Nothing Succeeds Like Success

And nothing beats success for generating envy, or so it seems. 

Last week, Papunya Tula Artists released the following press release:

Papunya Tula Artists Pty Ltd

PRESS RELEASE 19th May 2010

Over the last two weeks Papunya Tula Artists Pty Ltd has been made aware of rumours circulating relating to an immediate change of current management. This is untrue.

There have been reports that the artists, shareholders and Board of Directors of the company are unhappy with the current management and that they wish for the manager, Paul Sweeney, to be stood down from his position and replaced. This is also untrue.

On Sunday 16th May the Papunya Tula Artists Board of Directors called a meeting in Kiwirrkura. At this meeting the Board put forward and passed a resolution expressing its absolute confidence in the management of the company. Another resolution was passed noting the Board’s decision that there be no changes made to the current management of the company.

It is believed that a source outside Papunya Tula Artists is conducting an organised campaign attempting to destabilise the company by way of circulating false information.

For any enquiries relating to this release please contact the Manager, Paul Sweeney, Papunya Tula Artists 08 89524731

The press release was quickly followed up by a story in The Australian by Ashleigh Wilson (“Talk about a hullabaloo,” May 20, 2010) which reiterated the information in the press release and added some speculation of its own. 

Rumours have been swirling during the past fortnight that a private dealer, Chris Simon, has been attracting support from local artists for him to take over Papunya Tula Artists, based in Alice Springs. …

Simon would not comment on the speculation but did say his primary focus was on the “wellbeing of the western desert people”.

“If I did [have a desire to run Papunya Tula], that would be my private desire and not for public knowledge,” he says.

It seems like we’ve been here before, although it’s been over four years since a similar controversy erupted in Alice Springs, when a group of around ten artists and their family members who were working for Chris Simon protested outside the PTA gallery in the Todd Mall. (“We’re upset say artists” and “Art drift into Alice” by Elizabeth Atwood in theAlice Springs News for March 9, 2006; see also my earlier posts “The News (Direct) from Alice Springs” and, for more background, “ABC Radio on Painters in Alice Springs.”)

In the meantime, Simon has sold up his galleries in Alice and Melbourne, the Senate Inquiry has come and gone, and much ink has been spilled over a Commercial Code of Conduct. Plus ça change.

One thing that certainly doesn’t change over time is the commitment Papunya Tula’s management to the artists and the families and the communities that the cooperative and its business serves. It’s been nearly a decade since Sweeney took over from Daphne Williams, who was the driving force in the company for most of the two decades prior. Such a record of consistent, reputable, and responsible management is unrivaled in the Aboriginal art trade.

In the last ten years we’ve seen major exhibitions at home and abroad, from Papunya Tula: Genesis and Genius during the Sydney Olympics celebrations to Icons of the Desertand a successful group exhibition at New York University’s WSE80 Gallery last fall. In the middle of the decade artist Ningura Napurrula was included in the Australian Aboriginal Art Commission for the Musée du quai Branly. This week, the media were full of reports of the departure of the NMA’s Papunya Painting: Out of the Australian Desert leaving for exhibition at the National Art Museum of China in Beijing.

But the company’s commercial and artistic success, while it may be the envy of art centres and dealers across Australia, is just a partial measure of its achievement. The rest of the story can be seen out in Kintore, where artists and the families gather at the new painting centre to enjoy the warmth of winter’s early morning sun in the courtyard, grandkids looking out for the oldies, a few people scattered in the women’s painting room or out on the front verandah, quietly absorbed in their work. Or the often repeated scenes in the white-walled gallery in Alice Springs, where artists come when they need a bit of lunch, where a staff member silently slips twenty dollars out of her wallet to help out a mother with her kids, or Sweeney himself seems to risk the stock playing catch in the front room with a mob of youngsters trailing after their parents. The spirit of engagement defines PTA at every level. No wonder people want to be a part of it; it’s the classiest act in town.

Update: ABC Brisbane has published a story confirming the intent of a hostile takeover by Simon and addressing some of the concerns about a drastic change in the management of Papunya Tula Artists (“What is the fate of Papunya Tula?,” by Marie Bout, May 24, 2010). “As part of its community arts mandate Papunya Tula has also contributed funding toward a public pool and renal care facilities in Kintore. Thus, the threat of a takeover in leadership by a private dealer is a resounding threat that echoes beyond the art world. ‘As a community organisation that wouldn’t be here without Papunya Tula we’re incredibly concerned about the future direction of the organisation,’ said Sarah Brown, Manager of the Western Desert Dialysis Corporation.” The story also features an interview with Paul Sweeney, speaking directly to the governance of Papunya Tula Artists.

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