Thursday, December 20, 2007

Direct from the art centre

It is frustrating when the white staff who live in remote communities bypass the art centre, and purchase direct from the artists thinking they are getting a ‘piece of Aboriginal artwork’ for a bargain. They are kidding themselves. The ‘so’ called bargain in most cases has been painted on a cheap Chinese-made canvas bought from a ‘Mad Harry’s’ outlet and executed with inferior acrylic paint. These cheap canvases and paint become brittle with age and within five years or so will begin to deteriorate if the canvas hasn’t already been punctured.

Purchasing from an art centre ensures you get quality - the linen (usually, Belgium) or 12-14oz cotton canvas has been properly stretched, prepared with two to three base coats, painted using premium acrylic paint and is accompanied by a certificate of provenance explaining the story and guaranteeing authorship. A painting executed by an artist living in their homeland or country has a magical, exquisite quality, articulating pleasure not pressure and when sold through the community art centre will always hold its value due to its unquestionable provenance.

If only the market would become less obsessed by ‘in vogue’ artists, their own personal status, and more interested in provenance and purchasing from ethical sources. The Indigenous Australian Art Commercial Code of Conduct if and when workably applied by the Labour Government will certainly be a catalyst for hope and change.

They are those who rebuke and condemn the ‘Aboriginal art centre’ model. It is not perfect, has its flaws and like any business or organisation its success is determined by the skills of the Manager/s. Given most art centres are located in remote areas and offer low salaries typical of the arts industry in Australia it is now wonder there is a shortage of suitable staff.

The Manager’s responsibilities/duties are wide-ranging, varying in skills. We are required to operate a small business – the art centre, which also doubles as an informal art school. You need to have an appreciation of arts practice; business management capabilities including sales and marketing, financial administration and efficient office procedure; interpersonal and cross-cultural communication skills; flexibility, ability to cope with more than one project at a time, expertise in planning and project management skills; leadership and mentoring skills; and finally the aptitude to work independently.

Our working environment is out-of-the ordinary, subject to cultural authority, and at times, very demanding. The nature of the job guarantees a great deal of your working knowledge will be gained by experience alone. You are expected to act ethically and appropriately, with the interests of the art centre foremost, at all times. Concisely, the job is bloody hard…wimps need not apply!

Back to our model…And yes, I agree every artist has the right to choose who they want to represent them, however Aboriginal artists lack the literacy and numeracy skills, let alone the ability to scrutinise a complex industry to make informed decisions. Add the pressure to paint for drinking/gambling money or a car placed on them by their families and you have a pathway to entrapment. Worldwide, Indigenous minority groups have always suffered at the hands of people who abuse their position and trust by taking advantage of these displaced people, fringe dwellers, existing outside our western society. I am not convinced that relationships between artists and many of the private dealers are equitable, nor adhering to principles of fair trade. Behind closed garage doors, there is a lack financial transparency, lack of ownership/control by the artists, a loss of cultural integrity, the artist's integrity is ignored and production (with the help of family and friends) becomes the driving force. Artists loose control of their lives, obligated to their families and the dealer’s demands.

If only people realised there wouldn’t be a need for authenticity certificates if all clients bought direct from art centres or ethical dealers/galleries who also purchased directly art centres!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Worlds Apart in location and approach

This is an article I contibuted to NAVA Quarterly, December issue. NAVA (National Association for the Visual Arts) is a great supporter of Indigneous artists, art centres and organisations. I suggest you visit their website and join as an member.

...Even though there are conflicting views as to whether the domestic market in Aboriginal art is slowing down or reshaping, the general consensus is that the international market is in its infancy. Opening up international sales is hard work, especially for emerging art centres such as Tjala Arts (formerly Minymaku Arts), were I was the Manager for almost five years and experienced first-hand lessons in marketing and promotion.

When I took on the job in late 2002, Minymaku Arts was in debt and anxious about sales. From my public relations background and experience in direct sales, I knew the theory and the marketing tools to turn this around; even so, my skills had never been tested in the Aboriginal art market.

My first priority at Minymaku Arts was sales. To achieve sales we had to improve our product quality and thus marketability. I used market intelligence as a guide for reviewing our product, planning our exhibition program and income projections. Getting the right product, to the right outlet involved some trial and error as well as lots of consultations. ‘Hoping’ things will work out is waste of time, inhibits promotional opportunities and costs money.

Two years on, once our reputation for quality product and customer service was established, we were finally approached by our first international clients. In late 2007 Tjala Arts participated in two international marketing events, one in Singapore and the other in Italy. These exhibitions were worlds apart in approach, strategy, target market and success.

In August Tjala Arts and Ikuntji Arts exhibited in Singapore with Giorgio Pilla of ReDot Gallery. Singapore is predominately Chinese, nevertheless, ReDot’s client base is Expats mainly from India, Italy, France, Britain, USA and Australia. Aboriginal art doesn’t appeal to most Chinese, as they prefer modern art produced by Asian artists. The Expats on the other hand show a keen interest in Aboriginal art, have a high disposable income and looking to purchase art for enjoyment and as well as an investment. Fortuitously, Giorgio’s client base will never stagnant as there is a continuous rotation of Expats in Singapore.

Giorgio’s intimacy with the peculiarities of his market was crucial. He knew that certain images such as life-like figures and snakes were a ‘no go’ zone and would waste valuable hanging space. Many of his clients are conservative with a notional view of how ‘traditional’ Aboriginal art should appear. By following Giorgio’s advice the exhibition in Singapore was a great success with more than 75% of our stock being sold on the opening night.

The second exhibition at Spoleto, Italy was held in September with works from Anangu Pitjantjatjara/Yankunytjatjara (APY) lands, along with the Lockhart River Mob. The exhibition was organised by a consultant with the assistance of our regional representative body, KuArts, we (the Art Centres) had the responsibility of organising and despatching consignments and promotional material.

Spoleto is around 130kms northeast of Rome, 1.5hrs by train or 2hrs by car if you are crazy enough to try driving on their chaotic motorways! It is a typical, quiet, picturesque Umbrian hillside village. Every August the village comes alive with renowned Spoleto Festival showcasing dance, music, cinema, visual and performing arts presented by international luminaries. Our exhibition opened the first week in September, missing the Spoleto Festival and potential clients by over a week. I had been under the impression our exhibition would be at the tail end of the festival and was disappointed we had missed the ideal opportunity. Had I been a local, I would have known the best time to hold a major event, or launch an exhibition was during the summer holidays in July and August when Italians are in a festive mood.

The attendance, including Ambassador Vanstone, and media coverage on the opening night was worthy, though no sales. The venue was a regional museum/gallery rather than a commercial gallery. Consequently people were confused, there was uncertainty as to whether it was selling show or a cultural exchange.

During the opening a considerable number of paintings were given a red dot indicating they were sold. In fact they had been earmarked for a private sale and viewing in Milano, just in case Spoleto was fruitless. The dots were a last minute decision by the consultant, and not agreeable with the art centre representatives present. We were left confused as to what the exhibition’s intentions and priorities were.

Many of the attendees were English and Australian Expats on holidays, more curious than serious buyers. The Italians it seemed were impressed, but not interested in purchasing. We were advised in Rome that if we want to sell Aboriginal art in Italy we needed to head north to Milano, as the Romans and their regional counterparts were considered conservative in their taste. Milano on the other hand is home to creative designers, inventors, colour schemers – ‘audacious’ in their taste.

Spoleto it seemed was the wrong place, at the wrong time and for the wrong reasons to launch our art centres and artists in Italy. The later, private viewing in Milano had more success as expected, though not the exposure one would have hoped.

Finding new international markets is hard work. It requires at least 1 to 2 years planning in advance and negotiating the logistics of exporting. Do your homework; be strategic about where you place your artworks as the nationality of gallery clients will have an impact on the visual style of painting you select; research your target audience, and have enough resources to do the job.

Every sales and marketing experience is about learning, observing, collecting information, networking and acknowledging how you could have done things better or differently, no matter how perfect the occasion was perceived. To maintain a competitive advantage never stop improving your product, planning your next exhibition and looking for new export opportunities.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Conviction or doubt

Dinner is interrupted by an artist and her family asking for red paint….it is 8.00pm

My thoughts are inconsistent, switching from conviction to doubt. My mood swings verge on depression to coping as usual. Before I left for Melbourne last week I was rudely wakened from my premise that I/we had actually changed attitudes, beliefs and behaviour. I should have known better. No matter how much rhetoric, governance training the artists and I have exchanged/experienced on the importance of supporting the art centre, the opportunistic nature of the artists in Papunya can’t but suppress any loyalties to Papunya Tjupi. I saw two artists using the paint provided by the art centre on private canvases. One canvas wasn’t returned, only the stretcher or frame it had been stapled onto. The usual excuses to save face, little did they know how disappointed I was from my face.

My friend reminded me of the realities of the Aboriginal art industry. I remind myself there is no point trying to reinvent the past, rather create a new art movement driven by people living in the now, who want to paint for pleasure, fain off boredom and earn money. The ties to country and places are still strong, however the strength and depth of the tjukurrpa or creation stories is diminishing. There are people at each end of the industry spectrum who have placed much hope on my ability to make this art centre a success. I place undue pressure on myself not to disappoint them.

I am studying a Graduate Certificate in Indigenous Arts Management as a full paying student. I have had to travel from Alice Springs and Yulara to Melbourne three times over the past six months for a week’s block of intensive study. In my opinion, the level of academic instruction has been condescending, lowered by tokenism. There has been a breach of contract. We were informed our final study block would be in late January, and graduation in May. It was not up for discussion when we were informed it was moved to July with graduation in 2009. Frustrations all round. Complaints are to be written.

Today was another exhausting eight hours with around 30 artists wanting their last canvas before we close for the festive season on Friday. I cannot physically service so many people without adequate facilities and IT support. I dream of operating out of an art centre with computer software to reduce the manual entries. No longer would the artists be painting from home, rather together in the art centre where I can assist with painting techniques, reduce abuse of materials and where the whitefella staff at Papunya patronised the art centre instead of buying poor quality private paintings.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Remotely convinced?

The title of my blogg reflects my uncertainty of my ability to ensuring this project has longevity. I was approached in August if I would like to help set-up the new art centre in on...

Initiated in October 2006, Papunya Tjupi Art Centre is a new arts project based in the Aboriginal community of Papunya, 250kms east of Alice Springs in the Northern Territory. The project is a major collaborative effort between the artists of Papunya and Professor Vivien Johnson, of the College of Fine Arts (COFA), University of NSW. The purpose of the project is to establish a ‘community-based art centre’ in Papunya with the support of the community, government agencies and regional representative bodies. This is the first time there has been an art centre physically located in Papunya.

It was expected that up to 60 artists, many of whom were already recognised talent, would paint at the new art centre. We have easily surpassed this figure after 6 weeks, not with the exisiting talent, rather first-timers keen to paint.

In the past, the artists were serviced by renowned Papunya Tula Pty Ltd which is based in Alice Springs. As this relationship declined, Warumpi Arts (a shop front also in Alice Springs)was established by the Papunya Community Council in 1994 to represent artists living in Papunya. Papunya Tula now focuses on Kintore and Kirrikurra. The abrupt closure of Warumpi in 2004 by the Papunya Council left the artists with no representation and at the mercy of private dealers ­‑ many of whom are unethical in their business practices. It is hoped that once the new art centre is established the dependence on private dealers will be reduced.

From the very beginning, the artists strongly indicated to Viviene the education of young people in arts practice and industry skills was the primary motivation for the establishment of their own art centre. The co-founder and Committee Member of Papunya Tjupi, Mr Long Jack Phillipus and elder/artist, Mr Michael Jagamara Nelson, expressed a deep-held believe that young people need to learn the stories and the painting skills from the older artists.

The actual operation of the art centre began with the appointment of me in October 2007 – a year after the legalities of setting up the art centre were completed. I have worked extensively in the visual arts namely as a graphic designer; in marketing and communications as a public relations professional; and recently as the Manager of Tjala Arts – an Aboriginal art center based in South Australia. During my, almost, five years at Tjala Arts we managed to establish a best practice art centre and show the artists in the APY Lands were capable of creating fine contemporay art worthy of attention.

For the time being, the art centre is operating out of my house (rented from NT government) in Papunya until a building can be found. At the moment we are investigating the possibility of a disused building at the school, which requires minimal renovations, but dollars we don't have. The CEO of the community has plans to renovate a badly vandalised ‘green stilt’ house to encompass a flat for the Manager and a gallery. People don't realise that art centres are more than just a gallery and office. Art centres required separate spaces for the men and women to paint, a canvas preperation area, paint mixing and dispensing area, wash-up areas, toilets, showers, meeting spaces, various storerooms, outdoor areas and a kitchen. Consultation is the key to the sucesss of any project.

Anyway, back to the day to day...the artists collect paint and canvas from me before returning home to paint. Finished canvases are either picked up by me or dropped off by the artists or family. Because the artists are painting at home the art centre is open to risk. The artists are using the paints to paint 'private' works which they sell to dealers/retail outlets in Alice Springs or to the whitestaff in Papunya. Today, I had my first stretcher returned without the painting. It was disappointing and if continues will undermine the success of the art centre. I need to educate the whitestaff in Papunya of the importance of buying direct from the art centre not the artists. The reasons for I will elaborate in my next posting. My car is the delivery van and taxi until such time we have the funds to purchase a Troope Carrier.

Many came forward to work in the art centre as an assistant, but as the first week went by the obvious candidate for a traineeship was Isobel Major. Isobel is worth her weight in gold - patient, enthusiastic to learn, and a wonderful support especially when I require insider knowledge.

By the way, the art centre is a registered as Papunya Tjupi Art Centre Aboriginal Corporation, trading as Papunya Tjupi Arts. It is an Aboriginal owned and directed small business. During the past year we have received various grants from the NT and federal Governments to assist in setting up the project, print workshop and an exhibition in Sydney. We hope to achieve more funding next year. Good news though, we have just been given funds to employ Isobel, just as well as we are running out of money. Like any new business, there is many dollars going out and not enough coming back yet! Sigh