The Business Case for the Northern Territory’s National Aboriginal Art Gallery in Alice Springs (Mparntwe) has been published by EY Consultants (aka Ernst & Young) at a cost of $224,000. Coverage so far has emphasised the numbers “ but an earnest effort to pick the eyes out of all 84 pages reveals a fair bit more about its philosophical make-up with the bold dedication to resolve the absence of a national institution dedicated to Aboriginal art in Australia.

I hope my selection of relevant sections treats this significant document fairly and that my comments (in brackets) amplify my selections.

Here goes:
The NT Government believes that the establishment of such a National Aboriginal Art Gallery would help to:
â–ºCelebrate the art and culture of Aboriginal people and contribute to Aboriginal empowered and advancement
â–ºCreate greater understanding and appreciation of Aboriginal culture within Australian society and therefore foster reconciliation
â–ºFoster a more sophisticated and inclusive image of Australia internationally as a country which is reconciling with its past and celebrates the achievements of all its people

By applying First Peoples’ principles of ensuring majority Aboriginal governance, management and workforce, the Gallery provides a vehicle for Aboriginal people to tell their stories to the world, investing them with agency in the way in which their stories are told.

This would allow the Gallery to:
â–ºBecome an exemplar for how Aboriginal art should be managed, stored and displayed in Australia and become a catalyst for change in other galleries and museums around the country
â–ºUndertake a research role to help to fill gaps in knowledge around interpretation and meaning of Aboriginal art in public collections
â–ºProvide a vehicle through which Aboriginal people can interact with their art and culture and preserve that culture by having Elders teach younger generations the Tjukurpa (Law/Dreaming/Stories) and other cultural significance in the works of art
â–ºPreserve culture and connection to culture for Aboriginal people which can lead to improved social and health outcomes

An indicative cost of construction of the facility has been estimated by the NT Department of Infrastructure, Planning and Logistics, and a range of $150M to $180M is expected, dependent on factors including site and design issues. (Neither is currently certain).

During construction, there would be direct contribution of between 115 -138 jobs and a direct and indirect output of between $118.6M and $142.4M. Once the Gallery is fully operational, it will generate an economic contribution to GRP based on its activity and the visitation it stimulates.

The year examined is 2025, the third full year of operations, which would allow the Gallery to ramp up its visitation. The operations of the Gallery will contribute:
â–ºA direct and indirect output of $13.7M
â–ºUp to 69 direct and indirect jobs
Additional visitation (to the town) will contribute to GRP:
â–ºA direct and indirect output of between $42.8M-$64.2M
â–ºBetween 164-245 direct and indirect jobs

(This would all seem to be dependent on the city centre site currently housing the Alice Springs Town Council which has not found favour with the local Tradition Owners “ for the EY report stresses) CBD activation and revitalisation for Mparntwe.

(Apart from jobs and the money brought into Alice, the Report heads off into radical areas by insisting on) The agency of Aboriginal people in the way that their stories are told and their art is represented is also critical to realising the Case for Change (making comparisons with the Maori Taonga at New Zealand’s Te Papa Museum and the US’s two Museums of the American Indian).

One consequence (of displaying Aboriginal art in non-Indigenous institutions) is that the full meaning and richness of Aboriginal art remains unrealised and the experience for the visitor, whether Aboriginal or not, may be reduced as a result. Having Aboriginal art displayed and explained in a manner that is more consistent with Aboriginal ways of understanding would provide a more authentic and complete experience and understanding of the art and the way that art keeps culture strong and connects so deeply to country.

(Geographically) Mparntwe is located at the intersection of a number different Aboriginal language groups. Aboriginal borders are through language, song and ceremony rather than State borders established through Federation. At Mparntwe Pitjanjatjara, Western, Southern and Eastern and Central Arrernte, Luritja /Pintupi, Anmatyerr, Alyawarr and Warlpari language groups intersect. The central region’s cluster of art centres from APY and Ngaanyatjarra lands in the south and south west to Papunya, Hermannsburg and Utopia further north has been a crucible of production, sales generation and community development

(As might have been expected the EY accountants make play with) The Bilbao effect, which refers to the opening of a Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao in Spain. The Museum, designed by Frank Gehry, attracted 1.3 million visitors in its first year, averaging around 900,000 since, and has revitalised what was considered a decaying industrial city into a tourist mecca and hub of creativity. It is important to note that many cities have attempted to recreate this effect and not all have been successful. For example, the National Centre for Popular Music in Sheffield, England, only received a quarter of its projected visitors and went bankrupt.

(But arts tourism is a dynamic thing) Arts tourist numbers (in Australia) grew by 47 per cent between 2013 and 2017, a higher growth rate than for international tourist numbers overall, which were just 37% (according to an Australia Council report in 2018).

Additionally, Indigenous tourism, defined by the Department of Trade and Foreign Affairs as tourists who participated in at least one Indigenous tourism activity such as visiting an Aboriginal site or community, experiencing an Aboriginal art or craft or cultural display, or attending an Aboriginal performance, has increased by over 40 percent between 2013 and 2017. In 2017, Australia’s 963,000 international Indigenous tourism visitors spent a total of 45 million visitor nights and $7 billion in Australia. (Meanwhile in Mparntwe, between 2015 and 18, international visitation declined by 1%).

Past visitors to Mparntwe spent on average $465 on Aboriginal art which is considerably more than the $333 that future visitors anticipated spending. This indicates a willingness to purchase art when in (a place) where the art has a stronger connection to its location of sale and when provided with more choice and information about the art. Research has shown that audiences want to be more informed about the art of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists and would use this information to make purchasing decisions.

Aboriginal art centres generate around $30 million in sales per year (according to the Ninti One report in 2014. And, though there’s an impression that sales have never recovered to their 2007 heights) In the three years to 2016-17, average art centre sales have grown by 23%; but the Central Australian region encompassing the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara APY Lands, Western Desert and the lower portions of the Northern Territory, have grown by 35%.

The building itself (if sufficiently iconic) could become the image associated with Mparntwe, change how the town is seen by itself and others, attract tourists and make a positive impact on how the town’s residents interact with one another by providing a central gathering place where locals and visitors can come together. A building of this nature would be the predominant built form in Mparntwe and would become the town’s defining built feature, an equivalent to the Sydney Opera House, or Golden Gate Bridge, on a proportionate scale.

It would not be a collecting institution (thus saving on size) but would instead draw from the collections of other galleries and museums(and private collections) to display temporary exhibitions which would be changed periodically. The NT itself can offer the most significant collection of early Papunya Boards in the world (at the Museum and Art Gallery of the NT) and the second most significant collection of Albert Namatjira watercolours after the National Gallery at Araluen Art Centre.

The Gallery would best fulfil the objectives it seeks to meet if it is built and operated on First Peoples’ principles. First Peoples principles are to be enshrined in every stage of development and operation of the Gallery so that Aboriginal expression and systems of knowledge underwrite the cultural integrity of the Gallery and ensure that artwork is presented in culturally appropriate ways that keeps culture strong and grounds the experience in Country, which is particularly important for Aboriginal communities.

(Regarding ticketing “ EY makes the very odd assumption that getting everyone to pay (apart from kids) will draw a greater attendance than allowing the locals in free “ 163,309 versus 120,126 a year “ which is surely not the experience of an institution like Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art, which struggled before it obtained sponsorship for free entry).

Next steps:
â–ºDevelop a cultural agreement with Mparntwe custodians
â–ºConfirm and acquire a site for the Gallery in Mparntwe

(Two enormous hurdles, as the custodians are sticking to their opposition to a CBD-based institution, preferring a location south of The Gap, for (what the ever-alert ‘Alice Springs News’ calls) well-defined cultural reasons.)

Meanwhile (the potentially conflicting) South Australian project for an Aboriginal Art and Cultures Gallery (though it’s dropped the word ‘National’ from its title) shares some of the objectives with the Gallery in Mparntwe, such as celebrating Aboriginal art and culture. However, it also differs given the stated purpose of the National Aboriginal Art Gallery relates to the creation of a new institution with a new model of agency for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples with control over the celebration, display and interpretation of Aboriginal artwork, with majority Aboriginal governance and workforce, and (an intention) to bring together under one roof a representative collection (should that be a series of exhibitions?) drawn from across the continent.

In contrast, one of the South Australian project’s key objectives is to utilise the current collections of the Museum of South Australia and Art Gallery of South Australia in part to resolve storage issues related to the Museum’s extensive collections of Aboriginal material culture.

While the Mparntwe Gallery will focus on contemporary art, it will also display some ethnographic material to help contextualise the modern material.