A surprising article in ‘The Australian‘ recently told me that the independent federal advisory body, Infrastructure Australia (IA) was telling the government that an investment in Indigenous art facilities was an excellent idea. And, as the federal government is currently looking around for ways to spend money in a lacklustre economy, I thought I’d try to find out how serious the idea was.
This is what IA told me, in the words of Romilly Madew, CEO of Infrastructure Australia:
In terms of social infrastructure priorities, Infrastructure Australia has specifically identified the need for an Indigenous Art and Cultural Facilities program. A national facilities program would address the high demand for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and art, and has the potential to provide more employment opportunities and (for non-Indigenous people) further education and recognition of the cultures of our First Nations People.
Now, there’s no way that this suggestion is a top priority in a looooong, 147 item list. But, there between Sydney“Canberra rail connectivity and mobile telecommunications coverage in regional and remote areas is an Indigenous Art and Cultural Facilities program as a ‘Priority Initiative’.
Elsewhere, it’s revealed that the suggestion comes as a result of the 2019 Australian Infrastructure Audit, which recognised that arts and cultural infrastructure plays a key role in the social and economic empowerment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The Audit notes that many of the current facilities are no longer fit-for-purpose and suffer from poor maintenance. Arts and cultural facilities support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists by creating more employment opportunities, improving well-being, educating people about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, and potentially improving national identity. Further, there is high demand for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and art in Australia from both domestic and international visitors. Currently, there are few dedicated art and cultural centres catering to this demand.
So, the suggestion seems to come down to a national program of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art and cultural centres and galleries. This looks very much like the big end of town rather than better funding for the remote art centre network. Specific mention is made of various states and territories optimistic statements in favour of institutions that would be either (or both) a national centre to explain and promote First Nations culture or simply show Indigenous art exclusively. Way back in 2014, for instance, Infrastructure New South Wales recommended a flagship Indigenous Cultural Centre that would be a hub to connect to other facilities. Haven’t heard much about that recently. The WA government has hinted at the same for Perth. And of course, many a report on AAD has described the tortuous attempts of the NT government to set up a National Gallery in Alice Springs.
Which leaves the SA government of Stephen Marshall which has actually gone a long way down the tricky road of planning and building an Aboriginal Arts & Culture Centre on the old city centre Royal Adelaide Hospital site, and has tactfully dropped the word National from its project. And that’s despite deep discussions with SA Aboriginal groups accepting that the contents will have to take advantage of the superb national collection of historic art and artefacts currently sitting in the SA Museum storerooms. An opening is now projected for 2023.
Here’s what NSW Infrastructure said in 2014: Greater access to indigenous art and culture ¢ Support plans for a purpose-built Indigenous Cultural Centre within the Sydney CBD Cultural Precinct at Barangaroo Headland Park ¢ Promote greater collaboration between institutions housing indigenous collections to create a precinct-wide visitor experience and to enable sharing and consolidation of collections.
Is that still in government thinking? IA calls this taking steps towards reality. I think not. But IA continues: While there will be some competition between proposed facilities across multiple states and territories, there will be national benefit to providing dedicated facilities for the exhibition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art and culture. The program requires a coordinated response to ensure that facilities are sufficiently diverse to be complementary, encouraging visitation at multiple locations. Next steps : Proponent(s) to be identified.
Interestingly, though Federal funds have already gone into the Adelaide AACC project, IA doesn’t name it is a proponent.
IA also bases the financial side of its Audit on a single 2014 report from Ninti One, quoted in Australia Council documents. It recorded that between 2008 and 2012, remote Indigenous art centres generated around $53 million in art sales – that’s about $10m a year – with $30 million paid to artists. Around 40% of art sales are reinvested in the art centres, which are community hubs. They provide employment opportunities and other social and cultural benefits, as well as producing and marketing some of Australia’s most dynamic visual art. IA quotes a surprisingly limited involvement of only 8.8% of remote Aborigines in economic art activity. And Ninti One estimated that less than 3% of artists actually made a ‘living wage’.
This may have had the benefit of undercutting the notorious Senate Report guesstimate that the Aboriginal art business was worth $200 million a year. But it was a report limited by being based on access to the potentially imperfectly-kept books at 90 remote art centres.
Coincidentally, in 2017 Prof David Throsby produced reports actually talking to artists at those centres in East Arnhemland and The Kimberley. And, while few artists could offer him actual numbers, Throsby reckoned that for 30% of artists, art was the main source of their income. In The Kimberley, a full 90% see cultural activity as essential for their kids to get involved in, with economic potential too “ though 70% in The Kimberley saw their art centres as too limited in capacity to support any more artists. 93% would be happy for the development of more cultural tourism in their remote homelands.
Perhaps IA needs to build on the harder task of working with, localising and professionalising remote art centres ahead of the wished-for, but hard-to-achieve city-centre monoliths? Submissions should be made via Infrastructure Australia.