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.