“Indigenous art centres provide a useful gauge of the health of the whole sector. Until the COVID-19 pandemic, art centre sales had been growing for almost a decade. Between 2011 and 2019, the average sales of Indigenous art centres grew by 53.4 per cent. This was still 11.7 per cent lower than at the market’s peak in 2007-08, before the GFC. Today art centres are more financially independent, and the proportion of income from grants has fallen to its lowest level for over a decade at around 40 per cent of total average income. Despite this, as a result of COVID lockdowns, Desart has documented that in the period from 16 March to 30 June 2020, sales through Indigenous art centres fell by an average of 30 percent as compared to the same period in 2019. This was accompanied by a significant reduction in the number of artists who were active and the number of artworks produced. The impact remained significant, but eased to an 8 percent fall in sales in the period from 1 July to 31 December 2020”.

That’s the basis for the Federal Government’s thinking behind their five year National Indigenous Visual Arts Action Plan (NIVAAP) just announced. The 80 remote community art centres will be assisted by the fairly meagre sum of $5m. a year to “build capacity”.

And the thinking behind this commendable planning derives from a Parliamentary Committee’s 2018 ‘Report on the impact of inauthentic art and craft in the style of First Nations peoples‘, which would suggest that a crackdown on the inauthenticity that 80% of ‘souvenirs’ carry was its primary motive. But that’s well down the five year program – probably sensibly if anyone remembers the $2.5m which went into an organisation called the National Indigenous Arts Advocacy Association to produce a ‘Tick of Authenticity’ which went on to a few T-shirts, but never made it anywhere near art. More recently we’ve seen the failure of the Birubi prosecution, where a $3m fine for pretending Indonesian artefacts were genuinely Indigenous was simply ignored by the company that has gone on to license the Aboriginal flag!

The Indigenous Art Code, which might exist to fight such fights remains unmandatory – and I note that a major investigation into its effectiveness will occur in 2023. There’s also vague talk of a new law to protect Indigenous cultural intellectual property – though the example of proposals relating to the destruction of Juukan Gorge don’t suggest that the whitefellars in Canberra have a great passion for such matters.

So, more immediately, the Government says: “We will build the capacity of up to 40 (of the 80) Indigenous art centres to operate effectively in regional and remote locations by investing to attract and retain professionally qualified staff including art centre managers, new Indigenous arts workers and studio manager positions. 8 each year will compete for funds”. Pity about the other 40! But they will benefit from a digital upgrade to their NBN access, making the whole process of selling direct from art centres an easier proposition. Training in digital literacy will precede the technology, so I suspect it’ll be Year 3 before the upgrading begins.

There will also be yet further investigation of digital labelling of fine art using QR codes. Desart began to research this in July 2019 and I’ve never seen any results from their efforts. But it seems these won’t be assessed until next year. And this is a year before another vital part of the Big Picture takes places, which is a push for greater consumer awareness. While it’s clear that Indigenous art fairs across the country have already made a big move to go online (and they’ll get more funds under NIVAAP), I suspect that most art buyers get their first taste of the complex beauty of First Nations art in a city commercial gallery. Yet there’s very little mention of them in the government’s scheme – though some support for ‘independent artists’ suggests that the possible existence of artists outside the art centres isn’t totally ignored.

Let’s face it, while this Aboriginal Art Directory was set up to assist art centres perform better in the marketplace through online selling, it’s commercial galleries which have kept the ‘business’ going for the past 40 years.

I wonder whether the Productivity Commission will notice them; for there’s also an enquiry by the PC into “the value, nature and structure of the markets for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts and crafts and policies to address deficiencies in the markets”. How unLiberal to acknowledge deficiencies in the markets! And how inauthentic that the PC’s recent issues paper about “inauthentic” works in the market for Indigenous art features a painting on its cover by a Wiradjuri (NSW) artist that seems to have appropriated  almost 100% traditional motifs from the Deserts.

But there’s more! Ten innovative projects each year will be funded to increase access for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists to national and international markets.

Some uncertainty about all this money. While Minister Fletcher touts about his extra $5m a year, “This increases overall support to the Indigenous visual art sector to $27 million each year”, the Plan itself insists, “The IVAIS program now provides approximately $27 million per annum to around 80 Indigenous-owned art centres and several Indigenous art fairs”. Please explain.

And then there’s uncertainty about the hot topic of Resale Royalty. To my surprise, the international side of this in which fellow RR countries automatically pay up and receive royalties when their nation’s artists have an appropriate overseas resale, isn’t automatic at all. It requires our government to take action just 11 years after the legislation was originally passed – which the NIVAAP promises to do. As CAL’s Judy Grady puts it: “The next step of the process is for Government to prescribe the countries into our legislation/regulation for it to become effective”. I wonder whether we’ve been paying the French for Picasso?

A final thought on the insularity of the Indigenous art world. Almost a year ago, I encouraged AAD readers to put in their twopennyworth to the Ministry on what they thought the industry needed at this time. I’m sure the Ministry itself also encouraged submissions. But when I look at the lists of those who bothered, 32 organisations submitted and 54 organisations attended round tables. All were deeply engaged in the industry already – art centres, facilitator organisations, commercial galleries, etc. Outside that important group, just 33 people had their say, only five of whom identified as Indigenous art buyers and just four were “not part of the industry”.