The recent AGM of the Indigenous Art Code has been singularly unreported by mainstream press. Thank heavens for the specialists like AAD! For we can report a new CEO to replace John Oster and a new Chair to replace Ron Merkel QC.
There was certainly a need for refreshment. Merkel and Oster had set their hats on the Code becoming mandatory “ ie enforced on all parties by the ACCC’s legal authority. That’s been rejected by governments of both hues, leaving an organisation that offers a Complaints and Disputes tag on its website but has not publicly outed anyone for malfeasance. In fact, the trend seems to have been for art galleries, auction houses, etc to either not join up in the first place or to resign their membership rather than face the music. What use is that for an aggrieved Indigenous artist or Aboriginal art buyer?
A recent doom-laden critique of the market by Nicolas Rothwell in The Australian blames the Code implicitly as part of excessive government interference: Half a decade on, the consequences for the galleries of the new regulatory model, which were widely predicted, have become evident: heavy reporting and compliance costs, an intensely politicised cultural sector, and the emergence of an interlocking network of administrators and public servant curators with preferences and enthusiasms in common. The galleries found themselves sidelined.
Clearly, his worst bete noirs were Resale Royalty and the limitations on holding art in superfunds. But what can changes at the Code do to improve the shining hour? We have in Richard England – a passionate collector, accountant and company director – a Chair who’s observed the organisation’s limitations close up as its Deputy Chair. He refers to offering his new CEO a clean sheet of paper. And in Gabrielle Sullivan, we have that CEO with both optimism, a less-confrontational approach than her predecessor, and 12 years experience of administering programs for artists at different levels of government. The last eight has seen her in Newman, WA, setting up the interesting Martumuli system for remote artists “ living and painting mostly in community, but being administered from a central township art centre.
It’s not unlike the Papunya Tula model “ with the vital difference that artists have a painting centre in town to protect them from predators when they have to be in there.
So Sullivan has been moving between the Martu communities of Parnngurr, Punmu, Kunawarritji, Jigalong, Irrungadji/Nullagine from a central office in Parnpajinya/Newman, generously hosted by the Shire of East Pilbara. Martumili Artists had to be responsive to the wishes of the artists to work in their own communities “ even if they are half a day’s drive apart. Eight years is a testing time for anyone under such conditions, which suggests a doughty and flexible operator “ the best sort of art coordinator. She has also got up the major touring show, We Don’t Need a Map, which has just moved from Werribee to the Blue Mountains Art Centre, offering a Martu experience of the Western Deserts during its three-year tour; and a show of major canvases at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney.
She also reveals that Martumuli required limited dealings with the Code under her watch because we tried to pre-empt what could go wrong and put things in place in advance. This meant that Artslaw was ‘our main support mob’, holistically setting up things to avoid future problems. It took a long time “ but was worth it in the end.
Gabrielle Sullivan is also keen to stress that despite never working on the commercial side of the industry, I’m not too much on one side in the perennial back-biting between dealers and art centres. Indeed, I was delighted to work with William Mora Gallery in Melbourne to have our first group show in 2007 because that gave the public and the NGV the confidence needed to buy Martu art. We’re still with him as a result, but we’re also open to working with less-prominent galleries like Tunbridge (in the Margaret River and Subiaco) and The Gallery Shop at Bronte in Sydney. There’s a lot that art centres can learn from galleries “ and vice versa. We need to bridge that gap.
And it would seem from both my conversations with the new appointees that education rather than enforcement is the new paradigm for the Code. Mind you, Richard England’s clear priority is to educate unsophisticated and vulnerable remote artists rather than finding a way to educate buyers. That, you may recall, totally evaded the late and unlamented NIAAA organisation, which produced a Label of Authenticity for Indigenous products in 1998 at great expense, and then vanished. That’s also an aim over time, England agreed; so Gabrielle will have to put up a plan and then we can look for funding.
Enforcement of this voluntary Code “ England sees no political point in pursuing the mandatory option further “ may well involve closer liaison with enforcement agencies in the future, rather than being attempted internally.
There’s also more than a feeling that the Code’s Board is not working as well as it might. An independent review is being commissioned “ as well it might after the vote for a second dealer representative on the Board ended up in an unresolved tie between sitting member Solenne Ducos-Lamotte and challenger Adrian Newstead “ who suggested in his campaign that he’d never been contacted by his dealer ‘representatives’ and felt little connection to the Code as a result. But his ‘reps’ are elected by all the Code’s members “ many of whom are remote or regional artists – not just fellow dealers; and only for one year. Another problem is that the influential Edwina Circuitt (who sat on the selection sub-committee for the new CEO) is an art centre rep on the Board, but has actually left Warakurna where she worked.
Definitely room for improvement. Ducos-Lamotte and Newstead are in limbo – though her name remains on the website along with Merkel’s and Oster’s; and the approximately twelve-a-year complaints dealt with haven’t progressed online beyond 2012. Indeed, several 2012 complaints still seem to be ongoing. None of them, however, appears to come from buyers “ perhaps that’s because the advice to complainants doesn’t seem to assume buyers are ever unhappy! Or maybe because, in Gabrielle Sullivan’s observation, Perhaps there are too many forms?.
Meanwhile at Martumuli Artists, Sullivan is confident that when she moves to Sydney and a new Code office there, dedicated staff will move up through the ranks to replace her. She’s also optimistic that the fearful WA Government project to close down uneconomic remote Aboriginal communities, which have been handed over with funds but without any consultation by the Federal Government, will not affect the Martu way of operating as ‘one big one together’. But it would be a tragedy if they ended up in camps around Newman or Dampier, she concluded; a disaster.