ORIC, the Office of the Regulator of Indigenous Corporations has recently attempted to quantify the community art centre sector of the industry; and its report “ ‘At the Heart of Art’ does not paint a pretty picture. By comparing numbers between pre-GFC 2007 and 2011, they’ve discovered a 52% reduction in turnover and a 31% fall in assets owned. They also note that staff ’employed’ has gone up two and a half times and that Federal funding to support 300 artworkers had increased by $38m. over the same period. But this, I suspect is just CDEP by another name.

In money terms, $25m annual income from sales, profits and grants has plunged to $11.9m.
So “ who’s being assessed, and how accurately?

It seems that 101 Indigenous corporations are involved in art “ 64 of them exclusively. Unfortunately, only 47 of them got their numbers in “ which suggests that ORIC is not that persistent! A big art centre like Maningrida is one of the 37 whose numbers did come in via the Bawinanga Corporation that runs the whole community. Reporting then may not be quite so detailed. Another detail not mentioned until the end of the report is that only just over half of ANKAAA’s and Desart’s art centre members, spread across the Top End, The Kimberley and the deserts in the NT, South Australia and a bit of the West are actually corporations “ the rest are too small.

For a bigger picture of the whole industry, ORIC attempts some pretty wild leaps of logic. They suggest that back in 79/80, the turnover was a tiny $2.5m., which had become a mighty $4/500m. by 2007. I’ve frequently doubted such fanciful numbers; and wondered where on earth they came from. It seems that ‘certainty’ can be adduced in 1999/2000 by taking the commercial gallery turnover for that year at $35.6m. and simply multiplying it by four! It was a $142.4m. year!

Which all means that commercial galleries were apparently turning over $100 to $125m. in 2007. I’m not sure any gallerists of my acquaintance bought a Roller that year!

But a realistic commercial number that does relate to the community art centre numbers is that for auctions of Indigenous art – $26m. in ’07 down to $8m. in 2011, a 69% fall. At least the art centres were just ahead on that score.

Now we come down to the nitty-gritty. Most of that diminution of income came in the NT. South Australia held steady to go top of the tree in average turnover per art centre, and Queensland with its ALP government giving priority to the development of an Indigenous art industry, actually trebled in turnover.

So what’s happening in SA? While the biggest art centre for sales was over the NT border at that tourist mecca, Mutijulu “ aka Uluru “ the tiny operations at Amata (Tjala Arts) and Nyapari (Tjungu Palya) were consistently up there in the top ten. Other regulars on the list were Balgo, Maningrida and Yuendemu.

But what is it with the relatively new APY centres that they can consistently produce work of urgency and force, in the words of Nicolas Rothwell in The Australian? His conclusion is both controversial and, in my opinion, only part of the story:
The flow of work from these art centres is still relatively limited, the provenance is secure, the prices are set with pragmatic care. The artists know their work is selling: they respond with fine pieces, a professional pathway for them stretches ahead. It is the dream of the art centre movement made flesh: work of high integrity goes out into the world, it is received, and loved, the artists feel the prestige of their culture reflected back to them.

But in other, less fortunate art centres, sales stagnate, prices are set lower and lower, artists realise they are working for next to nothing and, achieving no sales, they make less effort to produce resolved works, and one by one they drift away.

The odd thing is that Rothwell elsewhere mocks this APY paradigm of community art-making “ calling all art centres, colonial spaces by definition, making State-sponsored art at the behest of imported white co-ordinators living on government grants.

What I would argue on behalf of these special centres is that a number of factors are at work “ all of which justify the community arts centre.

They are small and remote so that the arts centre has the governance and the capacity (with the right co-ordinator) to play a role as social service and apprenticeship centre as well as art-making place. The Anangu elders there have established these out-stations relatively recently specifically to maintain their culture, and art is a major way of achieving this. And that pioneering generation is only just beginning to die off. Both centres have achieved longevity in their co-ordinators, which is the only way art development occurs. They are not heavily subsidised “ while ORIC’s overall figures suggest almost one dollar subsidy for every dollar earned in 2011, it’s half that in Amata.

It all adds up, but it’s a sufficiently unstable equation for it to be almost impossible to repeat on demand. But it’s worth trying. I note that ORIC surveyed 39 of its art-making corporations and 42% of them said their greatest concern was recruitment of the right people to continue the good work.

Visit Office of the Regulator of Indigenous Corporations