Arnhemland arts centre co-ordinator Will Stubbs will be presented with the prestigious Australia Council Visual Arts Award (Advocate) for 2015 at the Council’s inaugural awards ceremony in Sydney on 19 March. The Award recognises Will’s outstanding success as the long-term co-ordinator of the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre in Yirrkala and his passionate advocacy of Indigenous arts and Australia’s unique arts centres.

A former criminal lawyer in Sydney, Will began working in 1995 with Yolŋu elders and artists, such as Gawirrin Gumana, Djambawa Marawili, Gulumbu Yunupingu and Wanyubi Marika. The Yirrkala artists have since won 30 major art prizes and exhibited nationally and internationally.

It feels strange to accept a personal award, says Will. But I accept it on behalf of those YolÅ‹u elders and artists who have mentored, educated and supported me. I feel like the Stephen Bradbury of art co-ordinators. The last one left standing! But like him, I feel lucky but worthy.

Will acknowledged his predecessor and colleague Andrew Blake, from whom he took over the job of co-ordinator in 2001. Not many remote art facilitators last so long. The Centre’s size has since doubled and its annual turnover has grown tenfold. Another major highlight was the inauguration of the Mulka Project in 2007 as a groundbreaking digital archive and film-making studio.

Exhibition highlights for Yirrkala artists have included the Kluge Commission, ‘Native Title‘ at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art, ‘Saltwater‘ at the National Maritime Museum, the Wukidi Ceremony at the Northern Territory Supreme Court, the Yalangabara exhibition in Darwin, the Musee du quai Branly installation in Paris in 2006, Larrakitj – the Kerry Stokes Collection at the Sydney Biennale 2010, and FOUND at the Annandale Galleries in 2013.

Art centres, says Will, are a peculiarly Australian invention, like Hills Hoists or the rotary engine, but few realise how unique and effective they are. This award is a rare recognition of all those art centres spread across the country. And it’s a long overdue celebration of something that Australia does better than anyone else. It’s a model that delivers equitable returns for Indigenous creativity, that allows cultural intellectual property to enter the mainstream without compromise or exploitation.

I also accept on behalf of a forgotten tribe of art co-ordinators who are equally worthy but who receive little acknowledgement. We are backroom boys and girls and that is how it should be. It is not our role to be in the spotlight. Whilst artists are occasionally honoured it is a rare thing for an art co-ordinator to be given a gong.

Will speaks passable Yolngu matha and says he enjoys incompetently hunting with a spear in the mangroves. He is the husband of Yolngu school principal, scholar, artist and musician, Merrkiyawuy Ganambarr, and the father of Siena. His long term ambition is for the YolÅ‹u to have sovereignty over their lives, and for the dominant culture to absorb the wisdom and knowledge that is under their feet. My small part of this is to bring to light the genius of YolÅ‹u talent and to earn the respect of the global art public for ideas, viewpoints, materials and attitudes that they are not familiar with.

In the immediate future, there are more shows ahead. Nonggirrnga Marawili has a show at Alcaston Gallery, Melbourne and has been invited into both the WA Indigenous Art Award and the next National Indigenous Triennial at the National Gallery of Australia. Djambawa Marawili is invited to the Quebec Museum of Humanity, the Istanbul Biennial and to make glass with a Seattle-based Indigenous artist. Gunybi Ganambarr will be in this year’s Asia Pacific Triennial at the Queensland Art Gallery of Modern Art and has an exhibition at Annandale Galleries,Sydney. Other commercial shows include Vivien Anderson Galleries, Melbourne, Raft Artspace, Alice Springs, Short Street Gallery, Broome and Brumby Ute in Aspen, Colorado.

The Aboriginal Art Directory is delighted for Stubbs. At exhibitions of his artists, he’s always available for those open to listen to delight in the intricacies of Yolngu culture and law and how they impact upon the art. Mavericks like Nonggirrnga Marawili, Gunybi Ganambarr and Nyapanyapa Yunupingu have been encouraged to go for it within the limits of strict Yolngu rules. The magnificent history of the Yolngu’s use of art to make political claims has been set in stone in a museum in Yirrkala. And the powerful case for out-stations as a vital part of Aboriginal life and culture “ not a ‘lifestyle choice’ – is constantly being made by the Yolngu, aided and abetted by Stubbs.

The Australia Council Visual Arts Awards each year acknowledge and honour the exceptional achievements of an Australian artist and an arts professional who have made an outstanding contribution to the development of Australian art. The artist winner this year is Brisbane-based Indigenous painter, Judy Watson. Past advocate winners have been the curators Julie Ewington in 2014, Juliana Engberg in 2012 and Ron Radford in 2011.