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What do white staff do in remote Indigenous art centres?


In April, The Australian published the results of a four-month investigation into the “interference” of white staff at Tjala Arts, a member of the APY Arts Center Collective of Indigenous arts centers in South Australia.

It featured a video of an art center manager painting on Yaritji Young’s canvas, to spice it up a bit.

The ongoing media commentary is divided and confusing. One question it raises is what do art managers and studio assistants actually do in remote Indigenous community art centers?

50 years of arts centres

Remote art centers are central to today’s internationally successful Indigenous contemporary art industry. They usually have a white arts center manager and other staff overseen by a native board.

Papunya Tula Artists in Central Australia, founded in 1972, is the common precursor to the publicly funded arts center model.

Papunya Tula marked the transition from mission-era paternalism to indigenous self-determination, aided by the establishment of the Aboriginal Arts Board.

On May 3, 1973, a press release from Prime Minister Gough Whitlam’s office announced:

Aboriginal people have been given full responsibility for developing their own arts programs under a new government policy to revive cultural activities through the Australian Council for the Arts.

What followed was a revolution, led by and for Aboriginal artists, using non-Aboriginal personnel to mediate with the art world.

Today, this workforce consists primarily of young women with degrees in fine arts or arts management. They are active in about 90 Aboriginal collectives in remote Australia. Employee turnover is high and recruitment is a never-ending task.

Read more: 40 years later: how Gough Whitlam boosted Indigenous art

An intercultural thing

The disturbing fact is not that “Aboriginal art is white” as Aboriginal artist and activist Richard Bell declared famous in 2002. Rather, Aboriginal art is “a cross-cultural thing”, bringing together Indigenous and non-Indigenous creative workers.

Despite the shared purpose and triumphs of the cultural industries in celebrating Indigenous art, the shadow of Australia’s colonization is never far away.

Conditions in remote art centers have evolved since the 1970s, but the practicalities are essentially the same. Art center staff support the artists socially, culturally and logistically to ensure artists enjoy creating their work in a culturally safe space.

Employees also manage external market demands, exhibition schedules, bureaucratic accountability (for example, to funding agencies and institutions), and advocacy.

Studio assistance includes purchasing art materials, stretching and priming canvas, harvesting raw materials such as ochre, bark or wood, as well as packing, transporting and distributing the work and traveling with artists to exhibitions.

The level of support depends on the needs of an individual artist. Art centers often have elderly people and artists with a disability present. Some artists have a strong creative drive; some work slowly or inconsistently.

Whatever the art form, good work takes a lot of time. Art production is often interrupted ‘mid-canvas’ to attend to other matters such as cultural events, funerals or medical treatments.

Read more: Aboriginal art: is it a white thing?

A collaboration space?

The collective management of the APY Art Center strongly denied accusations of any interference with the paintings or “the Tjukurrpa” (the Aṉangu term for their all-encompassing spiritual belief system). Their website currently states hands-on help, such as “underpainting”, is a common practice.

Selecting colors and mixing paints, priming and delegating canvases, washing brushes and general maintenance, as well as regular discussions and receptiveness to the art are all part of the studio assistant’s role.

Some aesthetic influence on the final product is only natural, but painting directly onto the canvas is never part of the job description. Undeclared, many would consider it fraudulent.

When I first started working at an art center in the Western Desert in 1997, the message from the artists was simple: sell our paintings and be honest with us.

It was also clear that the paintings offered for sale – to public institutions, expert collectors and souvenir buyers – would be of a certain quality.

“Quality control” is an ambivalent term, but it is implied and expected in the job.

In 1996, Kathleen Petyarre won the lucrative Telstra Art Award for her painting Storm in Atnangkere Country II. It was later revealed she was “assisted” by her white partner.

After an investigation, Petyarre retained her rightful authorship of the work, but this prompted art centers to recognize “creative labor” when delegated by the artist and especially between family as a culturally accepted practice – to be attributed accordingly.

The right to determine who can participate in works of art, and how, applies to artists all over the world. The studios of Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst are extreme examples of art making by studio assistants. Aboriginal artists also enjoy workshops with specialists in such diverse fields as graphics, bronze casting, animation or glass blowing.

It is first up to the artists and then to the institutions, curators, market and art critics to evaluate such collaborations and exchanges on a case-by-case basis.

Cultural stories and everyday reality

A key role in art centers is to ‘take the story’. Here, art center staff document the artist’s painting with a photograph and the related Tjukurrpa of Country.

This “certificates of authenticityDocumenting culturally significant stories guarantees that the works are genuine Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander works. They also support the marketing, promotion and interpretation of many contemporary art exhibitions from remote communities.

It is the decoupling between these purist cultural narratives and the reality of busy intercultural studios that puts the artists, their staff and the entire industry in such a paradoxical position.

Trust and ethics are at the heart of these working relationships. It’s impractical to create more rules and it’s impossible to enforce the way artists and staff interact in art centers, but it’s time to acknowledge these exchanges with a new narrative.

Read more: Watch out for red flags and counterfeits: how to buy authentic First Nations designs that benefit makers and communities

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