The great names are there at this year’s National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Awards “ Namatjira, Marawili, Marika, Burton, Thaiday, Petyarre, Mabo, Yalandja and Nadjamerrek. But rather than having the Christian names you’d probably recognise, 2014 will introduce the world to their children and grand-children “ eight (including Burthi Marika) turning up in the first ever Telstra Youth Award.

Another surprise is that we know the names of the finalists already “ 65 out of 306 entries, an impressive number compared to last year’s 240. In previous year’s we’ve had to wait until Opening Night (August 8th this year) to find out who’d made it through the first round of judging. The relatively new Director of the Museum & Art Gallery of the NT (MAGNT), Pierre Arpin, is steadily making changes.

But it’s the sponsors, Telstra rather than Arpin who’ve upped the financial ante this year from $60,000 to $75,000 for the prize pool, and an extra $10,000 for the ‘Big Telstra’ winner – now taking home $50,000 and perhaps luring such names as Djambawa Marawili, Philip Gudthaykudthay, Alick Tipoti, Tony Albert, and Mavis Ngalametta out of the woodwork. Worryingly, the first two names there are two of only five artists selected for their bark art in the finals. Obviously, it’s great to have the national scene represented “ though the single entries from Tassie, Victoria and the ACT were all rejected by the judges “ it’s a little sad that a prize once dominated by the bark art of the North is now reduced to just five works.

Could it be that artists and art co-ordinators doubt the appeal of bark to judges coming exclusively from the south? This year the selectors are Clotilde Bullen, Curator of ATSI Art, Art Gallery of Western Australia, David Broker, Director, Canberra Contemporary Art Space, and Tina Baum, Curator of ATSI Art at the National Gallery of Australia. Broker’s is a challenging appointment in that his funded art space in Canberra seems to have taken little interest in Indigenous art, since its remit is emerging ACT artists. However, I did spot an exclusively Urban/Blak art show last July which included the 2013 ‘Big Telstra’ winner, Canberran glass-artist Jenni Kemarre Martiniello.

And perhaps it’s not surprising that there are 15 ‘3D’ works (the second largest category) selected for possible prizes “ a group which includes multi-media material as well as Pukumani Poles, vases and soft sculptures from the Town Camps around Alice Springs. But the North “ the NT, WA, SA and Queensland – dominates the final show with 61 of the 65 selections. Delightful to see relatively new art-making places like Carnarvon (WA) and Halls Creek multiply represented. But the real star is the tiny Musgrave Ranges community of Amata, where the women established the Tjala Art Centre in 1999, to be joined by men of high degree such as Hector Burton and Tiger Palpatja a little later. This South Australian APY Lands mob has provided no fewer than eight of the 26 successful general painting entries.

Meanwhile, behind the art lies a long-needed restructure for MAGNT. From July 1st, the Museum becomes an entity on its own rather than part of a government department. It was only appropriate that the NT Government cut it free to raise funds in a variety of ways since they’d been cruelly cutting its public funding for several years. Under the continuing leadership of the Melbourne QC Allan Myers – who also chairs the National Gallery in Canberra – and with two local developers aboard, things look good for the future. But MAGNT is an oddity “ both a museum with ships and rocks and crocs and an art gallery with one of the great unseen collections of Aboriginal art, especially early Papunya boards. It will take imagination from the likes of new board member Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann, the founder of the Merrepen Arts Centre on the Daly River 25 years ago, to bring it all together.

And good luck to the new NATSIAA Co-ordinator, Louise Cummins – may she survive longer than a single year!