The tortoise and the hare
Not everyone sells Aboriginal Art for the right reasons. If you purchase through Art Ark you are making an ethical purchase but we’d prefer you didn’t just take that statement on face value. We’d love you to understand why. It’s a bit of story so if you’re up for the journey let’s channel the tortoise: take some time to enjoy the ride and let it all sink in.
The key goals of Art Ark are to share the incredible artworks of artists that we meet and to push for transparency so the art-buying public are empowered to make informed decisions.
We've lived and worked extensively in remote Australia and in the early days we found the Aboriginal Art Market not so easy to navigate. We want to start an accessible conversation that helps you to ask the right questions about the art you are buying.
The dark side
So if we're making such a point about being ethical it suggests something unethical is happening elsewhere … and it is.
The term 'carpetbagger' describes someone who travels into remote communities and buys Aboriginal Art at a fraction of its value. Carpetbaggers often drop off rolls of canvas for the artists to paint and pick up completed artworks in exchange for very little money. Then they’re off to the next community or back to the dark cave from which they came. Actually, forget the cave: carpetbaggers are operating in plain sight. They can be found in galleries, online and anywhere else that art is sold. On paper, the artists have been paid and it’s a legal transaction but in reality it's a bit more complex.
What’s that saying? Something about a bird in the hand ...
Well in this instance it's money in the hand that carries a lot of weight for the artists in remote communities. So what’s the issue if there is an agreeable transaction between two willing parties? Well the problem lies in the huge profits that these people are making at the expense of those artists and their communities. Not to mention the exploitation of people’s geographic and socio-economic circumstances.
Through history there have been horrific instances where Aboriginal Artists were locked up or taken out of communities to produce works for someone else's financial gain. Those extremes seem to be well in the past but the general concept of exploitation has endured: uneducated buyers throughout Australia and abroad continue to be duped by unscrupulous dealers and gallerists whose moral compasses are out the window.
Have you seen some of this art? We need to take a moment to appreciate what a gift these works are. We’re talking about a 50,000+ year oral culture translating into vibrant visual art.
The Australian Indigenous art scene is thriving and, when the system works, it provides a crucial source of income in regions where economic opportunities are otherwise scarce. Art centres throughout Australia facilitate the production and sale of artworks for the benefit of social and economic enterprise. Furthermore they serve as key community organisations and provide avenues for cultural maintenance and documentation along with assisting in the day-to-day matters endemic to community life.
The art centres are as unique as the communities they support and the art coming out of each different centre is incredibly diverse. From broad-sweeping strokes to minute dotting in acrylics, works made from natural earth pigments, screen printed fabrics, sculptures created from recovered fishing nets, works on bark … These centres are hubs of creativity like no other: envisaged and developed by community members not some mob from the city. They are either community-governed corporations, listed not-for-profits or an extension of a preformed community program or council. The organisations are steered by a board of directors made up of its members - the artists. Community outcomes are key and a percentage of all sales are committed to the organisation for the ongoing operational costs as well as funding projects and initiatives within the community. These organisations are audited annually and information pertaining to their reporting is listed publicly.
The list of positive contributions that art centres make to communities really is endless. They do the marketing of artworks, advocating for artists and building the profile of each artist in a way that serves the individual’s best interests. There’s also the funding and organising of cultural festivals and identifying and procuring funding for community driven initiatives. Some of the more successful centres have even built dialysis units so that community members with health struggles can stay on country or funded community projects like a new pool.
We’ve described the organisations that work in the best interest of their artists. They distribute funds fairly and support the artist’s career as well as the social and economic priorities outlined by the community. And we’ve described the underbelly network working in the best interests of themselves. We think you’re catching our drift.
Don’t be discouraged and don’t lose sight of the wonder that is art. Buy Aboriginal Art and enjoy it. Just ensure that when you're buying art that comes from a remote region you're not blindsided by rubber stamps professing best practice. Try to ensure either provenance from an art centre or proof of fair payment to the artist prior to purchasing. Sometimes you have to work a little harder for an outcome that is a lot more rewarding for both you and the artist.
Not everyone gets an opportunity to visit remote regions: we feel infinitely privileged to do so as a part of our ongoing work with art centres. At Art Ark we do draw a percentage of sales between 33% and 40%, which is proportionate to the efforts of consigning and marketing the artworks on behalf of the art centres and standard (for ethical galleries) in the visual arts industry. Everything available through Art Ark is consigned and sold on behalf of the art centres and all prices and commissions are set by them.
So, thank you for learning, please share, let’s start a conversation and put an end to exploitation.