Cultural Ministers Council Support for Indigenous Arts

It has been almost nine months since the release of the final report from the Senate Inquiry into the Indigenous Arts and Crafts Sector was eclipsed by the Howard government’s announcement of the Intervention into Aboriginal lives in the Northern Territory. I had begun to despair that we would ever hear more of that Report’s recommendations. But on February 29 the Cultural Ministers Council (CMC) met in Canberra under the leadership of the new Ministers for the Arts, Peter Garrett.

Garrett announced $1.3 million in funding to be directed at 24 Indigenous art centres. The money will provide support for infrastructure, training, and marketing. 

This investment recognises the importance of the Indigenous art industry to Australia and the real benefits the arts centres deliver to many Indigenous artists and communities. Indigenous art centres and organisations are the backbone of Australia’s Indigenous arts industry. The art centres themselves are financial partners in many of the projects being supported by this funding. The funding will assist these centres with priority projects. It will also support the important work they do to ensure that Indigenous artists are being treated fairly and that they are receiving appropriate remuneration for their work.

Given the overwhelming needs expressed in the submissions and testimony to the Senate Inquiry, extraordinary funding would be required to make significant progress across the board. And indeed, overall funding for the arts in Australia has not fared well in this initial response from the new government. An article in the March 4 issue of The Australian, despite its headline of “Garrett seeks to nurture creativity,” began with details of $50 million in funding cuts to arts organizations, including over three-quarters of a million dollars each from the National Gallery and the National Museum.

In this environment, the Senate’s recommendation for an infusion of $25 million over five years seems an impossible dream. The $1.3 million seems less adequate once you realize that half of it is going to a single new centre, Arts Northern Rivers, in northeastern New South Wales, in support of a “survey and marketing” project (“Indigenous funding underwhelms,” The Australian, March 8, 2008). Arts Northern Rivers describes itself as “the peak body for the arts and cultural sector” in the region, which includes Lismore, Byron Bay, and Nimbin. And while the purpose of the grant is to promote indigenous artists in the region, I can’t help but wonder at a strategy that provides a well-established non-Indigenous arts centre with such a large chunk of the money said to be allocated to Indigenous arts centres.

I can’t quarrel with the rest of the allocation, however, which will provide staff accommodation for Warakurna Artists, and a development program for Central Australian arts centre managers, under the direction of Desart. The necessity of providing adequate training for managers along with housing for them, were constant themes presented to the Senate Inquiry, and I am glad that they have not been totally ignored.

The Cultural Ministers Council also expressed support for additional funding for the National Arts and Crafts Industry Support Program, which is outlined in the Indigenous Arts Centres Strategy and Action Plan. They also explicitly committed to “the introduction of triennial funding for art centres” and backed the introduction of a resale royalty scheme and the industry code of conduct. All of these proclamations are in line with the key recommendations of the Senate Report.

The full text of the Ministers’ press release is available here. I reproduce below the section that pertains directly to Indigenous art and culture, and note with pleasure that priority will be given to promoting Indigenous contemporary music. Perhaps one should expect no less from Garrett. He has promised to report on progress on all Indigenous arts programs at the next meeting of the CMC. I will eagerly await the news, and hope that he can avert my despair over real progress towards meeting the needs of the arts centres. It is not enough to acknowledge “the role the arts play in enhancing economic and social outcomes for Indigenous Australians.” The government must build on the success these tiny economic engines have already demonstrated.

Extracted from the Media Release of the Cultural Ministers Council, Canberra, February 29, 2008 

Ministers were updated on activities and priorities across governments in relation to Indigenous arts and culture and on potential areas of cooperation. Ministers affirmed their commitment to supporting Indigenous arts as an expression of a dynamic and living culture, and acknowledged the role the arts play in enhancing economic and social outcomes for Indigenous Australians.

Ministers noted developments in the Australian Government’s support for Indigenous arts and culture. These include commitments to additional funding for the National Arts and Crafts Industry Support program and the introduction of triennial funding for art centres. Ministers also noted additional Australian Government support for Indigenous artists through a resale royalty scheme and the development of an industry-wide code of conduct to protect artists from unscrupulous conduct and enhance the industry’s sustainability.

Ministers noted the importance of building a sustainable Indigenous arts industry recognising the fundamental cultural, social and the economic contribution of Indigenous arts to Australia. Activities in support of Indigenous arts and culture in other jurisdictions were also noted, as was ongoing collaboration between the Australian Government and state/territory governments on the Return of Indigenous Cultural Property program and the Indigenous Intellectual Property Toolkit. Ministers were provided with, and noted, an update on the achievements of the Return of Indigenous Cultural Property program.

Ministers agreed to prioritise the development of a strategy for Indigenous contemporary music. A CMC working group will coordinate a comprehensive overview of existing state/territory and Australian Government activity in this area and will develop a draft action plan for consideration at the next meeting of the CMC, based on the information gathered in this overview.

Ministers also agreed to work together to build further support for the Indigenous visual arts sector. Avenues for cooperation and further development of the Indigenous visual arts industry will be explored jointly by the Australian Government and each state and territory government. The Australian Government agreed to report on progress on supporting Indigenous arts at the next CMC meeting.

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