Chapter 2 - The size and scale of Australia's Indigenous visual arts and craft sector

Chapter 2 - The size and scale of Australia's Indigenous visual arts and craft sector

2.1        The Indigenous visual arts and craft sector has been growing at a considerable rate for many years. It is now a dominant element of the arts in Australia, and is recognised as such internationally.

2.2        This chapter outlines the data available, both past and present, on the size and scale of the Indigenous arts and craft sector. The fact that Indigenous art is not only an industry but also an integral part of a culture makes it difficult to define what should be measured as the 'size' or the 'scale' of the sector. This is most relevant when considering the magnitude of the role of art centres. As the following data suggest, art centres represent a minority of the total trade, however they provide development and opportunities for new artists, as well as community, cultural (and often other) services that commercial dealers and city galleries do not. Assessments of the size of the sector are also affected by a wide range of factors as to what is included within the definition of Indigenous art and craft.[1]

Previous analyses of the scale of Australia's Indigenous visual arts

2.3        The first significant analysis of the Indigenous visual arts and craft sector as an industry was undertaken by Timothy Pascoe and completed in 1981.[2] That report found that:

2.4        Other papers published around that time indicated that the market was growing steadily, while expressing concerns about its future.[4] Figures from Aboriginal Arts and Crafts Pty Ltd, which at that time held a significant proportion of the total market, showed their sales had grown more than a hundred-fold from 1971 to 1981.[5]

2.5        The Altman Review in 1989 attempted some estimate of the size of the Indigenous visual arts sector, but pointed out a 'total absence of industry statistics'.[6] That review made the following estimates:

2.6        Desart's major 1999 research project was based on surveys of 39 'government supported community art centres in remote Australia'.[8] The researchers estimated there were 4500 artists working through the surveyed centres.[9]

2.7        In 1998, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) released its first report based on a survey of commercial art galleries. All commercial galleries, including Indigenous art centres, were surveyed for this work; however direct sales by artists, sales by auction, and sales by businesses for which art sales were not the primary business activity were excluded.[10] The ABS reported that Indigenous art sales in 1996–97 were $15 million, 'which was 11% of total gross sales' made by commercial art galleries. The ABS estimated that commercial gallery sales were approximately a quarter of all art sales.[11] Thus, if $15 million was only a quarter of the market, this would suggest that total Indigenous art sales were around $60 million per annum in the mid–1990s.

2.8        There was significant regional variation in the proportion of commercial art gallery sales of Indigenous art. Five million dollars of the $15 million in sales occurred in the Northern Territory alone, representing the majority of its art market.[12] In contrast, the proportion of Indigenous art sales in other jurisdictions was significantly lower.

2.9        In 2001 the ABS released a second report on art galleries. By that stage it was estimated that commercial gallery sales of Indigenous art in 1999–2000 were worth $35.6 million.[13] Taking 1996–97 as the base year, this represented a 46 per cent per annum growth in sales through commercial galleries.

2.10      In 2006 the ABS released an analysis of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders' participation in arts and culture.[14] The study reported that of the 282 000 Indigenous Australians aged over 14, 16.2 per cent said they had participated in arts or crafts activities in the last year. The levels were higher in remote areas (19.1 per cent) than non-remote (15.1 per cent). The disparity between remote and non-remote is much more striking when the question concerned whether people were paid for that activity. A total of 9.9 per cent of remote Indigenous Australians, or around 7 600 people, received payment for making art or craft. That percentage dropped to just 3.1 per cent for Indigenous people in non-remote areas, although this still represents around 6 400 people.[15]

2.11      When it comes to actually earning a living from art, however, the picture in the ABS data is different. The ABS reported 1 501 Indigenous Australians over 14 were engaged in creative arts occupations generally, which narrowed to 786 when confined to visual arts and crafts.[16] Those Indigenous Australians who earned their living in the visual arts and craft were likely to earn less than their non-Indigenous counterparts,[17] a notable result given the prominence of Indigenous visual arts.

2.12      The NSW government provided the breakdown of the ABS statistics by jurisdiction (Table 2.1):

Table 2.1       Indigenous Australians whose main occupation is visual art or craft

Indigenous Visual Arts and Craft Professionals



New South Wales









South Australia



Western Australia






Northern Territory



Australian Capital Territory






Source: ABS, 2001 Census of Population and Housing, cited in Arts NSW, Submission 53.

2.13      The Myer Report in 2002 quoted figures prepared for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Board of the Australia Council indicating that:

2.14      The Australia Council indicated that in 2002, an analysis performed for the Cultural Ministers Council (CMC) Statistics Working Group suggested the market was worth around $100 to $120 million.[19] Also in 2002, Altman and others echoed the Altman Review's 1989 observation about the data on the industry:

There are no comprehensive data on the Indigenous arts industry as a whole, and the limited statistical data that do exist are too incompatible to provide the basis for an accurate understanding of the market.[20]

2.15      Altman and others' research noted that the 1999–2000 ABS value of around $35.6 million was probably an underestimate, and stated that '[t]he figure is probably somewhere between $100 million and $300 million'.[21]

2.16      Historical estimates of the value of the sector are summarised in Table 2.2.

Table 2.2       Historical estimates of the value of the Indigenous arts and craft sector



Estimated value



$2.5 million



$18.5 million



$15 million*



$35.6 million*



$200 million


Cultural Ministers Council

$100 – $120 million


Altman and others

$100 – $300 million

Notes: * Sales at commercial galleries only, estimated in 1996-97 to represent approximately one quarter of the total market.

The size and scope of the sector as reported to the committee

2.17      The $100 to $300 million estimate put forward by Altman and others in 2002 has tended to be adopted as the favoured estimate of the value of the industry. It repeatedly appeared in some form in submissions to the committee as the likely value of the sector.[22] Both Desart and ANKAAA give a higher range, of $200 to $500 million.[23] These higher estimates may simply reflect organisations making rough revisions to the $100 to $300 million range, by adjusting for four years' inflation, as well as growth in what is widely agreed is a rapidly expanding sector.[24] Michael Reid suggested the industry was worth at least $400 million, and perhaps $500 million.[25]

2.18      The Australia Council's submission indicated that in March 2006 the four main peak bodies for artists were serving 'about 6000 Indigenous artists in over 80 remote Indigenous communities'.[26] The committee understands the number earning a significant income from the art is probably significantly smaller, based on past ABS data and other sources.[27]

2.19      Notwithstanding previous attempts to estimate the size of the sector, stakeholders continue to note that the size and value of the sector need to be better understood.[28] The Northern Territory government indicated that the 'economic benefits of the Aboriginal visual arts and craft industry have been notoriously difficult to quantify'.[29]

2.20      In preparing its submission to this inquiry, ANKAAA performed a review of information from 25 of its 38 member art centres. For 2005–06, these art centres generated $12 million of sales income, and received $1.7 million in DCITA – National Arts & Crafts Industry Support (NACIS) funding. On average, around 60 per cent of the value of sales is returned to artists, and about 40 per cent to the art centre.[30]

2.21      Desart also provided information specific to its operations, indicating:

Indigenous Art Centres in central Australia generate sales of $12m... Desart would suggest [visual arts] industry sales value in the order of $25m – $30m annually. Desart represents some 3000 jobs for artists in Central Australia.[31]

Desart's John Oster indicated that of that $12 million, around $7 million was the income of the two largest art centres, Papunya Tula and Balgo, and that the remaining 41 central Australian art centres were sharing the other $5 million.[32]

2.22      Ananguku Arts & Culture Aboriginal Corporation (Ku Arts) indicated that:

In South Australia, it is estimated that there are between 800 and 1500 Indigenous artists (excluding artefact makers) earning at least $1000 per annum directly from the sale of their work...

In APY Lands, there are approximately 400 artists who engage regularly in visual arts practice as a means of generating earned income. Perhaps 50 of these artists earn more than $10 000 per annum from that practice. A further 100 to 200 engage in arts practice on an occasional basis.

The net value of art sales through all art centres in APY Lands is in the range $1.3–$1.5 million per annum, with current annual growth of an estimated 30%. Craft sales are estimated to be around $400 000 per annum for the region.[33]

2.23      Desart represents art centres operating in the communities served by Ku Arts,[34] so there may be some double-counting in the figures provided by the two groups. Brian Tucker indicated that in 2004–05, the average turnover of those art centres which he audited was just under $400 000.[35]

2.24      The committee received several submissions from individual art centres and businesses about their work. Most of these centres would be rated as amongst the larger and more successful. Information about their operations included:

2.25      The committee received limited information on the structure of the market and the value of exports:

2.26      Limited information is available on the international market for Indigenous art. The Australia Council noted that, while the Australian Customs Service collects figures on arts and crafts exported, it does not classify them further (as Indigenous or non-Indigenous), while the ABS commercial gallery survey did not collect data on sales that were destined to go overseas.[45]

2.27      There are some retailers of Indigenous art overseas,[46] or catering primarily to the overseas market. These include The Rainbow Serpent, a business operating six outlets at Sydney and Brisbane International Airports.[47] In addition, there are tourism operators organising art tours to Indigenous communities and art centres, a market dominated by overseas visitors.[48] The future of the market, particularly international sales, is discussed further in chapter 14.

Conclusion and issues

2.28      The Indigenous visual arts and craft sector has grown rapidly over a long period. Annual growth in the value of Indigenous art in the order of 40 to 50 per cent appears to have been sustained for much of the last decade or so, though some participants in this inquiry believe sales may plateau or fall due to some overheating of the market.[49] Despite a possible short-term adjustment in the market, most stakeholders appear to believe further growth is possible, including in the international market.[50]

2.29      While there is massive growth in the value of the industry, it is not clear that there is a commensurate expansion in the number of artists. This means one of two things: either that artists are earning more from their work – which is certainly the case for some of them at least – or that more of the value of the market is being captured by participants other than the artists. Given that many of those participants are non-Indigenous, this may raise the question of whether artists and Indigenous communities are getting a fair share of the growing value of their works. The increasing criticism of 'carpetbaggers', scrutiny of the secondary market, and growing calls for a resale royalty scheme, all may be symptoms of this concern. The committee received much evidence on this topic, which is addressed further in chapters eight, nine and ten.

2.30      While the submissions gave the committee some idea of the scale of the sector, it is likely to become increasingly difficult to know its size. Factors that make accurate estimates difficult include:

2.31      The committee acknowledges the need for good data to underpin analysis of any industry, and the desire of many stakeholders to see that data improve.[53] It recognises that the relatively wide ranging estimates of the size of the sector highlight limitations to the data currently available. Nevertheless, the committee found that available data were in many cases very useful. Art centres in general have audited financial statements, and their peak bodies appear to have a good sense of the business of their members. ABS data on commercial galleries, together with auction results regularly published by major auction houses, give a reasonable indication of what is happening in the fine art market.

2.32      Additional efforts to analyse the export and tourist markets is something that may be of further help. The committee recognises that there may be challenges in some contexts in classifying art and craft works in order to separately identify Indigenous work. However, it believes this is something that warrants further investigation.

Recommendation 1

2.33      The committee recommends that Australian Customs Service and DCITA initiate a review of the feasibility of Customs further classifying exported art into Indigenous and non-Indigenous categories, to assist future market analysis.

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