While the Telstra NATSIAAs naturally hit the headlines with their $100,000 main prize going to a mighty woven sail from Milingimbi and another $90,000 in prizes both supporting the Indigenous art economy and making the Awards the largest art prize in the country, there are actually a lot of other reasons why those engaged by First Nations culture and the art business need to be in Darwin in August each year.

For a start, there were eight other Aboriginal art exhibitions – many solo shows – and the largest art fair in the country to excite the phagocytes. But a novelty this year was the series of eight panel sessions organised by Agency Projects from Melbourne in which many of the burning topics of the day were laid out. Governance and the economy of remote art centres were tackled, as were political art and the burgeoning international scene for Aboriginal art. Of course, the series was lead off by a Welcome to Country – and it became apparent then and on many other occasions, that the local Larrakia mob has really gained traction over the two years during which many of us couldn’t get to Darwin. The Cubillo/Lee family – as they style themselves – is out and proud.

I only managed two of Agency’s ‘Untold’ sessions – but was certainly told a lot! Most controversial was a surprising resistance to the benefits of sponsorship by leading beneficiaries of that support. For instance, Nici Cumpston, the curator who’s made Adelaide’s Tarnanthi Festival such a huge hit actually found its sponsorship by a mining company, “troubling”. But as she continued by agreeing that before BHP came to the party, the Art Gallery of SA had funds to buy only one artwork a year and that, since 2008, its Tarnanthi funding “had shifted the whole picture of Aboriginal art”, it seemed that the lady did protest too much.

But then came the equally counter-productive statement from Sally Scales, artist and Chair of the APY Art Centre Collective. She was not going to give the sponsors of the Telstra NATSIAAs the recognition that their official co-titling offers; “They’re just the NATSIAAs for me”. How much money have her APY artists taken home in the 31 unbroken years that Telstra has paid for the prizes – which the impoverished Museum & Art Gallery of the NT could never have stumped up? And how much is the prestige of the event (and Tarnanthi) dependent on those corporate funds?

Interestingly, this unworldly (perhaps, politically correct is a better descriptor) stance wasn’t extended to sponsors Wesfarmers, whose funding of training programs for Indigenous curators at the National Gallery has now benefited 120+ alumni – some of whom were now ‘Untold’ panellists. And the benefits of their networking both domestically and, increasingly internationally, were clearly paying off.

Melbourne Museum curator Kimberley Moulton, for instance offered us experience from Bangladesh to Winnipeg, not to mention the “decolonisation of the Norwegian pavilion by Sami” at the Venice Biennale. And the ANU’s Dr Jilda Andrews, hailed the efforts of the American Kluge/Ruhe Museum in “creating space for Yolngu thinking” in the organisation of ‘Madayin’, its big bark exhibition about to take the US by storm. “We need to go global to impress Australia”, she asserted; “that’s the ‘what next’ stage – to sell the domestic yarn”.

For an event organised by a group called Agency Projects, the agency of individual artists working outside community art centres wasn’t a high priority. It was suggested, for instance, that the National Gallery is in the process of unvaluing all Indigenous works in its collection that don’t have an art centre provenance. This will undoubtedly have an effect upon the secondary market – though surely it can’t include Emily Kngwarreye, who somehow managed a glittering career without ever being associated with an art centre. And didn’t the NGA pay top price for a Rover Thomas work from dealer Mary Macha???

And it’s pretty clear that the NATSIAAs don’t accept artworks from outside the art centre network. Which could, by the way, extend into NSW if senior curator Djon Mundine has his way. He might get the support of Kimberley Moulton, who shared her distress at seeing the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair map “with a great big blank in the South East corner. We just don’t seem to be authentic enough down there to be in this space”, she opined.

Don’t say there’s a gulf between the urban curators and the classical art that rules in Darwin?

And it certainly ruled in exhibitions around town. While the annual group show form the Tiwi Islands’ two art centres was looking stronger than ever, the absolute stars were Barayuwa Mununggurr and Timo Hogan. Yolngu man Munuggurr paints ‘Garapana’, the reef created by the stone knives his ancestors threw into the sea after killing their whale brother Mirinyungu. The reef is guarded by the octopus, Ngarrapiya. To etch that complexity on to re-purposed aluminium road signs and achieve an irresistible beauty that sold out every work of offer suggests an undeniable aesthetic mastery.

Timo Hogan, on the other hand, simply thinks big, but only about Lake Baker. The Spinifex man won the Big Telstra last year and was commissioned to create a triptych for Tarnanthi. In Darwin he fills a whole gallery with images of this “dangerously sacred” lake in a way that conjured associations with Houston’s famous Rothko chapel. The tiny artist was dwarfed by his wall-high black and white creations, streaked only occasionally by the colours of the battles between the lake’s resident blind water serpent, Wanampiku and the heroes of the Two Man Songline, Wati Kutjara. They too were all sold.

The art business is looking good. Don’t muck it up