The redoubtable Gabrielle Pizzi, founder of her eponymous Melbourne gallery with a Papunya Tula artwork that was a mainstay of the Gallery. Picture: David Crosling, News Corp Australia

Jeremy Eccles | 26.11.14

Author: Jeremy Eccles
News source: Research

The Australian newspaper's galumphing headline writers had a field-day last Friday with their ultra-bold claim: 'Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi’s demise echoes the fate of Aboriginal art'. The obituary continued in the words of pallbearer Nicolas Rothwell: “The high-end market for traditional indigenous art has all but evaporated.....The heart of the famous movement is scarcely beating any more”. And our memorialist summed-up: “It lasted a brisk four decades”.

So Aboriginal art is DEAD!

Or is it? For the Friday article was actually just another paragraph in a campaign Rothwell has been running for a while – his antipathy towards Federal government interference becoming ever more shock-jock from his Darwin fastness: the failings of the Indigenous Art Code, the negative effects of a Resale Royalty naively intended to make Aboriginal artists its prime beneficiaries, the direct funding of remote art centres, and the purchase of an ever-higher proportion of Indigenous art by institutions rather than the good ol' market-place....all grist to his influential mill.

But I wonder whether he managed to talk to anyone at the Gabrielle Pizzi Gallery – owner (and Gabrielle's daughter) Samantha or her two long-term staff. Does its closure really reflect the death of Aboriginal art???

In fact, the most prominent reason for Samantha's retirement from the fray according to the Gallery relates to her having a 5 year old son whose father lives in Italy. And this social rather than financial interpretation was confirmed by Kade McDonald at the Buku Larrnggay Art Centre in Yirrkala, Arnhemland, where they'd noticed no sign of diminishing returns at the Pizzi Gallery in selling its art recently – despite a generally perceived reluctance of the Aboriginal art market to head up after the GFC. But McDonald added a significant analysis of a changing marketplace where collectors, he felt, are now buying almost as much from art fairs, the Telstra Awards and directly from community art centres (at least two of whom are currently offering Christmas sales!), not to mention on-line, as they do physically from galleries.

Which might offer an insight into the further ramifications of Nicolas Rothwell's provocation. For he was clear that “in 2005-08, there were more than 30 capital city private galleries staging elaborately presented and curated shows of desert, Top End, Kimberley or far north Queensland work”. Now he can list only 7.5!

His limited vision consisted of Alcaston and Vivien Anderson left in Melbourne after Pizzi goes, only Gabriella Roy’s Aboriginal & Pacific Art "as a front-rank specialist in the field in Sydney"; Brisbane has Suzanne O’Connell, Perth has Indigenart, Seva Frangos and Japingka; Darwin has nothing and Alice Springs has Raft Gallery part-time.

In truth, there are quite a few more; but patterns of selling are changing. While I don't question Rothwell's claim that Gabrielle Pizzi's was “the first sophisticated inner-city gallery to take up the cause of the new movement in 1987”, I have never forgotten my personal disappointment when the Inner-West, ramshackle and upstairs gallery at the equally early Utopia Gallery in Sydney moved on to “sophistication” and white walls. For one can argue that it has reduced its horizons since to only the most elegant of Papunya Tula canvases and non-Indigenous art as a consequence!

Meanwhile the ramshackle supermarket at Kate Owen's Gallery in Rozelle turns over $30,000 a month of Yuendemu art alone with its inelegant and ubiquitous sales. Definitely there in the good ol' marketplace.

You want elegance – go to Piermarq, Metro Art or Art Equity, selling Aboriginal art to the corporate market with aplomb thanks to their links with Chris Simon's Yanda. But don't expect anyone there to “take up the cause of the new/old movement”!

And don't look for exclusively Indigenous art at many once-specialist galleries – such as William Mora, Utopia, Alcaston, Mossenson, Raft, Muk Muk (now in Brisbane) or Harvison. The perfectly natural development in Aboriginal art to find stars rather than support communities has had the quite logical consequence of putting the Tommy Watsons, Esther Giles Nampitjinpas and George Hairbrush Tjungurrayis on a par with their white art stars. From the opposite direction, the premier non-Indigenous Sydney gallery, Roslyn Oxley9, has an increasing Indigenous presence as a result!

But don't go to Adelaide, where Marshall Arts, the last of the Aboriginal art Mohicans in that city is off to Europe. “Dirk and I”, says Karen Zadra, “are moving to Luxembourg at the end of the year to launch an exciting, new IT-driven art venture on which we have been working for a few months already. Its scope will not only comprise the Australian art market but will offer opportunities for European artists, galleries, and art lovers as well”.

Time for the venerable Tineriba Tribal Gallery to move down from the Hills???

Clearly here we are pushing the boundaries of what Rothwell has limited to “The high-end market for traditional indigenous art”. But those boundaries have always been porous. And one has to question why The Australian obituarist excluded galleries such as Coo-ee in Sydney, Art Mob in Hobart, Short Street in Broome, Fireworks in Brisbane, Artitja in Perth, the Aboriginal Dreamings Gallery in Canberra and both Mason and Nomad in Darwin; why was Outstation in Darwin dismissed as 'mid-market art'; and why would you ignore the multi-sited Mbantua with its massive turnover of art from Utopia?

I think we've more than doubled the market for Aboriginal art in a paragraph or so.

But Rothwell did ask one good question: “What of Andrew Baker in Brisbane?”. Further conversation with the man in question, who “represented dozens of artists from Aurukun, Lockhart River and Torres Strait and (was) the biggest commercial supporter of Queensland Indigenous artists in the years 2000 through 2009”, has raised serious doubts about the effect of Queensland Government efforts to promote its State's Indigenous artists.

In essence, Baker claims, “over a period of five or six years the Queensland Government spent in excess of $15,000,000 on Backing Indigenous Arts (including a significant amount on Cairns Indigenous Art Fair). As a consequence, from the time of the first Cairns Indigenous Art Fair, the Queensland Government has overseen the destruction of what was an incredibly vibrant and viable industry. Prior to the first Cairns Indigenous Art Fair, I could name numerous Queensland Indigenous artists with six figure incomes, all of whom are now on welfare payments. As a taxpayer, I would like to ask, "What return did I receive on my investment?".

Cause or effect? From 2011 on, Baker ceased to sell these artists in Brisbane, unwilling to compete with government subsidy and paternalism. So, where would you go to buy a magnificent set of Wik Thap Yongk (Law Poles) today???

It is therefore a question worth asking as to how much fine Indigenous art has disappeared from the gallery scene into the art fair marketplace: Cairns, Darwin – where NATSIAAs, the Salon des Refuses and the Darwin Art Fair are all on sale – Desert Mob, the Corroboree Festival art fair in Sydney and the Rio Tinto-sponsored annual event in Perth for WA artists?? And I note the new Tarnandi Festival in Adelaide next year proudly intends, “The Art Fair will give audiences the opportunity to buy art directly from art centres and independent artists from across the country”.

There is no doubt that the Aboriginal art market is a shape-shifting thing at the moment; and the galleries that once had a monopoly of supply and demand are under pressure from all directions. But that does NOT actually mean that the Indigenous art market is dead!

Nicolas Rothwell's article in the Australian

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