It’s really weird. Just at the moment when we (in NSW and Victoria anyway) should be relishing the reopening of galleries giving us access to real art for the first time in months, we’re inundated with official reports into the arts – especially the Indigenous ones. For instance, as we were beginning to question the truth behind the insistent use of the word ‘Plan’ (as in the Prime Minister’s ‘Climate Plan’), the Ministry which doesn’t include the word Arts in its title has came up with a five year National Indigenous Visual Arts Action Plan, reported recently.

Hard on its heels, the Federal Parliament’s Standing Committee of Communications and the Arts (SCCA) added its pennyworth, wittily giving it the arty title, ‘Sculpting a National Cultural Plan: Igniting a post-COVID economy for the arts’. Meanwhile, continuing the theme of associating the arts mainly with the economy, the Productivity Commission has produced an ‘Indigenous Evaluation Strategy’ en route to finding ways to improve the market for First Nations art. And even the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies is currently developing a Framework on the situation and status of Indigenous cultures and heritage.

No one would know we have a neo-Liberal regime in Canberra dedicated to small government!

So, what have the parliamentarians been sculpting? They want a Plan! ‘A National Arts, Culture and Creativity Plan’ (NACC Plan) and say it “would be a practical way for the Federal Government to facilitate more coherent and effective public and private investments across these industries, as well as legislative, regulatory and policy settings. A NACC Plan will assist with the cultural and creative industries’ recovery, while supporting employment and economic growth”. At least Paul Keating came up with the infinitely briefer title, ‘Creative Nation‘ the last time we had a cultural plan. And I seem to recall he talked less about “coherent and effective public and private investments”. And I also recall that the great commentator Nicolas Rothwell inveighed oft against the bureaucratisation of Indigenous art-making creativity, which is surely the inevitable consequence of all these reports!

However the SCCA is keen to have its own title reflected in the Ministry it monitors – it wants the word “Arts” restored to the title of its government department – currently lost within the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications.

According to the SMH, these suggestions come in “A long-awaited bipartisan report from a parliamentary committee, looking at the state of the creative industries and aiming to hammer out a way forward, comes (sic) after the committee heard heartfelt pleas from industry leaders, performers, artists and writers for stronger support for their struggling sector, especially after it was smashed by the pandemic”.

Most intriguingly, the way forward for Indigenous art was seen to be a National Gallery. Where have these people been? It seems that the dealer members of the Aboriginal Art Association of Australia (AAAA) haven’t been reading the AAD. For they (amongst 352 individuals or bodies who made suggestions to the SCCA) “raised concern that Australia presently does not currently support a national gallery dedicated to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander visual arts, and suggested that: A national gallery would not only showcase the treasure that is [Indigenous Visual Arts], a matter of cultural importance, but would continue to raise awareness locally and for international visitors. It is hard to believe that an increase in awareness would not lead to increased sales”.

Were there no South Australians on the Committee to point out that that State’s planning body has just signed off on the $200 million Aboriginal Art and Cultures Centre at Lot Fourteen ahead of construction to begin later this year? I should point out too that it has Federal funding as well – so everyone on the committee might have been aware of this significant national development. But they only seem aware of the half-hearted efforts in the Northern Territory to create a National Aboriginal Art Gallery in Alice Springs, which would “host a globally significant Australia-wide art collection from the world’s oldest continuous cultures”. Unsurprisingly, the committee adds the rider, “The status of the project, including a timeline of construction and opening, is unknown”.

Nevertheless, Recommendation 3 in the Plan is : “The Committee recommends that the Office for the Arts investigate the establishment of a national centre of Indigenous culture and arts of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artwork. The Office for the Arts should ensure that any proposal is co-designed with Indigenous communities and arts bodies. As part of the co-design process, the Office for the Arts should consider the most culturally appropriate site on which to build a national centre of Indigenous culture and arts; how to create a national network of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander galleries in partnership with State/Territory art institutions; and examine how museums and galleries can further improve Indigenous representation and participation across all areas”.

How frustrated they must be in South Australia at all this wasted thinking and reporting. I look forward to seeing the AACC rise from the ground when I visit Adelaide for the Festival next March.

However, ploughing on, the committee report noted: ‘A recent piece in the Australian and New Zealand Art Sales Digest has suggested that Indigenous Art has achieved that rare feat of achieving popularity outside of its cultural context’. But the size of the market remains annoyingly imprecise. The National Association for the Visual Arts (NAVA), for instance set out ‘the enormous economic value’ of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander visual arts, bringing in $400 million to the economy each year. If only! For, despite the undoubted growth of the market since the disaster of the GFC, it has still not got back to 2007 levels according to more reliable sources. And it’s small beer compared to the domains that contributed most to cultural and creative activity in 2016-17, which, according to the report were ‘design at $42.8 billion, fashion at $14.2 billion, and broadcasting, electronic or digital media, and film at $9.7 billion’.

And if the market really was $400m, would Warlayirti Artists (the community art centre in Balgo) have suggested that “there is a gap in the support of ‘culturally relevant economies’ which threatens a disastrous loss at the change of generations: If there is no immediate action now, 60,000 years of knowledge can be lost in the next five to 10 years when the first contact old people, with serious health issues, pass away”. Meanwhile, dealers in the AAAA stated that sustainable growth of the consumer market for Indigenous visual arts is ‘essential in an environment of finite funding’. AAAA argues that the consumer market is more important than the growth of supply ‘fuelled by grants’.

The AAAA did find a friend in the National Association for the Visual Arts (NAVA) in drawing attention to “the lack of laws protecting Indigenous Cultural Intellectual Property, demanding the establishment of national, enforceable standards to prevent inauthentic Indigenous art”, a recommendation also put forward as urgently requiring action by Creative Victoria.

Finally, do we need an Authority to boss First Nations art and culture generally? “The Australia Council currently supports an interim website for a National Indigenous Arts and Cultural Authority (NIACA) (working title). NIACA is a proposed peak body for First Nations arts and culture, which is currently under consultation. While the final model for how NIACA would be formed or funded are (sic) unclear, respondents to a consultation survey run by Australia Council were clear that a NIACA should be First Nations owned, led, and run”. The promotional body for Indigenous dance – BlakDance – said it would ‘benefit significantly’ from the coordination and self-determination facilitated through NIACA. And the establishment of NIACA was also supported by Theatre Network Australia, Performing Arts Connections, City of Sydney, and First Nations Performing Arts. Which certainly suggests that performers would appreciate it – but what would it achieve for the visual arts, I wonder?

And, to my surprise we already have something called National Indigenous Australians Agency (NIAA), which has policy responsibility for ‘Traditional Cultural Expression’ and ‘Cultural Maintenance’ activities. But, according to the Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Cultural Centre, there is no funding in NIAA for ‘Traditional Cultural Expression’, and there is no policy framework around it.

Don’t you love reports!