“It’s Not Really Your Art Centre”: Life Today in Ltyentye Apurte

As stories about the Intervention into Aboriginal communities and the abolition of CDEP have played out in the media over the last couple of months, I have wondered what’s actually happening in the communities where arts centres are located. There have been plenty of reports from centers of government, lots of debates in Darwin and Canberra, but not much word from the people who will be affected by these changes, especially the abolition of CDEP at the end of the month.

Now I know better, and I almost wish I didn’t.

Keringke Arts was established a long time ago by Desert art centre standards, in 1987, at Ltyentye Apurte (Santa Teresa) an hour’s drive southeast of Alice Springs. In 1989 ATSIC funded the construction of the Arts Centre building. Despite funding cuts in the 1990s, the Centre has continued to market aggressively, and the bright, colorful, and meticulous painting style has been extremely successful. 

My thanks go to Judy Lovell, arts coordinator at Keringke Arts, who has provided some detail about how the Intervention is likely to affect one small community of 350 people. It’s a sad story. What follows are extensive quotations from a message Judy recently sent out to supporters of Keringke Arts. She begins by detailing some of Keringke’s accomplishments in just the past three years.

Against the odds Keringke achieved milestone after milestone in its core business with little more than eggshells and shoelaces supporting the place. The resource of greatest value has been Keringke’s people who have successfully combined a strong high quality and unique style with intelligent determination to grow in response to the community’s needs for enterprise. Resultantly, in the last three years we have:

  • negotiated with the wider community to allow access for visitors to the art centre
  • experimented with tours from a couple of tour companies
  • trialled cultural / rock art tour combined with art centre visit
  • refurbished a dilapidated building for the men to use
  • promoted, set up and supported the men’s endeavours to begin a leather work enterprise
  • coordinated an artist in schools project at the local school
  • increased sales of artwork by around 50% per annum for three years consecutively
  • travelled to interstate exhibitions, markets and conferences
  • hosted fifteen to twenty CDEP placements
  • in production is a bi-lingual book about artist Kathleen Wallace, the stories of her life and culture
  • in production is a re-print of the Keringke Arts book
  • established international sales to individuals and major public collections
  • successfully sought grants to support strategic and business planning, the publications, marketing and intergenerational bush trips for cultural purposes
  • unsuccessfully sought grants to showcase internationally, support education and training in the workplace, fund five identified local jobs in the art centre, employ a projects manger for the development of the arts hub, improve infrastructure, purchase a vehicle.
  • collaborated with galleries in Australia and the USA to exhibit art work
  • negotiated and maintained royalty agreements for the reproduction of designs
  • successfully negotiated the designs of one artist to be used in the Alice Springs airport for new carpet.

Additionally Keringke workers frequently undertake informal advocacy and emergency counselling to provide

  • evacuation from the community
  • safe housing on the community
  • coordination of medical treatment
  • referral of mental illness, social hardship and physical illness
  • issues to appropriate agencies
  • interstate travel for rehabilitation
  • suicide intervention
  • a secure financial network
  • financial counselling
  • access to workplace training, skill development and IT training
  • access to internet and computer facilities
  • provision of transport and funding for many community activities
  • access to healthy morning tea and lunch meals for workers and often their family members

Both the submissions and the testimony offered to the recent Senate Inquiry into Australia’s Indigenous Visual Arts and Crafts Sector emphasized repeatedly that arts centres provide much more to the communities in which they are located than the production of canvases for the marketplace. Equally, the importance of that marketplace to the economies of these small, remote communities was stressed.

For all its talk about ending welfare and moving people into “real” jobs, the government has never succeeded in creating a viable economy for Aboriginal people outside large population centers (and not even in those urban areas). The one economic miracle Outback communities have seen in the last fifty years has been the indigenous art and crafts sector. But in many cases, as these communities struggle to build their markets, they still require some assistance, and CDEP has been a major component of helping people to help themselves. 

Judy is eloquent on the subject of how that assistance has worked in Ltentye Apurte.

Keringke has fostered community capacity building to instil confidence and skills in everyday workplace interactions. This has led to increased hands on involvement of some art centre members in the overall art centre core business: sales, visitor inquiries, tourism, story telling, painting workshops, curating the display space, dealing with bulk materials, selecting, packing and organising the freight for sales and exhibition, public speaking, executive roles.

Most recently CDEP workplace training provided a successful two week intensive for the men in their leatherwork studio. Printmaking was to be undertaken through a similar system of support attached to CDEP participation. Galleries were already enquiring about availability of more prints. This is now cancelled.

We had mistakenly thought we were on the way to gaining another milestone and some well earned resources for expansion of the business.

Anybody in a normal mainstream business would be appreciative of what this small, singularly incorporated art centre has achieved through its excellent, creative workers. The quality of the art work and products has been developed to a unique and high standard that has come from arts practices spanning twenty or more years and is grounded in a culture thousands of years old. Now it seems that this is to be lost because it is directly threatened by the removal of a base pay rate – whatever that is called. If that survival money is taken away then the art centre business will shrink, people will not be able to attend the studio and work there legitimately under the proposed new government rules.

Alarmingly, the art centre provides access to a casual amount of money for up to 100 adults per year on a community where there are about 350 adults. It would be fair to say that most households are at some time in the year subsidised by the arts and crafts practice of a family member. For some households the arts worker may be sustaining up to ten other people, often through providing basic essential items such as clothing, school uniforms and access to boarding schools, food, shelter and transport. What will replace that? Who will now provide that? It is not just the money, it is the disrespect shown to knowledgeable elders who demonstrate self motivation, strength and pride in their culture, and undertake the true community nurturing. What will replace this self worth? What will the disengagement of such valuable members of society demonstrate to the younger ones? Who is left to do the nurturing?

An artist who has developed their painting to a point where they are able to make reasonable sales is likely to be an artist who has contributed sustainability to the art centre enterprise. I would hope that if I worked for twenty years in one business, I would be feeling secure in my place, especially if the business was dependant on my unique skill and talent. I certainly would not expect my worth to have no value, my knowledge deemed obsolete, be made to feel I represent no social asset and my business expendable: Treated like a depreciated item on the audit sheet.

I believe there are business models of practice that could easily foster art centre strengths: I support the idea of a tax subsidy for aboriginal community enterprise development. The new welfare scheme which may be applied through activity agreements will see taxing of income over $15,000- per annum at up to 50cents in the dollar. The CDEP top up threshold was $25,000- per year before tax kicked in. It seems perilously close to crazy that the public service is now largely petrified into inaction by these sweeping reforms, which are soon to be frozen with the announcement of an election and which no body seems able to transfer onto the ground anyway.

Ltyentye Apurte was one of the first communities to be targeted by the Intervention, where “government business managers” were installed early on. And it is one of the few that Minister Brough has actually visited since the announcement of the Emergency in mid-June. (It was there that Brough announced his plan to curb drinking in dry communities by setting up alcohol-provisioning social clubs, in fact.)

Brough’s Alice-in-Wonderland reasoning has been well attested to in the newspapers in the last three months. If you’re like me, a member of the “reality-based community” following the news from afar, it can be easy to scoff. It’s much harder for me to retain a detached perspective, to quell both the sadness and the anger, when I read a personal account of a meeting with Brough like the one that Judy offers.

Before the Brough announcement, we had the focused attention of good local regional staff who were supporting a meeting across government departments to try and fund some of the larger infrastructure and staff needs for the art centre. In turn CDEP was supporting people’s specific workplace training needs. For those who understand the acronyms: AOG meet about an SRA or RPA. Well it was frozen before it could happen. I raised this with Mr Brough at his ‘visit’ to the art centre in June. He told me that he’d guarantee our AOG meeting would take place in no more than two weeks from the date of his ‘visit’. It didn’t.

The meetings we have had since have been in the last two weeks, are attended by well meaning Government employees, but these employees cannot actually make any decisions, although they can comprehend the value and worth of the art centre. The ministers words were: “We are interested in helping people, such as yourselves, who are helping themselves.” Well, he is not helping.

Mr Brough has interrupted a process at Keringke which of itself was positive, had been developing over a period of years, was empowering in its undertaking; he has broken the faith and enthusiasm which sometimes takes years to foster; his sweeping gesture with the tar brush has totally disillusioned people all over the territory – Aboriginal and other. Job creation has excelled; the public service in Alice Springs and elsewhere in the Territory has swelled rapidly, the big majority are now non-indigenous employees based in regional centres.

And the bill for this? Departments all through government and other states are taking global cuts to their budgets; no evidence of any extra money being spent is available. Emergency housing for core staff – think Dongas, gifted to Alice Springs for community people to ‘stay’ in when in town; they are now to be used for the intervention staff on the communities: but not for permanent community staff. Our manager currently sleeps in a swag on the floor when she stays overnight on the community.

To cap it all off, education and training are not even addressed in Intervention Stage One, more like mentioned in Stage Three: There is no attention to education and workplace training in the strategies outlined to realign ommunity enterprises: Before the intervention we had just got to the point where education and training through CDEP were adding to the progress that was being made at Keringke!

As a non-aboriginal staff I have been forced to reassess my cross-cultural work place and forced to identify my place there quite differently. From the day that the first of the interventionists entered the art centre and demanded a stop to work in order to hold the intervention meeting (it was in the middle of our audit required stock take) something fundamental and intangible has changed. One of the arts workers said after that awful first meeting: “I can’t concentrate now. It’s like someone just broke in here. It’s all changed now”. How typical of her to intuitively understand so much from one contact. You see, for this last five years we have told the artists and staff over and over: “It’s your art centre, it’s your place, it’s your business.” And now, it seems that was just another lie. “It’s not really your art centre, others can easy take it away” would have been more truthful.

I want to thank Judy Lovell for taking the time to compose this articulate epistle from the Intervention, for sharing it with me, and for continuing her work on behalf of Keringke Arts. She welcomes comments on her paper, and promises to keep us informed of new developments. 

 

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