In response to this week’s Productivity Commission report into the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Visual Arts & Crafts Industry, the ABC reported:
“Around $250 million of Indigenous art was sold in 2019-2020, but a report from Australia’s Productivity Commission shows only around one in three items sold were actually produced by an Indigenous artist or business”.

The infuriating fact is that the Report failed to make a single mention of inauthentic ‘Indigenous art’. It was all about inauthentic craft souvenirs. Despite which new Arts Minister Tony Burke was quoted as saying he’s “sick to death” of Indigenous artists getting ripped off. “Fake art isn’t just dishonest – it is cultural theft,” he said.

What a shame that the canvases, barks and sculptural works that community art centres, commercial galleries and art fairs sell is now tarred with the same brush as Indonesian boomerangs and decorated kitchen equipment! Though, actually, boomerangs are the least likely souvenirs to be inauthentic – more than 50% are genuine – according to the Productivity Commission research.

And that’s both the most valuable part of this report and what they were primarily commissioned to achieve.

Not that we have absolute clarity on the size of this industry. A lot of news reports have seized on the figure of $250m a year covering art and the souvenir crafts. But a chart indicates that in the 2019/20 financial year,  the now 126 community art centres only turned over between $30 and $47 million; six art fairs hit a precise $6.7m; and 188 dealers (where on earth are all of them???) sold between $74 and $90m worth of art and craft. Auctions then re-sold $6.4m.

But of course, all art fairs and many galleries re-sell art from art centres despite the best efforts of art centres to establish direct sales these days. Meaning there’s plenty of potential for double counting in those numbers. So it seems that 19,000 ATSI artists – 54% of them living remotely – actually only earned $37m. Perhaps $2,700 on average each.

If artists are only ending up with 15% of the quarter of the billion dollars total, does this suggest that the 65% of souvenirs in that total, worth $83m a year – and more than half inauthentic – earn them so much less than proper art? Or is it all explained by the overlap between art centre income and gallery?

Such uncertainty might be extended to the very notion of ‘art’. For the Report’s bold statement that Indigenous people have been “creating visual arts and crafts for tens of thousands of years” is debatable. I would argue that ‘art’ only came into the First Nations world in the 20th Century when ceremonial designs suddenly appealed to a white marketplace. And art authenticity itself is brought into question when the cover artist chosen for this Report is Luke Penrith, who’s ancestry is connected through the Wiradjuri, Wotjobaluk, the Yuin and the Gumbaynggirr Nations, but whose artwork contains almost 100% Central Australian traditional motifs!

And this despite the fact that one of the two Productivity Commissioners responsible is Romlie Mokak, a Djugun man and a member of the Yawuru people. The other author is Lisa Gropp.

So, what to do with the facts they’ve accumulated? And don’t forget that you can share your thoughts on these matters until Monday 29th August.

Proposed improvements are headed by the suggestion that all inauthentic craft souvenirs should be forced to carry a label disclaiming Indigenous origin. This is the obverse of the disastrous NIAAA scheme in the 1990s which attempted to sell an authenticity label, as it wouldn’t require First Nations artists to both prove their Indigeneity or go in for expense.

There are also suggestions that more money now needs to go to those 126 art centres as their numbers continue to increase while Federal funds have stood still. Overwork by non-Indigenous managers resulting in an inability to carry out the centres’ non-art functions or have time to train up local successors justifies the money.

It doesn’t appear that fears of carpet-bagging were taken that seriously – nothing is suggested to impede it. And the Indigenous Art Code’s long-held hopes of becoming mandated for the industry are denied. It would be “a blunt response” in the Commissioners’ view. But mention is made of both ‘Code Certificates’ and the IaC establishing an independent review of disputes mechanism – paying for it with increased membership fees.

Finally, there’s recognition that laws related to Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property (ICIP) need to be tightened. Currently they are “patchy and incidental”. As Desmond Taylor from Martumili Artists told the Parliamentary enquiry in 2018 that sparked this Report:
“Martumili (art centre) stores our life or stories that have been handed down through generations that we have ownership of. It’s also a gift that’s been given to us and we’re here as we live our lives daily. We are maintaining these stories that we put on [canvas] to maintain our history. No other people can make these designs that they have no understanding of. Those who fake these designs, it doesn’t mean anything to them. To them, it’s all about greed, fast money. It’s also about ripping our way of life and our stories that belong to this place — Australia”.