Quoted from the article Artlink magazine article:
Within Australia there are two common misconceptions about Aboriginal art and the international audience. First there is the belief that ‘selling Aboriginal art overseas is the biggest thing since sliced bread and the quickest way to make a buck’. However this is far from the truth – the overseas commercial value of the art is vastly overestimated. The second is that most Australians either underestimate or are completely unaware of the huge amount of promotion – as opposed to ‘marketing’ – of indigenous Australian art and culture that has occurred through non-commercial visual arts exhibitions shown in all parts of the globe in the last 12 years. Such promotions have significantly increased the international audience’s awareness of Australian indigenous art and recognition of indigenous culture as a key part of Australia’s national identity. In this article we want to explore the various issues faced by dealers and curators in taking Aboriginal art to the world, from viability to ethnocentricity and notions of the primitive, to the role of art in educating audiences and promoting the culture of indigenous Australians.
An example of the first assumption: the other day a person buying artworks direct from a remote community art centre was heard telling the staff that she had contacts in North America intimating that this could lead to “big things”. She was sincere but unfortunately over optimistic – they had heard the same words many times before and had learned to smile and say ‘that would be nice’. There is a long line of people who have sought to take Aboriginal art and culture to the wider world by way of selling the artworks and many of them thought they may be able to make a tidy income whilst doing so. There is a much shorter line of people who have been able to achieve a livelihood through the sales of indigenous art in overseas markets and most have achieved that through long, hard slog. Common to all of them is a passion about the intrinsic merit of the art and its creators.
There have been a number of attempts to crack the New York market. Howard Rower, the owner of the Australia Gallery which operated in New York City in the late 1980s and early 1990s, was a New York native who had travelled to Australia and had proverbially ‘fallen in love’ with Aboriginal art during an outback tour in 1987 that included Lajamanu, Yuendumu and Alice Springs. A man of means and long standing collector of art he had returned to New York and opened the gallery which represented both indigenous and non-indigenous Australian artists. He told me about the weekly arrival of enthusiastic and ever-hopeful carpetbaggers with rolls of mediocre and rarely authenticated Central Australian dot paintings under their arms who expected to be welcomed with open arms and wallets. Invariably they were shown the door. The Australia Gallery sought to deal directly with artists, art centres or established Australian galleries. The anecdote highlights the surfeit of middle people in the industry who are chasing the mythical mountains of money that the sale of Aboriginal art to overseas audiences supposedly generates. The Gallery closed unable to sustain its business. Robert Steele, an Adelaide based dealer, attempted a second Gallery in New York that has opened and closed within the last 2 years.