Chapter 2 - The size and scale of Australia's Indigenous visual arts and craft sector
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.
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.
Previous analyses of the scale of Australia's Indigenous visual arts
The first significant analysis of the Indigenous visual arts and craft
sector as an industry was undertaken by Timothy Pascoe and completed in 1981.
That report found that:
- Indigenous people received around $1 million, or 40 per cent of
the approximately $2.5 million in sales for 1979-80, with most production
taking place in the Northern Territory;
- there were around 5000 producers Australia-wide;
'at sixty producing communities identified, income from the sale
of artefacts amounted to about 5 per cent of total cash income';
- around 80 to 90 per cent of production ended up overseas; and
- most production was of 'tourist art' or 'ethnographic art', with
only a sixth of all sales being 'fine art'.
Other papers published around that time indicated that the market was
growing steadily, while expressing concerns about its future.
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.
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
That review made the following estimates:
- Indigenous people received just over $7 million per annum from
sales of their art;
- using a number of assumptions, a conservative estimate of the
retail market was $18.5 million;
- the number of producers was around 5000;
- only a few hundred artists earned more than $5000 per annum from
their works, and the income earned varied hugely from artist to artist, and
from place to place;
- it was extremely rare for an Indigenous artist to earn a living
income from art alone; and
- income from the arts was growing rapidly in real terms.
Desart's major 1999 research project was based on surveys of 39
'government supported community art centres in remote Australia'.
The researchers estimated there were 4500 artists working through the surveyed
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.
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
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.
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.
In contrast, the proportion of Indigenous art sales in other jurisdictions was
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.
Taking 1996–97 as the base year, this represented a 46 per cent per annum
growth in sales through commercial galleries.
In 2006 the ABS released an analysis of Aboriginal and Torres Strait
Islanders' participation in arts and culture.
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.
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.
Those Indigenous Australians who earned their living in the visual arts and
craft were likely to earn less than their non-Indigenous counterparts,
a notable result given the prominence of Indigenous visual arts.
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
Source: ABS, 2001 Census of Population and Housing, cited in
Arts NSW, Submission 53.
The Myer Report in 2002 quoted figures prepared for the Aboriginal and
Torres Strait Islander Board of the Australia Council indicating that:
- from 1990 to 1998, sales of Indigenous art at auction had risen
from $169 000 to over $5 million;
- the total Indigenous art and craft market was worth almost $200
million per annum.
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.
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.
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'.
Historical estimates of the value of the sector are summarised in Table
Table 2.2 Historical estimates of the value of the
Indigenous arts and craft sector
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
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.
Both Desart and ANKAAA give a higher range, of $200 to $500 million.
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.
Michael Reid suggested the industry was worth at least $400 million, and
perhaps $500 million.
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'.
The committee understands the number earning a significant income from the art
is probably significantly smaller, based on past ABS data and other sources.
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
The Northern Territory government indicated that the 'economic benefits of the
Aboriginal visual arts and craft industry have been notoriously difficult to
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.
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
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.
Ananguku Arts & Culture Aboriginal Corporation (Ku Arts) indicated
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.
Desart represents art centres operating in the communities served by Ku
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.
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
- Lockhart River Arts and Cultural Centre averaged turnover of
$750 000 in the last five years, distributing two-thirds of its income to
- Maningrida Arts and Culture supports over 700 artists and
distributed over $1.1 million in the last financial year.
- Warlayirti Artists at Balgo (WA) had 400 artists 'on the books',
half of whom were painting regularly, with an annual turnover of $2.1 million,
with 60 per cent going back to the artists.
- Waringarri Aboriginal Arts at Kununurra (WA) had 50 to 60
artists and a turnover of $500 000, with 60 per cent going back to the
- Papunya Tula has just funded its own new art centre, completed at
a cost of $1.2 million.
- The Rainbow Serpent had a turnover of $4.75 million in 2005–06,
paying around $420 000 directly to Indigenous suppliers and another $100 000
indirectly through royalties, as well as paying over $ 1.25 million in wages,
some of which are going to Indigenous people under the company's Indigenous
The committee received limited information on the structure of the
market and the value of exports:
- Red Rock Art sells around 10 per cent overseas, 60 per cent
through art galleries around the country and the balance through the local
Kununurra tourist market.
- Maningrida Arts sells 26 per cent through exhibitions, 14 per
cent overseas, 10 per cent through its Darwin outlet, seven per cent through
Internet sales, with the balance being sold direct to private collectors or
over the counter at Maningrida itself.
- The Rainbow Serpent reported Tourism Australia data indicating
international visitors spent $11 million on Indigenous art and craft in the
March 2006 quarter.
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.
There are some retailers of Indigenous art overseas,
or catering primarily to the overseas market. These include The Rainbow
Serpent, a business operating six outlets at Sydney and Brisbane International Airports.
In addition, there are tourism operators organising art tours to Indigenous
communities and art centres, a market dominated by overseas visitors.
The future of the market, particularly international sales, is discussed
further in chapter 14.
Conclusion and issues
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.
Despite a possible short-term adjustment in the market, most stakeholders
appear to believe further growth is possible, including in the international
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.
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:
- increasing sales taking place on the Internet;
- the range of types of transactions and discounting in the sector;
- the increasing number of businesses participating in a complex
- the large number of sales, paid for in cash or in kind, made by
individual artists independent of art centres or galleries, particularly in and
around Alice Springs.
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.
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
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.
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
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