WHAT A WASTE!

Jeremy Eccles | 04.07.16

Author: Jeremy Eccles
News source: Editorial

I've written a couple of times about the pro bono project between the Australia Council and Deloitte Access Economics to attempt to establish a realistic size and shape for the Indigenous art business. I thought this a really useful advocacy tool and a professionalising project, but it depended on the cooperation of the commercial art galleries that are the front end of the business.

Today I received this email from Deloitte's Partner in charge, Kathryn Matthews:
As you are aware, a key part of our project was the collection of information on the private art sector. To this end, our private art sector survey was in field for 8 weeks, with support from key industry stakeholders. Despite best efforts to encourage participation, the number of responses received was insufficient for us to conduct a robust analysis.  As such, at the Viability Assessment stage of our project, we have made a joint decision with the Australia Council for the Arts not to proceed further with the project.

As part of the communication process, we will contact the people that did respond to the survey to let them know that we will not be proceeding with the project and thank them for their time. In accordance with Deloitte’s commercial-in-confidence policy, we will destroy the data provided and guarantee it will not be shared further, or used in any other form or application.
One has to conclude that the industry does not want its numbers known – both individually and collectively.

OK – I know it was a tough call, taking one participant 6 hours when Deloitte had suggested an hour would be sufficient. Some have suggested the list of questions showed incomplete understanding of the industry. And the people involved are small business-people in an industry that's never recovered from the GFC, with limited time to spare.

But that's part of the problem, I assess. It's something I concluded a long time ago: Aboriginal art dealers are small business-people who became side-tracked by a passion. Unlike non-Indigenous art dealers, they are mostly amateurs in their lack of art training or studies, and amateurism tends to encourage uncertainty. Even hostility to their peers or rivals. It was something observed almost 30 years ago by John Weber of the prestigious New York gallery who'd been inspired by the 1988 'Dreamings' show to try to promote this new “art movement of international significance”. One visit to Alice Springs, though, convinced him that “the art power structure (in Australia) is at a loss to deal professionally with the Aboriginal art scene”; and he dumped his plan. For, at the other end of the business, in the art centres, it's equally amateur – and often unprofessional in its dealing with dealers – which doesn't help.

Feedback suggests that an aspect of that uncertainty lies in the fear that the overall size of the industry is so far below the fictional figure of a $200 million annual turnover that face will be lost in revealing that the Emperor's nakedness. Maybe I'm wrong – I'd like to be wrong – or at least proved wrong.

Could it also be that the numbers might have indicated that the artists, without whom, etc, are getting less than the fair deal that is so often claimed for them by ethical associations of art dealers? After all, a court case revealed that one former dealer reckoned that 10% of resale less his costs was a very fair rate to pay an Aboriginal artist for his or her canvases. Again, I'd hate to think it – but it's a question that's not unreasonable to ask as a consequence of the intransigent failure of dealers to assist Deloitte and the Australia Council.

Now it's unlikely anyone will bother to try again!


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