I think his testimony indirectly highlights, once again, the financial benefits that accrue to artists and communities who are serviced by an incorporated arts centre within the community. 

The Alice Springs Hearings brought to a close the scheduled testimony from managers of art centres. This is perhaps a fitting location for such a conclusion, as the Central Desert represents the beginnings of the art centre movement, the earliest success of indigenous art in the fine arts market, and a diverse mixture of operations. The continuing strength of Papunya Tula and Warlukurlangu Artists offers instructive contrast to the equally long-lived and important art movement in Utopia. Out of Utopia, without the benefit of functional community art centres, came one of the first major international success stories in Emily Kngwarreye, as well as the recent marketing phenomenon of Minnie Pwerle. But the communities around Utopia have been subject to strife and inconsistent support over the decades. The most fascinating dissertation in economic history could surely be written someday out of the brew of this artistic region.

Other posts on the Senate Inquiry:
Alice Springs 

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