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Struggling but surviving: how is the Aboriginal art world adapting to COVID-19?

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Before 1970, Aboriginal art was considered in the West, mainly for its ethnographic interest, as a product of a culture with traditional beliefs and ancient roots. Today, far from having disappeared, Aboriginal art has become a stunning contemporary movement. But how has this movement faced up to the challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic?

Geoffroy Bardon, a school teacher who came to Papunya (Western Desert Region, 240 km west of Alice Springs) in 1971, was the first to contribute to the diffusion and spread of Aboriginal art as a contemporary and lively artistic movement. He supplied basic art materials such as paints and canvas to a group of elders and encouraged them to paint their stories the way they wanted. They were free to choose which parts of their histories they would tell and which ones they desired to withhold from the public1.

Image from Mr Patterns (2004), a documentary about the Aboriginal art movement and the influence of Geoffroy Bardon. (Image credit: imdb.com)

For Aboriginal people, art and history are tightly linked, and art is a way to preserve stories and knowledge. From Papunya, the movement spread to multiple remote communities and artists began to paint on acrylic canvas. An art movement started to emerge, and art advisers became more and more interested in Aboriginal values and stories expressed in their artistic creations.  

There are today more than ninety Aboriginal art centres in all states and territories, mainly Aboriginal owned, and a strong-established network of commercial galleries, purchasers and an educated public. This ecosystem is playing a vital role in Aboriginal communities by encouraging creation, and generating and supporting employment for people. This art movement initiated by Bardon has helped to strengthen culture in remote areas by preserving the values of traditional knowledge. Over time, Australian Aboriginal art grew in popularity and is today one of the most prominent Australian exports in both cultural and economic terms, triggering interest from wealthy investors and art lovers overseas.

What explains people’s growing interest in Aboriginal art?

A desire to connect culturally to the first owners of Australia’s ‘country’ is the main reason people have cultivated an interest in this artform, according to Anna Kanaris, owner of Artitja Fine Arts Gallery, in South Fremantle2. Phil Mercer, in his article Australia’s indigenous art: an economic colossus (2013), writes “borne out of poverty and dislocation from tribal lands, Australia’s indigenous art gives non-Aborigines an invaluable window into a spellbinding culture where ancient spirits created the land, and where the Earth is revered as a living, breathing mass, full of secrets and wisdom3.”

However, like many other industries, the Aboriginal art market is now severely impacted by the Coronavirus crisis.  This worldwide crisis affects gallery owners, arts centres and local artists. During these challenging times, people working in the art industry need to readjust their business and adapt it to the situation. 

How is the government supporting artists in remote areas?

Cecilia Alfonso, manager at Warlukurlangu Art Centre (Yuendumu, Northern Territory), decided to close the art centre as soon as she heard of the pandemic diffusing in Australia before the situation got worse. Indeed, the spread of COVID-19 in remote areas would be disastrous for the population. The lack of medical infrastructure, more inadequate access to health care and higher rates of other health issues in Aboriginal communities could lead to a catastrophic health crisis.  An art centre, to function correctly, requires artists’ production and sales. “If there is no money in, there is no money out, it is mechanical,” explains Cecilia4. At the moment, artists are not producing anymore, art centres are closed, and Aboriginal artists have returned to their homes where they are almost not creating art and receiving salaries anymore. In Warlukurlangu, the artists’ financial situation seems to be under control. Cecilia admits she is very grateful for the way the government is responding to the crisis, offering financial support to the artists. 

Warlukurlangu Art Centre, September 2017 (Image credit: Warlu_art on Instagram)

What new opportunities do galleries and art centres gain from COVID-19?

Depending on the size of their business, art centres may be entitled either to receive government payment “to help them retain staff and keep operating5”, or to receive funds from the Indigenous Visual Arts Industry Support Program. This program “enables artists who cannot go to work to still receive their salary5” . This program provides intensive support to Aboriginal art centres and artists and might help them survive during these uncertain times. If artists are found to have stopped producing and creating art in this particular period, galleries and art centres have to remain connected to their audience despite the temporary closure.

In this lockdown, Anna Kanaris perceives a new challenge to face, a new way of operating, and an opportunity to develop online content for her gallery. People have less money, and most of them are afraid of losing their purchasing power, but it does not mean that they do not need art anymore. On the contrary, the Coronavirus crisis is triggering people’s desire for connection and inspiration, and art may provide a sufficient answer. On Artitja’s Facebook page, people can admire the new arrivals in the gallery such as the stunning artworks of Elizabeth Dunn from Ernabella Art Centre, and they can still book an appointment with Anna to buy a piece of art if they desire. Business as usual then, even if it has drastically slowed down.

Piltati - Elizabeth Dunn (Image credit: Artitja Fine Art Gallery Facebook page)

Many social media challenges and innovative projects are also flooding museums and galleries’ social media, showing that despite the temporary closure, cultural institutions are still operating for their audience. On Facebook, Anna shared a post challenging her followers and people working in the cultural industry to post a picture of them with hashtags such as #dontletfreelancersfallthroughthecracks. The Art Gallery of Western Australia, with the support of Act-Belong-Commit, has launched on LinkedIn a virtual tour of Pulse Perspective, an exhibition featuring works selected from twenty-nine schools in Western Australia and highlights “young people’s private, social and artistic concerns6”.

(Image credit: Artitja Fine Art Gallery Facebook page)

Is going online the key? Cecilia considers herself very fortunate to have a well-designed website where they can still sell paintings and save money until the reopening of the centre.  However, if going online is an alternative for galleries and art centres, it is not a long-term solution. 

Festivals and meetings are the keystones of the art industry

The cancellation of multiple art markets such as Revealed, an event that brings together 25 remote Western Australian art centres, underlines the utter importance of meeting and socialization within the art industry. An online catalogue of the exhibition will be released, where people can purchase directly online to offset the significant loss of income for artists. However, the consequences remain devastating. Success and interest in these events rely on the excitement generated for both artists and audience as well as the in-person experience of being at a real art festival, seeing authentic pieces of art and talking to the artists.

Revealed: WA Aboriginal Art Market (CANCELLED). (Image credit: scoop.com.au)

If the galleries and art centres’ economic situation is currently critical, Anna and Cecilia unanimously agree on the great solidarity expressed by the Australian community. Cecilia says that someone bought a painting with his last salary, and even if he lost his job, he wanted to support the centre. For Anna, she receives daily messages of support from the Australian people. 

The impact of border closure on sales

However, to survive and flourish, the art market needs more than messages of support. Buyers, investments and a positive context for investment are essential. Furthermore, the closure of borders that could last for several months means that for an indefinite period, tourists will not be visiting galleries and art centres. Here lies a significant issue: once Australia contains the spread of COVID-19, the situation will not automatically get better for artists, art centres and galleries. Cecilia shares her concerns regarding the reopening of Warlukurlangu: can we reopen the centre if no one is buying art and if there are no tourists to visit the place? 

Sales to foreign tourists are a significant driver of the Aboriginal art industry. In his research report published in 2016, Tim Acker refers to a survey undertaken by the Cooperative Research Centre for Remote Economic Participation Art Economies Project in 2014. This study points out that from 2010 to 2015, “Europe has been the source of 65% of sales in Australian-based art businesses and, France, Germany and the UK accounting for about three-quarters of these sales7“. How long will it take for tourists to reenter in Australia and for the market to recover? There are a lot of outstanding questions. Hopefully, some of them will be answered in the weeks to come. 

The violence of the Coronavirus crisis has surprised everyone. No industry was prepared to face the disastrous effects of the virus. Art centres and galleries owners had to adapt their business to this unprecedented situation and find solutions and alternatives. Over the last few weeks, they have created brand new and rich content on social media, which shows the art sector’s incredible capacity to renew and reinvent itself. However, the cancellation of every cultural and artistic event in the weeks to come, and the closure of borders may inevitably plunge the art industry into a worldwide economic crisis, similar or even worse to the Global Financial Crisis of 2008.  Meanwhile, financial support for art centres and galleries is welcome. Check out Artitja Fine Art Gallery here, Warlukurlangu Art Centre here and Western Australia Art Centres here if you are interested in supporting our Aboriginal art industry.

Quitterie Puel

Quitterie Puel

I am Quitterie PUEL, I come from Bordeaux (France) and I will live in Perth for three years. I have a master’s degree in management of cultural projects. I have always been passionate about Aboriginal and Maori art and culture. I love producing content, writing and interviewing people.

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