The Australia Council announces “Purrumpa – a momentous five-day national celebration of First Nations arts and culture bringing together leaders from across the country”, and it starts today in Adelaide. It’s also watchable online.

Purrumpa’ is actually celebrating the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Aboriginal Arts Board of the Australia Council – though there’s not much sign of that significant history in the program.

In fact the only reference to history is the session run by South Australia’s Ku Arts, ‘Reflecting on 50 Years’ – which is also one of only two sessions to feature remote artists rather than urban warriors. Ku may have only existed to support SA art centres since 1998, but artists such as David Miller, Ashley Pompey, Inawintji Williamson, Dre Ngatokorua and Alison Milyika Carrol should be able to provide some insights on the changing times since the Pitjanjtajara were first encouraged to stick to their crafts in a 1975 Australia Council report, leaving art to the Pintupi.

I wonder though whether they’ll really be noticed in the face of exciting sessions such as ‘Indigenous Futurism as a Political Tool’ and ‘Decolonising Methodologies’? Or the higher profile keynote speeches such as that by Professor Marcia Langton AO or media lawyer, Teela Reid. Politicians will also bookend the week – today and on Friday.

Much political interest, too will surely surround Tuesday’s session: Bringing It Forward: The Journey Towards a National Body for First Nations arts and culture”. This is a report back by Franchesca Cubillo, the Australia Council’s current Executive Director First Nations Arts and Culture on the community consultations that have occurred all over the country. I attended one in Darwin in 2019 – so it’s not been a speedy process. And I must admit I failed to understand what this new, all-powerful oversight body would add to the current mix of administrative organisations.

But later on Tuesday the visual arts feature in a session called ‘First Nations Storytelling: Visual Arts’, facilitated by Fiona Foley and featuring Djon Mundine OAM, Vernon Ah Kee and Dr Julie Gough. No remote artists seem to have been invited to to contribute.

But would that be expected when you look at the many worthies who advise the Australia Council’s now First Nations Arts and Culture Strategy Panel. There hasn’t been a northern/remote artist involved since 2008 when Terry Marawili (more usually known as Djambawa) completed his term of office.

What an extraordinary turn-around from the founding members of the Aboriginal Arts Board in 1973. They were;

Dick Roughsey (1973–76) Chair, Albert Barunga (1973–75), Harold Blair (1973–75), Ken Colbung (1973–76), Kitty Dick (1973–76), Wandjuk Marika (1973–75), Chicka Dixon (1973), Ruby Hammond (1973). Eric Koo’oila (1973), Tim Leura Jabaljari/Tjapaltjarri (1973), Albert Lennon (1973–74), Raphael Apuatimi (1973), Mick Miller (1973–75), Vai Stanton (1973–76), Terry Widders (1973–75), with Edward Koiko Mabo (1974–76), Bobby Nganjmirra (1974–77) and Long Jack Phillipus (1974–75) replacing the single year appointments.

A marvellous mixture of players from Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, Adelaide and Darwin – but also from Papunya, Weipa, Mowanjum, Yirrkala, Maningrida, Bathurst, Mer and Mornington Islands, Ernabella, and Aurukun. I wonder whether the 50 resolutions for 50 years that those men and women pondered on for many an hour will come up at ‘Purrumpa’ this week? They came from a massive seminar where 800 people were invited to Canberra to thrash out a charter for the government and how Aborigines themselves would design the way government could support the future of Aboriginal culture and art. For all the committees that reported to the Aboriginal Board were all exclusively Aboriginal, of course.

Or have those resolutions that been lost to history? For, when the Australia Council supplied me with those founding names – under the heroic title: “We build upon the wonderful Legacy of those who have gone before” – I also asked about the staffing of the Board in those days. But they couldn’t provide me with a single name.

Perhaps the non-Indigenous staffers of those years have simply been written out of history? Wonder whether they’ll make the official history of the AAB, promised during Purrumpa by Executive Officer, Franchesca Cubillo. For the official list of Board Directors starts with Gary Foley in 1984. Just two years later, his reluctance to fund any body employing non-Indigenous staff meant that the Federal Arts Ministry had to take over the funding of community art centres, which almost all needed non-Indigenous coordinators to mdiate between artists and the marketplace. The IVAIS program, fortunatekly, continues today.

Most prominent of the AAB’s early facilitators, of course, was Dr Bob Edwards, the anthropologist who’d run the SA Museum and was the inaugural Director. His repute was such that, at one time in 2011, the Australian National Museum ran a multi-day feltschrift to record his achievements. The British Museum’s Director, Neil MacGregor made the effort to fly out and contribute. And Project Office at the AAB’s predecessor, the Aboriginal Arts Advisory Committee, Jennifer Isaacs spoke on behalf of others who’d been involved with the AAB: “I once asked Wandjuk Marika how he knew that Bob would become his friend and brother and do his will when he became the chair of the Aboriginal Arts Board. He said, ‘Oh, we know, we look into the eyes. We can tell. He is the chosen one to do what we want him to do.’

Another of Isaacs’ reports was from Indigenous design guru, the urbane, Borroloola-born John Moriarty: “John was saying that those seven years were so fundamentally important in Australian culture as it exists today because traditional people and urban people came together in what he could only call a conflagration. ‘It had not happened. How could that not have happened in 200 years? In Arnhemland people called urban Aboriginals ‘yella fellas’. Wandjuk himself used to say to me, ‘They’ve lost their culture, they don’t know nothing,’ and this took a lot of negotiation, coming together, warm friendships – and these often happened in and around the Aboriginal Arts Board meetings’”

History now lauds that era as the start of a commercial Indigenous art movement – which may (or may not) have been hailed by critic Robert Hughes as “the last great art movement of the 20th Century”. But it nearly died – only to be saved by Bob Edwards.

Jennifer Isaacs again: “The early 1970s were desperate times for Papunya art. There were paintings everywhere and no market. Artists were selling their paintings in the Alice Springs pubs for $20.00. The Board was often the sole buyer of the paintings and as Bob has said ‘We had paintings stacked everywhere … walls, floors, coming out of our ears … nobody wanted them … what were we going to do?’ It’s ironic that today these early paintings are now eagerly sought by collectors. In fact, export permits are required before permission is even given to send these early paintings overseas.

“Bob thought the best way to attack the problem was to promote the art in overseas exhibitions. In that way a new market would open and the domestic art market might also pick up. In Australia, the so-called ‘dotty’ paintings were not generally accepted and not regarded as ‘real’ Aboriginal art. So the board initiated a program of commissioning paintings for overseas exhibitions, and it would appear in the minutes as a grant to such and such a community to develop a program in painting. But in fact the board managed to amass enough paintings to send overseas and then leave them there in museums and other institutions to stimulate interest in a totally unknown world, which was the Aboriginal world of Australia”.

The Board even had its own Exhibitions Officer, Kate Khan. Of course, this project was particularly beneficial for the new Papunya Tula Artists, a model for community art centres everywhere. PTA’s website recently published a tribute to another of the AAB staff pioneers, Project Officer Anthony Wallis. He went on to head the Aboriginal Artists Agency, “which has been with us almost from the start, and is integral to PTA’s operation. Matters relating to intellectual property and copyright are of utmost importance. Essentially, AAA ensures that these things are attended to properly, efficiently and in a timely manner, and that monies from related commercial activities end up where they are supposed to. It’s a complex task, crucial to our continuing success”.

“He pioneered contracts with the Papunya artists where they permitted AAA to represent them in this area. This meant a second stream of income for artists in addition to PTA dividends: fees for the reproduction of each and every painting used by government, industry, education and finally public museums and art galleries. ‘Paintings have an afterlife’, Anthony advises. ‘There’s a lot more to controlling one’s copyright than simply earning money from it’. He says that ‘control’ is the key word. Artists need to know that an agency is considering each and every situation in which their work may be reproduced, and know that they have options”.

For instance, a recent promotion of Aboriginal art on Breville kitchen products – coffee-makers, toasters, etc – has raised $150,000 for the artists involved.

Something to celebrate, perhaps. But not, I suspect, this week at ‘Purrumpa’. Time to move forward.