Indigenous art centres at the precipice of outdated approaches to funding

We love Indigenous art centres but are we really supporting them the best we can as a sector?
A sandstone boulder tilts dangerously on the top of the hill. In the background is the sky and a earthy, barren landscape.

Indigenous art centres: they’re the backbone of the Indigenous art sector, especially as infrastructures that support the creation of commercially-saleable artworks. 

Many people who’ll pack their kitted-out rigs and hit the road for months a time, travelling cross-country, may never have had the inkling to routinely visit metropolitan art galleries and keep abreast of the trends of the rarified – and largely inaccessible – heights of the art world. However, many do visit remote art centres. These art centres act as havens for artists and as bastions of Cultural continuation and evolution. More often they play an introductory role to the arts for locals and visitors, alike. Yet, sadly, several are experiencing major challenges.

One issue that may stand out to sector colleagues is around bringing in and maintaining relationships with local artists. A major challenge exists around identifying new and emerging talent. This is due to the nature of complex disengagement and systemic disadvantage across remote communities and townships, compounded by an ageing population. Many youngsters still see the preservation of Culture and storytelling as the duty of their Elders, while the commodification of arts practices remains a dissonant rationale. 

Other issues faced by arts centres include the consolidation of aesthetic and style, while the quality and availability of stock is another restriction. Current funding opportunities limit the ability to travel – both in terms of the artists and artworks – and showcase at major events.  Meanwhile, the actual infrastructure of many of these art centres is also in dire need of renovation and currently fails to cater for accessibility. 

Art centre managers also bear the burden. Many experience fatigue from the demand to maintain engagement with the Culture(s), places and people where they are stationed, while living among them. We all know managers play more than the business role they’re employed to undertake; the responsibility of stepping into leadership roles around Culture and working on Indigenous Lands has also been placed on them (with much scrutiny to adhere appropriately). With this in mind, one can understand why many would-be remote arts workers may be reluctant to take up such roles considering all there is involved, which has created skill and staffing shortages across the remote and regional sector.

While solutions remain just beyond reach, what the sector can agree on is that it is time for an overhaul or, rather, an injection. And this means an injection of models of Cultural/Tribal Governance that can form a compromise within the frameworks of Western obligations and machinations. It also means an injection of vigour to scout projects and find ways to support them, without solely within the confines of annual grant rounds. In addition, the reasons for these streams of funding also need review and diversification or separation. This needs to happen alongside other vital concerns, such as an overhaul of outdated modes of leadership; i.e. gatekeeping missionaries. 

Importantly, governments and their funding agencies must adapt the way they engage with Indigenous art centres and navigate their KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) on a case-by-case basis. They should do so around the localised and individual aspirations of the peoples represented by and showcased through specific centres. 

With the Australia Council’s move to Creative Australia, what the Indigenous art centres need will (and should) take precedence in forming and articulating which funding frameworks will emerge, and where assistance will be required. This needs to be done without nationalising the sector. One pathway could be through some form of State and Commonwealth combined bucket as an incentive for those in the sector to move and work remotely, and for artists to receive art centre-managed payments for their artistic labour. Another solution could be in the way of fiscal support for governance training, as well as arts training. And… there are talks of convening such consultation, which is hopeful.

But, what about emerging centres or ventures? Or centres that don’t follow the main two models, which are: self-governed as a subsidiary of an Aboriginal Tribal Corporation or local government housed?

A recent case study: Doomadgee Potters

A recent venture within the Indigenous art sector that showed great promise of evolving and transcending into a possible art centre, is the Doomadgee Potters managed by Yolonde Entsch. 

It’s a case that has been discussed recently in The Australian, but in a manner that has weakly linked Entsch with a greater controversy. The Australian pointed to the fact that Entsch is non-Indigenous, amid media attention also directed towards her husband, Warren Entsch MP. 

While the Indigenous art sector is reforming in terms of encouraging more Indigenous arts workers to take up integral roles, not every instance of non-Indigenous people involved in our space is negative. Contrary to popular belief, when such involvement is altruistic, the issues faced by those like Doomadgee Potters are exactly the same as for established Indigenous art centres.  

Perhaps Creative Australia can draft a framework for sector review to define what an art centre is and can be, while also including urban-based collectives and Indigenous artist-run initiatives. 

Community, mob-based preparedness and willingness (or lack thereof) to take up arts administration roles is a fair challenge to address. Further, Entsch’s Doomadgee Potters is subject to the same lack of assurance around funding structures that are neither sustainable nor continuous.

I knew the project through my time as Marketing and Communications Manager with the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair and worked closely (though, indirectly) with Doomadgee Potters on ways to increase opportunities and visibility across the sector. I have seen first-hand the esteem in which the project is held by locals, as well as how the sector anticipated and welcomed the venture. 

Sadly, the Indigenous Languages and Arts Program ceased the project’s Commonwealth funding in 2022. We’ve all seen this outcome before, in our own projects and in others. So, I can’t help but think The Australian’s angle on Entsch and the Doomadgee Potters story is an unfair juxtaposition of the matter concerning her husband separately. And, also to broader matters of ‘white’ interference within and across the sector. Namely, the issues faced by APY Lands collective, which the paper has been at the forefront of reporting.

Read: Reasons we paint: Indigenous artists speak on tampering allegations

The even more upsetting truth is that the actual controversy around the Doomadgee Potters project isn’t to do with matters concerning Entsch, but simply regarded by funding bodies as such – much the same as countless others. It’s an instance where allyship falls into the quagmire of failing policy and support frameworks. Project funding to Indigenous art centres and their establishment is faulty and fails to truly reflect the aspirations of mob and artists across the country – who look to these partnerships in hopes of being artistically and economically empowered.

Doomadgee Potters garnered attention when it succeeded, but the sector has let its ambitions and stories become overshadowed by controversy. Both the funding body’s loss of interest in the project and reportage that has embroiled Entsch with her husband have contributed to this outcome. 

I, for one, am glad that Doomadgee Potters has come up again, as it’s a great opportunity to see interest return to their corner of the art world and show our support. Even as Yolonde Entsch moves on to other career opportunities in Queensland state politics, she remains passionate about supporting the Doomadgee mob.

Of course, one may argue that such ventures couldn’t hope for more, given they largely seek hand-to-mouth funding, year-to-year and just aren’t lucky enough to have the political and philanthropic will behind them to receive any sort of special prerogative funding. But the systemic issues still remain; that is, the disparity of artistic (and commercial) aspirations and, generally speaking, restrictive funding opportunities. 

One could argue too – as I have done so in the past – that such consideration could only be applied to fully Indigenous-staffed and led projects. That would surely solve and negate ever having to dissect the altruism of allies in our space. However, with the issues facing remote centres and ventures expressed herein and the gaps in skills and services identified, a dose of reality on what we can achieve without partnerships and allies must be acknowledged. In saying that, concerted aspirations to handover to mob should be outlined at the start of any hopeful, long-term venture.

The issues aforementioned are but a taste of the challenges facing both established and emerging art centres, artist collectives, remote-based arts ventures and practice. There is much to work towards, so we can salvage what would otherwise be part and parcel of an inevitably struggling sector. 

Though there is hope. Even as sales fluctuate, the interest in Indigenous arts and Culture is at an all-time high and there are rich ideas being presented to the sector, industry and public. These words of woe are not to be considered as nails in the proverbial coffin, but words of encouragement to buoy the sector into a promising, supportive future. 

In this time, and within our Indigenous art sector, we look to the leadership of Creative Australia to seek consultation from art centres and their peak representative organisations. We need to get to work and rethink outdated approaches to funding sector-wide, to more sustainable, meaningful and arguably unconventional alternatives.

This article is published under the Amplify Collective, an initiative supported by The Walkley Foundation and made possible through funding from the Meta Australian News Fund.

Jack Wilkie-Jans is an Indigenous affairs advocate (and qualified Politologist), Indigenous arts worker, arts writer, and emerging multimedia artist (abstract painter, filmmaker, and photographer). Born in Gimuy/Cairns, he hails from Weipa and Mapoon (Teppathiggi and Tjungundji), Cape York Peninsula; and, has ancestral links to England and Scotland (Wilkie), Vanuatu (Ling), Denmark (Jans), and the Gulf of Carpentaria (Waanji).