Parrtjima Festival of Light, Alice Springs.
New research on audience attendance and attitudes conducted by the Australia Council for the Arts have found increased attendance of First Nations arts in Australia. The report, Connecting Australians: The National Arts Participation Survey, states that engagement with First Nations arts has doubled since 2009, reaching 7 million Australians last year.
The previous survey conducted in 2013 identified a gap in audience interest in First Nations arts and actual attendance rates, which led the Australia Council to research how First Nations arts were being presented across Australia through two reports, Building Audiences for First Nations Arts and Showcasing Creativity.
‘There were some really interesting findings in that work which was very much taken up by the sector. For example, it became clear that in terms of presentation there were only about sixteen companies presenting large volumes of First Nations work and very few others were,’ said Dr Wendy Were, Executive Director Strategic Development and Advocacy at the Australia Council for the Arts.
‘It was a call to action in many ways, which was well and truly picked up by the sector with the recognition that presenters themselves needed to present more work.’
But does this increase in attendance reflect an increase in the presentation of First Nations arts? 'I think we are seeing a lot more Indigenous-led work, which is fantastic and YIRRAMBOI recently is a good example,' said Were.
An important part of presenting First Nations work is creating more opportunities for Indigenous-led practice. Indigenous-led programming along with the rise in Indigenous peak bodies means there is more work presented by First Nations people, and audiences are clearly responding. A growing appreciation of First Nations work is also evident in the survey with four out of five Australians identifying First Nations arts as an important part of Australia’s culture.
‘The more work is available and accessible the greater appreciation and engagement you have with it. It is all part of that circle of getting the work out there,’ said Were.
‘We have incredibly high quality work coming from our first nations artists and for that work to be presented in an Indigenous-led context, it just increases the quality of the experience for everyone.’
ArtsHub spoke to several arts workers to find out more about Indigenous-led and consultative models of arts practice and how the sector is growing its capacity to present First Nations work.
Richard Frankland, Head of Curriculum and Programs at the Wilin Centre for Indigenous Arts and Cultural Development, said ‘Indigenous-led is a bastion of cultural safety, when we write our programs, tell our stories, find our solutions to the problems we face then that is Indigenous-led.'
‘We are seeing more Indigenous-led initiatives in the arts and in other areas. For instance, the role of the Blackademic is to agitate and stir, to create and foster to reclaim and to relense, to reimagine the present and to facilitate a new yet old voice for a better future. In essence to dare to change and challenge the cultural tapestry and social engineering of Australia, this too is the role of the Indigenous-led initiatives in the arts.’
‘Indigenous-led is a voice that is yet to reach it’s full potential, to me Indigenous led complements community consultation. We wont always get it right, we wont always be perfect, but we will always attempt in someway, somehow to facilitate the voice of our people. Our credo is this; When you have art you have voice, when you have voice you have freedom and when you have freedom you have responsibility, be responsible with the voice of your people.’
It’s about relevance
Pamela Bigelow, Manager of the Indigenous Art Centre Alliance (IACA) which provides professional development and advocates for the community-based Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art and cultural centres of Far North Queensland, said majority First Nations board representation is crucial to the organisations aims.
‘It is important not only that they are Indigenous but that they are from the region and the network, so they understand the needs of the members. Our board is made up of artists, managers and arts workers from within the IACA membership. That’s because we want to operate with relevance to the vision and objectives of the organisation as developed by the members,’ said Bigelow.
‘The organisation was originally generated from the membership in response to real needs. Therefore it is vital to keep our eye on that vision and the requirements of support for the art centres in a grassroots way, not in a way where the organisation is more about itself than about the members. We are all about the members, and our absolute focus is on outcomes for artists. That is core to our operations.’
Read: Remote art centres are the the unsung heroes of Indigenous art practice
Creating pathways for young people
As the Showcasing Creativity research from the Australia Council revealed last year, developing skills and opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists and arts workers to access mainstream venues, as well as building organisations knowledge and understanding of First Nations work, is key.
Programs such as Warumilang, the ArtsReady Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander program, are increasingly important in this context and includes a traineeship that provides sustainable employment pathways for young Indigenous people. ArtsReady also offers cultural awareness training for organisations that want to develop a deeper understanding of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and culture.
‘The benefits of employing a young Aboriginal person are twofold. Its capacity and confidence building for the young person and enriches the organisation hosting them,’ said Jade Colgan, Executive Manager, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Programs.
Read: How arts organisations can help our First Nations young people
Ongoing community consultation and engagement with Aboriginal artists, arts centres, key organisations, traditional owners and custodians is integral to Parrtjima – A Festival in Light held in Alice Springs. In 2017 the festival appointed its first Indigenous art curator, Rhoda Roberts.
‘In addition to ongoing community consultation, a Parrtjima Festival Reference Group has been established to provide advice and guidance to Parrtjima organisers on Aboriginal matters that relate to the artistic program and its cultural appropriateness,’ said Andrew Hopper, General Manager, Northern Territory Major Events Company.
The festival aims to respectfully showcase Aboriginal arts and culture by inspiring audiences and bringing together communities through a world-class artistic light experience on a grand scale; while providing meaningful artistic opportunities to local artists.
‘In addition to ongoing community consultation, a Parrtjima Festival Reference Group has been established to provide advice and guidance to Parrtjima organisers on Aboriginal matters that relate to the artistic program and its cultural appropriateness,’ said Hopper.
Read: Festival lights up 300 million-year-old canvas
First Nations ownership
Based in Alice Springs, Desart provides support services for art centres across the central desert region of Australia. ‘Desart’s job is to create platforms for artists and art centres in Central Australia, through a range of presentations and programs,’ said Desart CEO Philip Watkins.
The organisation also presents Desert Mob, one of Australia’s major Indigenous arts events.
‘This is the twenty-fifth year of Desert Mob. It was one of the first events of its kind in Australia. In recent years, several other events have appeared around the country which have modelled elements of Desert Mob into their program,’ said Watkins.
‘We support Aboriginal agency and Aboriginal voices, though strong Aboriginal ownership. Desarts and Desert Mob has that strong Indigenous energy.'
Read: Why we need context in Indigenous art