Indigenous artists are a strong presence on the Australian and international art scenes, but their voices are almost silent when it comes to leadership roles in many of the country’s public and private galleries.
In a bold bid to inject change from the top, the National Gallery of Australia has launched a five-year plan to boost the number of Indigenous people in arts administration jobs.
The numbers tell the story – nearly half of all Australian artists are Indigenous but only 16 Indigenous people are involved in the administrative side of the industry.
Indigenous art delivers an estimated $500 million to the Australian economy every year.
But buyers usually deal with well-dressed white emissaries in glimmering city galleries to purchase it.
Plus, there are few Indigenous curators or directors in Australian galleries, which NGA director Ron Radford says limits the effectiveness of communicating Aboriginal stories.
Former Democrats senator Aden Ridgeway was commissioned to undertake a nationwide consultation process with Indigenous and arts communities to see how a program aimed at encouraging Aboriginal people into arts administration might work.
The result is a two-fold program; a rigorous professional development program for senior Indigenous arts leaders, and an entry-level program catering for potential leaders wanting to work in Aboriginal arts administration.
The commercial Aboriginal art industry has been plagued with stories of dodgy dealings in recent years and Mr Ridgeway says that is another reason why Indigenous people need to get into the commercial side of the art world.
“[They need] to become more directly involved in looking at the art sector and particularly in terms of being able to manage how and where and why things are sold,” he said.
“If we make sure that we have enough well-trained and professional people working in this space they’re the ones who will guide and direct how this business is conducted.”
But how exactly would more Indigenous involvement affect responses to Indigenous art in the marketplace?
Ron Radford thinks it will lend extra credibility and authenticity.
“To be able to actually buy works from an Indigenous person explaining their story directly surely would be even better marketing,” Mr Radford said.
But he says Indigenous people trained in commercial or curatorial skills need not restrict their expertise to Aboriginal art.
He cites the story of a young Indigenous trainee at the Gallery who was sent to the Venice Biennale with a team of curators.
She returned with a taste for the old European masters.
“She so loved European art – which she hadn’t had much association with before – that she wanted to be a curator of European art,” Mr Radford said.
“I think that is the true sophistication of this program when we get Aboriginal curators that don’t feel that they just have to be curators of Aboriginal art but be curators of European art or of Asian art.
“I think that’s when we really know that we’ve succeeded.”