Art Centres and the Business of Blogging

I. A Sorry Business in WarakurnaThe festive and generous holiday mood I’ve been in all week was disturbed on Boxing Day by a posting at Thriving in the Desert, the blog that Edwina Circuitt writes out of Warakurna. Entitled “Threats and Intimidation,” it tells a story that’s all too common, if often unheard in detail. 

Edwina tells of a private gallery owner who has “sneaked into Warakurna” to try to lure away some of the more famous, best-selling elder artists from the community to paint in the gallery owner’s shed in Alice Springs. 

“Sneaked into Warakurna” is important to note because the dealer has tried this sort of thing before and has been warned by the Warakurna community council not to come back. Although Edwina doesn’t explicitly connect this story to her earlier post, it sounds much like the situation she described in her earlier essay, “Should we critique Aboriginal Art?

“Sneaked into Warakurna” is important to note because the dealer would need a permit from the Ngaanyatjarra Council to enter the community.

“Sneaked into Warakurna” is important to note because the dealer has been enlisting the help of younger people in the community to pressure their grandparents and to bully and intimidate the staff at Warakurna Artists.

I’m not going to steal Edwina’s thunder and tell you about the heart-pounding meeting that took place to resolve the issue: you should click on the link and read it for yourself.

Edwina deserves our applause for telling these stories. They put a human face on the cost of carpetbagging; they need to be told and to be heard. These kinds of incursions, these underhanded attempts to disrupt communities and their chief source of income, have already played out disastrously elsewhere in Australia. At Wingellina and in Peppimenarti these kinds of tactics have in the past effectively erased successful art centres from the marketplace. A few artists, already established, continued to sell their work, but there was little in the way of renewal until recently, little chance to build new careers and lay new foundations for the future.And too often the news goes unreported to the world at large. Where can you hear the stories? How do you learn that the new art centre of Tjungu Palya is under siege, its artists lured away to Alice Springs almost before their first major exhibitions closed?

We can only thankful for voices like Edwina’s. It takes a lot of guts just to do the job that Edwina does running the centre. In the short time that she’s been blogging about her work in Warakurna, she has shared several stories that have been uncommonly honest portrayals of both the joys and the frustrations of working in a remote art centre. The recipe for success seems to call for several parts of unadulterated heartache, and threats and intimidation from greedy outsiders only make matters worse.

The testimonies and submissions offered to the Senate Inquiry a year ago often referred to the hard work of the art centre managers. Certainly, I saw it myself, over and over again, six months ago, when touring through the Territory and WA. I can recap here what it was like at Warakurna. 

We arrived at about three in the afternoon. Edwina picked us up at the airport in the troopie and took us back to the art centre. Along the way she welcomed us to the country and explained the protocols we needed to follow while in town: not a simple lesson to communicate to eight boisterous and excited art collectors in the early days of our tour. Once we arrived at the centre, she was kept busy helping us sort through stacks of canvases, sorting out what was for sale from works being held for exhibitions, and consoling those of us who had hopes dashed in that process.

Artists wandered in and out the while. Some wanted to have another look at a canvas they were working on. Others were eager to submit their newest work to the critical gaze of this mob of Americans who might be customers. Some were just there for company; some wanted Edwina to give them a new canvas or to look after a bit of business unrelated to our visit.

After a couple of hours of that, we began the process of paying for the works that we’d chosen. We worked from lists, from notes Edwina had made for us, and from paintings we dragged into the tiny office. Edwina had shipping details to attend to, documentation and receipts to prepare, credit cards to process.

In the meantime, the oldies were gathered in the shed at day’s end. Someone was organizing tea. A group of men were looking through photographs taken in Warakurna fifty years ago. The Remote Area Nurse dropped in. The dogs had to be chased back outside.

Finally, business was done for the day, everyone went off home, and Edwina locked up. She then drove us over to the Warakurna Roadhouse, once more making sure that we all had our bearings and our luggage, got checked in, and that all the arrangements for our departure in the morning were taken care of. This involved not just consulting with the management at the Roudhouse, but dealing with the airport and our pilot’s needs as well. By now it was well after six in the evening.

Soon afterwards, though, Edwina was back to join our group for a barbecue and an evening around the campfire with Eunice Porter and her family. All part of the hospitality shown to visitors to the art centre, for our group was eager for the opportunity to chat with artists, and to learn more about the lore and operations of an Indigenous art centre. The night was well advanced by the time we threw the last log on the fire.

The next morning Edwina was back at the Roadhouse by seven o’clock, making sure we were all packed and ready for take-off. I overheard her chatting with the manager about a long road trip she’d just undertaken recently to get her dog to a vet, and I was once more struck by her incredible energy and grit. Then it was off to the airport for us, and another day’s work at the art centre for Edwina. We hadn’t even been there for eighteen hours.

II. Blogging from the Centres

Recognizing the immense amount of work people like Edwina have on their hands without undertaking a writing career, I want to take this opportunity to once more plug the blogs I’m aware of that are now coming out of art centres. They’re all listed among the links in the sidebar in the righthand column of this site. There’s a new one too, that I haven’t mentioned before.

Remote Life is the oldie in the crew, written by Dianna from Papulankutja since the start of 2007. I wonder if a sense of outrage isn’t one of the seeds for nurturing the will to blog, for early on in her career, Dianna told a story that was all too similar to the one that’s been unfolding at Warakurna. There’s plenty of good news over the months, too: big exhibitions, progress on a new building, and the successes of the Western Desert Mob. Dianna’s somewhat erratic publishing schedule in and of itself tells you a lot about the pressures on the art centre manager. Despite the blog’s clear importance to her, months can elapse when she doesn’t have time to write. I’m always delighted when she returns.

Durrmu Arts, written by Harriet Fesq out of the newly reconstituted art centre serving the Peppimenarti community, made its debut back in September. Unlike the other blogs described here, Durrmu Arts has served to date primarily as a marketing tool, highlighting the appearance of Durrmu Arts artists in exhibitions and workshops around the world.

Thriving in the Desert, by Edwina Circuitt out of Warakurna, should need no further introduction at this point. She has already put up three more posts since I started working on this one.

Remotely Convinced is the latest entry into the art centre blogosphere that I’m aware of. Sara Twigg-Patterson recently left Tjala Arts in Amata, SA to take on the daunting task of building a functioning art centre in Papunya. Papunya Tjupi Arts, believe it or not, is the first formally constituted art centre to operate out of Papunya. Painters in that seminal community were formerly served by Warumpi Arts in Alice Springs, which has been defunct since 2004. Like her desert colleagues at Remote Life and Thriving in the Desert, Sara chronicles the ups and downs of life as a manger in a precarious enterprise. It’s a bit discouraging for me as a reader to note that early on each of these women has a tale to tell of the undermining of the enterprise she is responsible for sustaining. I can only stand back and admire the fortitude that they bring to the job, and hold in my heart a feeling of gratitude to them for speaking out.

III. The Business of Blogging

I’m all the more impressed by these blogs because I know just a tiny bit what the life of an art centre coordinator is like. I can’t imagine having the energy to write about it all when the day is done. But if you look at the timestamps on these posts, you’ll find that the authors have been working into the large hours of the night, and sometimes the wee hours of the morning.

I hope with this post that I can help to spread the word and to express my gratitude for their work. And I also want to offer some encouragement, and a request to keep up the good work. The perspectives on the art centres’ daily life that are contained in these blogs contribute enormously to an understanding and appreciation of the business of Indigenous art today. These stories are, as journalists like to say of their own work, the first drafts of history. 

Coincidentally, I was recently challenged by Jangari, blogger at matjjin-nehen, to provide three pieces of advice for good blog writing. While Aboriginal Art & Culture: an American eye isn’t a first-generation blog (lots of people have been at this longer than I), I have managed to push out at least one post a week for over two years now. It’s a bit like having a second job, and it consumes an extraordinary amount of time–far more than I thought when I got started. Maybe these ideas will help other bloggers who read them.

My first two principles are perhaps the key to getting the writing done at all:

Just write it. I usually have some idea about what I want to say–at least, what I want to talk about. I don’t always have a structure, an argument, a plan. But even when I do, I’ve found that sitting down and pushing out one sentence after another is the most important key to getting a post written. I don’t worry about whether it’s logical, whether it sounds good, whether I’m repeating myself, or even whether it entirely makes sense. I just get it out, and keep writing until maybe there’s only a paragraph or two left to do at the end.

Revise by reading. Once I’ve gotten that far, the next thing I do is to preview the work as it will appear on the screen so that I can read it in somewhat the same manner as everyone else will. In the process, I keep my original open and I flip back and forth, making corrections, rewriting sentences, rethinking paragraphs. At some point before I reach the end, I usually have to stop reading, save my changes, and start all over again from the top. But I try to get all the way through by the end of the second reading. If a third pass-through is required, I try to wait a couple of hours or let it sit overnight. 

My third principle helps me live by the first two:

Use the tools of the trade to make life easier. I started out blogging using a piece of software called iBlog, which was designed to integrate easily with Apple’s DotMac publishing service. If I were starting over today, I’d probably just sign up with Blogspot, but I would take advantage of good software like MarsEdit that lets you compose and preview offline. It also takes care of some of the chores of HTML coding to manage styles, fonts, images, and the like. Over the past year, I’ve developed a whole library of HTML code snippets just to format layouts for photographs. Software that lets me cut and paste, or define macros for repetitive tasks, can speed up the process while producing more interesting looking pages.

Do other bloggers out there have tips? JonathanFranzyJim? I’d be interested to hear what you have to say about good writing and efficient production.

In the meantime, I look forward to more new stories and insights from the Art Centre Bloggers themselves. Best wishes to you all for the new year!

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