Aboriginal art centres play a vital role in their
communities, acting as a focus for creative activity and the
marketing of Aboriginal art to the wider world. There are now
more than 50 such centres, located mainly in central and northern
Australia. Lists of the community centres in the central desert
regions are on the Desart
and ANKAAA Web sites.
The centres provide a cultural base for artists, a source of income
for people who have very little option of employment and with that
income the option to buy equipment such as refrigerators, washing
machines or perhaps a vehicle. Most operate in remote locations under
Most have developed under the guidance of Aboriginal councils and
management committees. These committees have employed arts advisors,
usually from outside the community, with skills in art production
or marketing to run the centres. Many communities continue to support
art centres as their primary tool for marketing because they are able
to maintain control over where and how their art is marketed.
Development of Art Centres
The first Aboriginal art centre was established at Ernabella, northern
South Australia in 1948. It was originally set up to provide employment
for Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara women by applying their wool
spinning skills. It has been operating continuously since then. In
the 1970s the artists took up batik work on silk for which they have
subsequently become famous.
Other community based Aboriginal art centres began to appear in the
Northern Territory in the mid-1970s with the support of the Aboriginal
Arts Board of the Australia Council. Development of new centres continued
in during the 1980s and 1990s. Generally these were funded with help
from external sources, and arts advisers had to use a variety of creative
approaches to obtain sufficient funding. This battle for financial
survival continues today.
Art advisors or coordinators are critical to the effective operation
of the centres. The main formal tasks are the preparation, management
of art works through exhibition and consignment. In addition, though,
there are numerous social and community tasks which the advisors become
involved in and which make heavy demands on their time and skills.
The role of the art centre in community life has been described by
Patrick Mung Mung, then Chairman of the Artists Council at Warmun,
in August 2000:
"For our people and our kids so we carry
it on with them. So they can take it on, like us, take it on from
the old people, but they still come here
young people so the
art centre is good to be a centre. It reminds the kids so they got
to learn from this. Then they got strong. Then they know the painting.
But the real thing. We should take them to the country. Show them
what's left in the country with these old people and what they have
Since the late 1800s Aboriginal people have been selling their artwork
to visitors - initially through missions and to anthropologists and
later to tourists. These markets were intrinsically interested in
the relationship of the cultural object to the source of production
and viewed the artworks in so-called anthropological terms.
The most recent market, the art market, is however more ambivalent
about its relationship to the source of the art. It desires verification
of the authentic source as well as seeking works which aesthetically
are able to blend with the most recent art worlds of North America
The Aboriginal art centres play an important role in helping to provide
this verification and assurance of authenticity. By publishing catalogues,
issuing certificates, and assembling artists' profiles, the centres
provide valuable tools for the verification of the work in the marketplace.
Altman, J. and Taylor, L., eds.1990 "Marketing Aboriginal Art
in the 1990s", Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press.
Wright, F.1999. "The Art and Craft Story: The Survey of 39 Aboriginal
Community Art Centres in Remote Australia, Making Art Strong......Being
Strong ", Volume 1, Canberra: ATSIC