Several weeks ago, the journalist Nicolas Rothwell wrote a characteristically florid article for the Australian newspaper in which he stated:
For the past half-decade, since the global financial crisis killed off the booming indigenous art market, champions of the desert painting movement have maintained an attitude of stoic assurance.
Rather than panic, the culture bureaucrats in Canberra and the art centre managers of the inland have clung to their key assumptions: the official consensus that all will be well in the long run, the buyers will return and the flood of public funding that keeps the Aboriginal art industry afloat will keep on flowing to take up the commercial slack. High-end galleries specializing in indigenous art may be on their knees, the federal government's superannuation fund reforms may have torn the heart out of the collecting trade, but the shared dream of a thriving, sustainable Aboriginal art sector has survived.
That consensus was broken publicly for the first time by a key shaper of the desert art centre landscape late last month, at an insiders-only conference in Alice Springs; it was shattered comprehensively, but in discreet and subtle fashion, by an intriguing, low-key truth-teller. Philip Watkins, chief executive of Desart who represents the interests of about 45 Aboriginal-run art centres.
Despite Nicolas' claims of novelty for these views and their public airing, they have been discussed by many thoughtful people over the last few years. There is no doubt that there are difficulties in the Aboriginal art market and that existing models are not working.
However, discussion and finding solutions to the undeniable problems has been hampered by a basic knowledge of how the market actually functions (size, finances, value chain, etc), what motivates buyers of Aboriginal art and what information and other services they need.
One of Australia's Cooperative Research Centres (for Remote Economic Participation) has made a start on an in-depth analysis of the Indigenous art market - and has published a discussion paper that is well worth reading."Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Economies Project: Literature Review" by
Lisa Stefanoff and
Some of the important issues that the paper explores are summarised below (following closely the text of the paper).
Recent years have seen a major contraction in the Indigenous art economy. The Australian Bureau of Statistics reported a 52% reduction in sales over the period 2007-12 in remote art centres. This is consistent with the steady decline since 2007 in the AIAM100 index of the health of the Australian indigenous art market and other anecdotal information about the difficulties within the market.
The Indigenous art market has developed into segments defined by products, regions and market value. At the high value end, art is still auctioned as ‘Australian and Oceanic’ art by major auction houses although it has moved from being considered as ‘primitive fine art’ to ‘contemporary art’. At the low value end, mass-produced souvenirs and art works of sometimes dubious provenance are widely marketed through private websites, auctions and in tourist precincts.
Throughout the marketing of Indigenous art there are ideas of cultural ‘authenticity’, where buyers appear to seek access to the cultural differences embodied by Indigenous people through their artworks. There has been no published research into lower and mid-market consumer ‘taste’ for Aboriginal art and the role that culture and authenticity plays in its purchase.
The few studies of the secondary market for Indigenous art all use auction results as a basis for analysis. Researchers emphasise that the secondary market for Indigenous artworks is concentrated in a small number of artists at the top of the market and is exaggerated relative to the market in general. In the decade between 1997 and 2007, Sotheby’s auction house sold over $50M of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art, with 50–70% of that value coming from sales to the USA, Canada and Europe.
The CRC discussion paper suggests the following issues need better understanding and research:
- Existing measures of the size of, and activity within, the sector are too narrow, variable and/or contested to provide detailed understandings of the financial forces at work.
- Only fragmented and limited information exists on what makes art centres ‘work’ and how they might be made more robust.
- A growing number of artists are choosing a growing number of ways to engage with the art industry; there is no understanding of the scope, scale and motivations of this sector and its implications for existing business practices.
- More detailed understanding of buyer motivation and behaviour is required and is likely to provide valuable information to the sector.
- There is very limited understanding of remote area and/or inter-cultural employment; the impact of external staff on the art enterprises that employ them warrants study.
- E-commerce, licensing and merchandising offer potential opportunities, but understanding of them is limited.
- The role of authenticity, cultural connections, provenance and cross-cultural understanding in influencing buyer behaviour .
Richard Bell's Telstra Award winner 2003: "Aboriginal Art: It's a White Thing"