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Brokering Aboriginal Art: A Critical Perspective on Marketing, Institutions and the State

January 11, 200611 January 2006

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This Australian lecture (by Jon Altman, Director, Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, Australian National University) examines state sponsorship of the Aboriginal arts sector and the historical development of the role of Aboriginal art centres in brokering Aboriginal visual art. The lecturer, Professor Jon Altman, is an economist and anthropologist with research expertise in the production and marketing of Aboriginal visual art.

Professor Altman argues that Aboriginal art may be “the perfect inter-cultural product. It is a form of fine art that non-Aboriginal audiences and arts aficionados value highly; it is a cultural product with unquestionable value and status in the artists’ home communities; and it is a means for artists to make a living while simultaneously making powerful political statements about the things that matter, land rights, robust customs, kin relations and identity.”

Professor Altman cites estimates that show that the Aboriginal visual arts market may have grown from $2.5 million in 1980 to “somewhere around $100 million” in recent years. Given this growth, the lecturer indicates that “Aboriginal visual art has been one uncontestable and spectacular area of success in Indigenous affairs in the last 30 years”. In particular, “dynamic and innovative art movements thrive in many remote communities that are regarded as the most problematic in terms of welfare dependence and social disintegration.”

However, he also believes that “the hard-won success of Aboriginal art has been, and remains, highly dependent on public patronage and active brokerage between Aboriginal artists and the fine arts market”. The mediation of large geographical and cultural difference has largely been taken on, in , by “Aboriginal art centres governed by Aboriginal committees and employing specialist staff”. The lecturer describes these art centres as “hybrid organisations, at once cultural and commercial, local and global, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal”.

Professor Altman also examines some “critical issues” in the Australian Aboriginal arts sector. He believes that the failure to recognize art centres as hybrid institutions with both cultural and commercial aspects leaves the centres fragile and vulnerable, with typical arts-world problems of funding, facilities, recruitment and succession planning. The lecturer believes that, while state support over the years “has been crucial and welcome, there has never been enough”. In addition, Professor Altman also wonders “whether the institutions and legal instruments of Australian copyright and moral rights law afford Aboriginal art sufficient protection”.

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