Chapter 3 - The benefits of Indigenous art
The Indigenous visual arts and craft sector provides very significant
economic, social and cultural benefits.
These benefits extend to Indigenous individuals and communities, and the wider
Australian and international community.
Indigenous art has been said to be 'Australia's greatest cultural gift
to the world' and 'our most profound, significant and important cultural export'.
The cultural benefits of the sector have been described as 'immeasurable'.
Indigenous cultural activities have been described as 'unequivocally the one
area of its [Australian Government] greatest success'.
The Myer Report, commenting on the benefits, noted that:
Just as the sector as a whole provides enormous benefits,
cultural, social and economic to the community, so too are Indigenous artists
able to bring these advantages both to their immediate communities, and to
Australian society in general.
The multi-faceted and often unquantifiable nature of many of these
benefits was highlighted in evidence:
Pride, self esteem, maintenance of culture, transmission of
culture, inter-generational learning, meaningful activity, purposeful life,
creative achievement, recognition from peers; recognition from national and
international art media, provision of much of our nation’s ‘corporate
identity’; provision of ‘Australia’s greatest cultural export’ and other social
and spiritual benefit are difficult to quantify. But they should not be
discounted even in the most rational market economies. This is an industry that
cannot and should not simply be measured in statistical economic data.
The economic benefits of the sector are substantial although difficult
to quantify mainly due to the lack of comprehensive data. Economic benefits
accrue to the nation, the individual artists and their communities, the arts
industry and related business sectors.
As outlined in chapter two, Professor Altman estimated in 2002 that the
national value of Indigenous visual arts sales was between $100 million and
More recent estimates place the value of the sector at $400–$500 million.
The Northern Territory and the states benefit economically from the
sector. In the Northern Territory (NT) the sector has been described as being
of 'crucial importance'.
The NT government stated that it is difficult to estimate the economic benefits
of the sector to the Territory with 'a mass of different statistics on sales
figures ranging from $6.9m–$12 million in direct sales from NT art centres to a
gross sales figure of $50 million'.
The NT government noted however that one organisation recently estimated that
art centres and related retailing of Indigenous art and craft in central Australia
equals or exceeds the value of the local pastoral industry.
A range of data gives some indication of the importance of the sector in
the Northern Territory:
- One study in 2002 estimated that arts and craft centres in 2002
generated $10 million of sales annually.
- Northern Territory tourism statistics estimated that in 2000-01,
$28 million was spent by visitors to the NT on Aboriginal art. A six year trend
analysis suggested that this figure is below sales in 1995-96 and that
expenditure on Aboriginal art peaked in 1997-98 at approximately $50 million.
- The ABS in its 1999-2000 Commercial Art Galleries Australia
survey estimated that $11 million worth of art was sold retail in the NT by 41
outlets, including Aboriginal art centres. While a figure on Aboriginal art was
not provided it was stated that almost all of this came from Aboriginal art
- In 2002 ANKAAA surveyed 18 of its member art centres (almost all
in the NT) and estimated that in 2001-02 their gross estimated turnover was
In Victoria, Arts Victoria stated that the sector is 'very active...and
is exhibiting strong potential for growth'.
Data indicate that investment in arts infrastructure generates positive
financial returns to artists. Professor Altman has calculated the ratio of
artists' incomes generated by each dollar of operational subsidy to arts
centres and found that the returns to artists ranges from 1:1.5 to 1:4.3.
Altman noted that 'while the ratios are highly variable, they all indicate that
a positive return is generated from every dollar of operational support'.
Professor Altman also noted that Indigenous artists reinvest in their arts
centres at the rate of 40 per cent (based on 40 per cent sales
Altman pointed out:
This is a statistic that is often overlooked in arguments about
public investment and Indigenous dependency and debunks some of the
long-standing myths – community-controlled arts centres are in fact
underwritten by a public/private funding mix.
There are also a number of indirect or spin-off benefits of the
Indigenous arts sector. These include domestic and inbound tourism, as well as
less recognised natural and cultural resource management activities that
generate biodiversity benefits.
In the Northern Territory, in 2001-02 the Travel Monitor survey
indicated that 13 per cent of interstate visitors and 27 per cent of
international visitors to the NT came 'to experience real Aboriginal culture'.
Some 58 per cent of international and 48 per cent of interstate visitors
included Aboriginal art or cultural activities as part of their Territory visit.
This translated into an estimated $38 million expenditure on Aboriginal art and
$31 million on cultural tours.
In Queensland, cultural tourism also plays an important role. In terms
of domestic cultural tourism, data show that in 2004, the state recorded
47 000 visitors to Aboriginal art, craft and cultural displays.
There are additional unrecognised benefits associated with contemporary
arts practice where this is undertaken by Indigenous people in remote areas.
The use of natural resources by artists is itself positive, because it provides
incentive for Indigenous people to use their ecological knowledge to manage
these resources sustainably. There are other environmental spin-offs generated
by people residing on their country – for example, the maintenance of customary
fire regimes that reduce fires that destroy raw material inputs to the arts.
Indigenous people themselves benefit financially from the sale of their
arts and craft. However submissions noted that the success of Indigenous art
does not necessarily translate into major economic benefits or better living
standards for many Indigenous artists.
The Northern Territory government noted that 'Aboriginal artists and
craftspeople on the ground earn a small part of the overall "take",
despite the fact they are the obvious lynchpin of the industry'.
In terms of economic benefits, in 1987-88 it was estimated that
2504 Indigenous artists in the Northern Territory earned $3.6 million, an
average of $1437 per artist. Data provided by ANKAAA for 2001-02 indicates that
an estimated 2650 artists in its region earned $3.68 million, an average of
$1388 per artist. Professor Altman noted that this figure is 'remarkably
similar' to the figure for 1987 -88, despite the CPI increasing by 45 per
cent over the same time period.
Economic benefits also arise from the income stream generated into
communities that would otherwise rely on CDEP and welfare payments.
Not only do individual artists derive an income through selling their
art, other community members also benefit. Especially in remote areas, the
concept of sharing is significant. Artists share their cash income with family
members, as well as consumer goods they have purchased with their arts income,
such as motor vehicles. In this way, the money derived from the arts is
distributed within the community.
In remote communities, in particular, income derived from art sales is
often the only source of non-government income and this money supports
The production of art in remote communities like Maningrida is
often the only non-government money coming through the community and art has an
enormous economical impact. For example, in the financial year 05/06, more than
$1.1 million was distributed to artists in the Maningrida region. Art is a major
success story for Maningrida people, and the self esteem, wellbeing and growing
confidence of the artists cannot be overvalued.
In smaller communities for example Nyapari, there is no school,
no shop, no clinic, the office is rarely open and the ONLY thing for people to
do there is visit or work in the Art Centre. Although the economic return may
be quite low (as the average earning is less than $2000 pa) the cumulative
effect on the community can be important...Because of the communal nature of
Aboriginal culture their earnings are distributed widely according to family
and cultural custom.
As noted above, the economic benefits that accrue from the Indigenous
visual arts and craft industry are not limited to Indigenous people. Other
Australians across the visual arts and craft industry, along with other related
business sectors, such as tourism, retailing and publishing, are significant
beneficiaries in terms of jobs and profits.
Activities in the visual arts and craft sector provide significant
social benefits to Indigenous people. Participation in the visual arts enhances
social cohesion within communities, promotes health and well-being and provides
a range of benefits across many sectors of Indigenous society:
To be an Indigenous artist or artisan is quite a different
calling than to be an artist in the European tradition. These social benefits
manifest themselves in the communal nature and place of art in the lives of
Indigenous people and in the lives of individual Indigenous artists. The
function of art and craft extends beyond aesthetic pleasure – it is embedded in
daily life, family connection, traditional law as well as in dreaming lore and
spirituality. For many Indigenous artists, visual art and craft is not seen as
a commodity but rather as something akin to a family member – it represents a
multi-layered connection to the past, present and future. The social role of
creating visual art and craft is also primary to the social benefit and meaning
of art and craft activity in the community context.
Benefits to Indigenous groups
The medium of visual arts has been successfully used as a form of
expression for many different groups within the Indigenous community. The
visual arts have provided, in particular, an avenue for the advancement of
Indigenous women – in personal development and self esteem, financial
independence and empowerment within their communities. Many Indigenous women
have excelled in the visual arts including Emily Kame Kngwarreye and Dorothy Napangardi.
The art-coordinator of Ampilatwatja art centre, which was formed by a group of
senior women of the area, noted the benefits that involvement with the arts has
I have watched with a sense of pride these very traditional
women go out into the world and share with an open heart all that is precious
to them. I have also enjoyed watching the heartfelt response and the affection
and growing understanding of not only their culture but also who they are as
Indigenous youth have also benefited from involvement in the arts. Arts
projects focus on connecting young people to their Aboriginal identity and
emphasise cultural maintenance. One project Big ones, little ones involves
Indigenous school children producing artworks from schools around Australia and
exhibiting their art alongside established Indigenous artists. The visual arts
are also practiced by older Indigenous members of their communities.
Visual arts have also been used as a form of expression for Indigenous
people with disabilities. Some Indigenous artists with disabilities have
accessed programs to further encourage their artistic abilities. The programs
have provided a vehicle to express themselves, improve their self-esteem and
provide a means to support themselves financially.
An example of this approach is the Mwerre Anthurre Artists, an artists'
collective in Alice Springs, which focuses on art skills development for
artists with disabilities.
Art programs in prisons and detention centres often provide an avenue
for Indigenous prisoners to achieve better appreciation of their own culture
through the arts and to develop a means of employment when they leave the
Engagement in arts activities can have a positive impact on the health
and wellbeing of Indigenous Australians. Research indicates that involvement in
creative activities can contribute to better health outcomes and stronger
Art has been used for healing Indigenous patients suffering from a range of
physical and mental ailments. One example is the Art Therapy class in Sydney, a
project supported by the Redfern Aboriginal Medical Services, for Indigenous
women who suffer from a mental illness.
The visual arts have also been used to educate Indigenous people about
health issues. An example of a successful health art education project is Johnny
Briscoe's Caterpillar Dreaming spirit painting, Anumarra – Working for
Health, 1979 which became a symbol for the Aboriginal health worker program
in central Australia.
The benefits of art centres
Arts centres and organisations provide strong social and cultural
functions. Desart noted that 'it is well understood that the role of an Art Centre
goes far beyond the production of artworks, and exercise a charter that amounts
to a social responsibility in their own communities'.
The multi-faceted role of art centres was emphasised during the inquiry:
The Art Centre provides, firstly, a focus for the maintenance of
culture of the region. It is a place where artists can congregate, check each
other's progress, seek opinions, joke and argue among themselves, paint, eat
biscuits and drink tea, socialize...acquire social skills, and generally escape
from the often difficult conditions of community life. The simple fact that
these spaces exist is a social benefit that must not be underestimated.
The role of Art Centres incorporates the economic, social and
cultural, all of which provide significant benefits to Indigenous artists and
the community. For many artists the making of artwork represents their culture,
connection to country and their identity.
As noted above, art centres often provide many social benefits which are
not directly related to the arts. These services include assistance with health
and medical, family, education, legal, transport and financial management
issues. Arts centres also provide a safe and supportive environment for artists
and their families.
Providing services such as these contributes to the social and physical health
of community members, including artists.
There are examples at Yuendumu, Kintore, Balgo, Blackstone and other
communities with successful art centres where substantial contributions have
been made to community facilities and programs such as dialysis units, swimming
pools, youth programs, local festivals and sports events.
Papunya Tula Artists provided the following example of the support provided to
the local community:
Over the last six years, PTA has funded the establishment of a
remote renal dialysis unit at the Kintore community. More than $1 million was
raised in 2000 at a charity auction...This year, the company made cash
donations of over $200,000, to support the ongoing running costs of the Western
Desert Nganampa Walytja Palyantjaku Tjutaku Aboriginal Corporation, which is
responsible for delivering the service to thirty-one patients.
In November 2005, PTA played a fundamental role in raising over
$900,000 for the construction of a swimming pool at Kintore community....These
projects are just some of the significant positive changes that PTA has been
able to deliver to the community. As well as these major projects the company
provides numerous other forms of assistance on a daily basis.
Arts centres provide many cultural benefits through the sale of
artworks, developing artists' skills, cataloguing and archiving artworks,
collating artists CVs and culturally significant stories and documenting art
The production of art and craft works goes together with transferring
cultural knowledge. In addition, the provision of arts and craft activities
enables Aboriginal people to reside on their traditional lands and to engage in
diverse customary activities and cultural practices – 'enabling Aboriginal
people to reside on country by developing a strong arts sector contributes to
maintaining Aboriginal culture and stimulating participation in other customary
Indigenous arts organisations, while having a strong role in rural and
remote areas, also have strong social and cultural functions in urban areas. In
Sydney, for example, the Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Cooperative plays an
important role in supporting Indigenous artists and bringing the Indigenous
community together for functions and special events. 
Indigenous artists express their culture, identity and connection to the
land and their community through their art. The visual arts sector provides
cultural maintenance and promotion of traditional culture for many Indigenous
people and communities. ANKAAA stated that the 'cultural benefits are
immeasurable in providing cultural activities, dialogue and maintenance within
The Victorian College of the Arts emphasised the centrality of the
visual arts in maintaining culture:
The Indigenous visual arts and crafts sector is absolutely
central to cultural sustainability for Indigenous Australia and cultural
diversity in the wider Australian community. The sector is a living
demonstration of the continual connection to land, family, dreaming, culture
and place that dates back many millennia. Arts practice is a fundamental part
of the way of life for Indigenous artists and communities.
Indigenous artists, by drawing on this cultural heritage, strengthen
their culture through the practice of their visual arts:
The visual arts funding and programming provided in the
Indigenous visual arts sector has allowed cultural expression to strengthen and
develop...The visual arts sector has facilitated the handing down of information
and skills from generations. Along with this comes the reinforcement of
cultural obligations such as the honouring of traditional styles. Artists
engage with elders to learn important cultural stories.
...Indigenous 'art' is perhaps the prime contemporary medium for
senior people to explore, document and share often profound cultural knowledge
(of creation, country and family) and as such offers not just reinforcement of
that knowledge but also a very significant guard against its loss through
non-transmission to younger generations...the Inquiry should be mindful of the
intangible value of Indigenous art and craft in preserving irreplaceable
Professor Morphy also noted that Indigenous artists are 'well trained in
This is vitally important, because most Aboriginal artists in
remote areas do not come out of nowhere, they come out of generations of art
practice, which in their own lifetimes leads to intensive training before they
will be producing work for sale or in public context. That does not happen
everywhere, but certainly in all the areas of Arnhem Land in central Australia
that I know, artists come from almost their own Indigenous schools of art.
The land, customary practices and other cultural elements are the
foundations of Aboriginal art in many different ways – especially in remote
...the fact that the Aboriginal arts and craft sector is often
founded on the customary sector and based on the land and its spiritual and
cultural value, is what makes Aboriginal art unique and attractive for the
market. Hence, cultural aspects increase the competitive advantage of
Aboriginal arts and contribute to the commercial opportunities of the arts
Dr Mossenson noted that maintaining strong culture is 'integral to the
continual success of the Aboriginal art industry':
...we will soon witness in some areas of the country the death of
the last custodians of traditional songs, ceremonies and dances. As a result
artwork that we currently revere today will be
produced in a different form and with different cultural integrity. It will, I
suspect, be all the greatly diminished as artwork and as a record of culture.
Another submission noted that without a thriving Aboriginal culture,
upon which Indigenous art is based, Australia would lose 'much of its shine and
The practice of art making within communities is part of the continuum
of ceremonial practice, reinforcing people's connection with traditional lands,
ancestral beliefs and ritual. It also provides opportunities for the
transmission and reinforcement of cultural knowledge to younger members of the
The Australia Council characterised Indigenous visual arts and culture as 'a
bridge between generations, ensuring as much as possible that custodial
information is not lost'.
Visual art is an expression of belonging and connection with
long ago traditions and spiritual beliefs. The painting of creation and
dreaming stories is a manifestation of this cultural and spiritual expression. Expressions
of Indigenous visual art, like other forms of art, depict an ongoing connection
and relationship with land and sea. In this way, art is like a clan motifs or
insignia representing legal custodianship.
A key issue for Indigenous communities is the reality that as older
artists and community members pass away, culture is lost including stories of
cultural significance, dance and language.
People often talk about the elders passing away and the culture
being lost. Aboriginal people are very distressed about the loss of culture and
it is always a priority...that the young people be trained in their own culture.
I am concerned about the possibilities for the generation of
elders that I met to be able to pass on this very ancient culture to the next
generation, their children and grand children...Aboriginal Art thrives on love
for a particular area of land called 'country', the artist’s country. You take
that away and the art loses its roots as well as the specificity and power that
captures so much international attention and acclaim.
The expression of Indigenous visual arts helps to promote the diversity
of Indigenous cultural groups. The visual arts provide a means for clans and
regions to express their own distinctive styles, and to develop their own
The visual arts also play a role in uniting Indigenous across clan groups. Arts
events such as exhibitions and forums act as community events where Indigenous
people can interact socially and culturally.
Visual arts and craft activities also provide a vehicle for the expression of
Indigenous political and related concerns to the wider community.
As well as providing cultural benefits to Indigenous people, Indigenous
visual arts also provide cultural benefits to the wider Australian community,
facilitate cultural diversity, and provide a 'bridge' to non-Indigenous
Australians so that they can appreciate and learn about Indigenous culture.
Indigenous art makes a significant contribution to the culture of the
nation. Desart noted that 'it provides the nation with a rich cultural
foundation and contributes to the cultural fabric in this country where we
value many diverse heritages'.
One witness noted that:
Indigenous art has had an important role in introducing to the
broader community the significance of Aboriginal culture. For many it has been
the first chance of a dialogue with Indigenous Australia.
Indigenous art is well represented in the many public arts institutions
and their exhibitions programs and is widely represented in many facets of
Aboriginal visual art iconography is omnipresent. Aboriginal
imagery is instantly recognisable and is used in everything from our money, our
national architectural icons, and in corporate identity and advertising. This
art and culture formed the centrepiece of the Opening Ceremony at the 2000
Sydney Olympics and more recently has graced the most important new public
building in France. We submit this is a national treasure which must be
nurtured and supported.
The NT government commented on the effect of the visual arts on the
There have been considerable social and cultural benefits for
the Northern Territory population as a whole as a consequence of the increased
prominence of Aboriginal visual arts and crafts, with that prominence being
seen as a distinctive social and cultural marker for all Territorians.
Australia is also increasingly defined and promoted internationally in
terms of Indigenous art and culture, as evidenced in projects like the Musee du
Quai Branly commission in Paris. Indigenous art has been described as providing
'Australia's greatest cultural export'.
The committee was shown strong evidence of how the Indigenous visual
arts and craft sector provides substantial economic, social and cultural
benefits. Indigenous individuals and communities as well as the Australian
community and the international community share in these benefits and are
enriched by them.
Indigenous visual arts provide a means of cultural expression and are a
vehicle for the maintenance and transmission of culture. The visual arts are
used to promote health and well-being. They improve the lives of Indigenous
women and provide self esteem to young Indigenous people. The benefits of
Indigenous arts and craft go beyond the purely economic and the quantifiable to
enrich and sustain Indigenous culture, and promote this ancient culture to the
wider Australian community and to the world.
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