Notes on the Senate Inquiry: Sydney

This will probably be the last in my series of posts on the Senate Inquiry into Australia’s Indigenous Visual Arts and Crafts Sector for a while. It’s hard to believe that I began it almost four months ago and that the last of the scheduled hearings is now five weeks in the past. My thanks are due to all who have written about these reports for the encouragement that they have given me. Last night as my eyes were glazing over during a re-reading of the Sydney testimony, I thought it has indeed been a long road.And so I want to start by once again expressing my admiration for the Senators who have conducted the hearings, digested all the submissions, and continued to refine their understanding of the issues at hand. It is clear from their comments that many of them were not expert in the business of indigenous art to begin with. It’s also clear that the range of models for the creation, development, production, distribution, and dissemination of the art (to paraphrase Lydia Miller of the Australia Council for the Arts’ Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Board) are many and complex, and the activities of the various governmental and legal agencies involved on the whitefella side no less so. The determination of the Senators to put as much on the record as possible, to invite even more documentation from those interviewed, and at the conclusion of testimony, in Sydney on February 23, to be talking of inviting several key players back again for further hearings is commendable.

The Sydney hearings struck me, to resort to cliche, as the point where the rubber hit the road. It was here, more powerfully than before, that I had the sense of the idealism of community arts workers, dealers, and scholars meeting the pragmatic and sometimes seemingly intractable business of government and legal regulation. The testimony of the various agencies that appeared before the Inquiry in Sydney gave me a new understanding of the complexities that need to be addressed. 

At the simplest level, I gained a new appreciation of what a relatively small proportion of the work of bodies like National Association for the Visual Arts (NAVA), Viscopy, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), and even the Australia Council relates to the indigenous arts sector. I realized how, looking from the inside out, from the perspective of one deeply involved with indigenous art, I tend to overlook the bigger picture. Likewise, the perceptive comment by Robin Ayres of the Arts Law Centre of Australia that “trade practices legislation and the departments of fair trade or consumer affairs focus on the consumer side of things” (p. 58) rather than protecting the producers afforded me a blinding glimpse of the obvious. 

On the other hand, I was pleased to hear Ms Ayres take the ACCC to task and assert that there is much more that the ACCC can do in the way of proactive education to “get out on the ground to let people know that they exist” (p. 57). The ACCC is undoubtedly as overworked as any agency, but I felt that their testimony showed a remarkable lack of preparation and involvement and an over-reliance on bureaucratic procedure and normative practice. Again, if they are receiving 50,000-60,000 complaints a year, and their focus is on the consumer rather than the producer, this is perhaps understandable. But as testimony has pointed out over and over again, the indigenous visual arts industry is something of a special case in Australia, one spectacularly lacking in oversight despite its high volume and visibility.

And yet oversight itself is a difficult issue, as the testimony variously provided by Beverly Knight, Chris Hodges, Michael Reid, and the representatives of NAVA affirmed. Self-regulation might be a desirable avenue, being the least burdensome, but all concerned agreed that self-regulation is also the least effective form of policing, as those with no desire to conform to ethical standards in the industry will simply refuse to sign on, and will find easy justification for remaining aloof. In this regard, John Ioannou’s tale of being invited to join an organization–unnamed–are instructive: “I went to one of their meetings and the faces I saw there did not make me happy at all. I do not need to prove that I am honest and hardworking” (p. 78). On the other hand, government regulation can be seen, even by some of the Senators, to be intrusive and overbearing, subject to manipulation, and potentially hazardous to those it is designed to protect.

Michael Reid was the most impassioned proponent of regulation, describing his own experience as a member of the Australian Antique Dealers Association as an example of the potential strengths of professional associations, but also admitting that only perhaps ten percent of dealers in the country belong to it. He went on to describe the process as it applies to lawyers (and doctors).

Mr Reid—Yes, they are, but do you know what? I am a member of the Law Society of New South Wales. I did a law degree at Sydney University; I did a postgraduate diploma at UTS. So what? I still had to stand up in front of the Supreme Court of New South Wales and say, ‘My name is Michael Reid.’ And the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of New South Wales said, ‘I see you, Mr Reid.’ All my study, all my pretensions or otherwise—I was accepted at that point. At that time, someone stood up and the Chief Justice said, ‘I do not see you.’ The buck stopped with him. He said, ‘You are not good enough to practise law in New South Wales.’ The Supreme Court have the authority to do that, and they have done it hundreds and hundreds of times. So merely applying is not enough; someone on the board says, ‘No’. And they have the right to say no.

Senator RONALDSON—But if they are sophisticated enough to get those five references, then presumably they are sophisticated—

Mr Reid—So I can get—

Senator RONALDSON—Exactly—to get accreditation.

Mr Reid—I can still get through the Sydney University and I can still get through UTS and I can still be a raving lunatic, and the Chief Justice can still say no. So there is a point at which—

Senator RONALDSON—And who do you suggest is going to be the Chief Justice in this scenario?

Mr Reid—We appoint people to play God all the time; we have been doing it for thousands of years. In the final analysis, we can set up industry bodies like those that have been set up for doctors, lawyers, builders and plumbers.

We are talking nuts and bolts stuff here. It has been done elsewhere; it can be done. A group of people can be given the authority to say, on all the evidence, yes or no. Because no matter how sophisticated your application is, you can still be a person who is not of good conduct. Law societies all over the country have that authority. Take doctors—you might be one of the world’s most fabulous doctors, but if you are sexually assaulting your patients, guess what? Someone will make the call that you are not of good conduct. I am asking that these forms of processes be applied to my industry. We want it. We desperately need it.

To continue examining the practical difficulties of achieving the results that many would like to see emerge from these hearings, I would like to leave the issue of regulation aside for a moment and return to a theme that dominated much of the earlier testimony: funding. For this I’d like to look briefly at the remarks offered by the delegation from the Australia Council for the Arts, which was led by Chris Sarra. That body’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Board has been a leading developer of programs designed to enhance ethical practices in the industry, as reported by Miriam Cosic in The Australian last year (“Funding solutions for ethical problems,” April 28, 2006). Four grants totaling $3 million over three years were announced then. The Council’s submission to the Inquiry details further plans (reiterated in Dr. Sarra’s opening remarks) to build on those initiatives by proposing another $20 million, again over a three-year period, to support and stimulate indigenous arts activity. The proposals are breathtaking in their sweep and intelligence.

And yet as the Senators explored the possible benefits–and administration–of the Australia Council’s funding, it was borne in on me once again how truly fragile and overburdened the administrative structures of the art centres and community organizations are. (I should note here that the triennial funding model adopted by the Australian Council is an important recognition of this fragility and an important commitment to easing those burdens, one that should be applauded and emulated.) Other testimony throughout the day that commented on the lack of comparable focal points for indigenous artists in urban areas only served to highlight the paucity of resources on the ground. It struck me that if all the schemes for regulation could be winnowed down to just one or two, and if all the possibilities for funding–half a dozen or more from the Australia Council alone, plus monies from DCITA, CDEP, and other state and federal initiatives–were to come through, the indigenous arts organizations on the ground could well collapse under the weight of the successes promulgated by the Inquiry.

So in the end, it seems, it comes back once again to the necessity of going back to the source–to the communities themselves, be they urban or remote–and building the infrastructure that can sustain their operations in a manner that is both effective and efficient. This means salaries and decent accommodations for the coordinators: Senator Webber, in the Sydney hearings, expressed his shock at having learned how little art coordinators are paid for their work. It means education for the artists and their families, so that they can contribute successfully to the management of the art centres, as Warlukurlangu Artists are attempting in Yuendumu. And it means streamlining the bureaucracy, as Senator Webber argued so eloquently during his conversations with Dr. Sarra:

As part of our visit to Alice Springs we visited a couple of arts centres. They talk about one specific project that does not get a lot of funding but has five different funding sources just to get off the ground, and then you go into the coordinator’s office and the wall is full of papers that say,’ this grant closes at this time’ and ‘this grant closes at this time.’ Their job is a constant fight with the bureaucracy and a fight for applications—just to keep the door open, never mind provide the service to their community (p. 64).

Despite the difficulties that will inhere in any solution, I am heartened to read those words as spoken not by a witness, but by a Senator, which brings me back to my opening point in this essay: a job well done by the members of the Inquiry. It seems all the more fitting then that for their final witness the Senators invited John Ioannou to give testimony about his controversial position as “artistic director” at Irrunytju. In doing so they were responding both to testimony given in Alice Springs and to Nicolas Rothwell’s October 16 article in The Australian (“Desert artists make a move”). 

Given the Inquiry’s goal to investigate unethical behavior, I was expecting far more confrontational testimony throughout these hearings than actually emerged. It was something of a shock then, at the end, to find Ioannou being confronted with allegations of conflict of interest, quizzed on the nature of his contracts with artists, asked to produce those contracts for the Inquiry’s scrutiny, and questioned about the accusations of cherry-picking the best artists. Senator Ronaldson deserves credit for the persistent and unflinching questioning to elucidate Ioannou’s role and standing in the community. My jaw dropped when the Senator bluntly stated, “You are obviously viewed as being dangerous to the existing players in the industry. Clearly, they see you as a threat” (p. 73) and went on to examine Ioannou’s relationship to communities outside Irrunytju. Ioannou’s rebuttal was this:

Getting back to being a threat to all these galleries, I am a threat and they keep throwing things at me, trying to discredit me. There are all sorts of rumours flying around everywhere. These people have never been out there in the communities. They would not have any idea of how these people live or the real issues on the ground with these artists that so many people make so much money from (p. 73).

It strikes me that some of the people who have made such allegations are most definitely out there on the ground and have a very clear ideas of conditions and issues; at least one of them has given testimony before the Inquiry. With that response from Ioannou, Senator Ronaldson ceded the floor to his colleagues. I wonder if he felt he had paid out enough rope.

I should close this report by echoing the final remark of Senator Eggleston, the Chair of the Inquiry, and thank the Hansard and the secretariat for their efforts to make this material available in such a timely fashion. Whatever the outcomes of the Inquiry may be, the exercise has been extremely valuable, and the submissions, the testimony, and at some point the final report of the committee will remain an important resource for all who care about the indigenous arts today, and for historians in decades to come. For these have been truly historic conversations, and I am delighted to have had the chance to be a spectator at the edge of the stage.

Other posts on the Senate Inquiry:
Alice Springs 

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