Desart’s Digital path through COVID continues to grow benefits for Aboriginal artists

Rethinking during the pandemic resulted in a 30% increase in engagement for Desart. Here’s how they are harnessing the momentum with new markets and professional development.

With the goals ‘One Mob, One Voice’ and ‘Strong Business’, Desart is an organisation that clearly knows what it wants for its members.

This commitment to forging strong ethical business is perhaps best captured in the annual Marketplace, which has been consistently growing year-on-year.

What surprised Desart in 2020 – a year we have come to associate with gloom – is the very capacity for growth by shaking things up.

In a first, the event went online due to the pandemic and closed borders to the Northern Territory. But also in a first, the event skyrocketed with 30% growth.

Total sales over the week of DesertMob Marketplace were over $700,000, with close to 2,000 works sold and over 56,000 virtual visits.

‘Like everyone, the lockdowns made us rethink everything we had planned, and it felt a bit like being in the film Inception with everything shifting in a surreal way,’ Carmel Young, Desart Program Manager, told ArtsHub.

‘But looking back at the year now, it seems like all the work towards getting online, and promoting our digital presence, really pushed us into a new future. Now we can look to building on that space.’

Young continued: ‘While part of us asks is this a false economy because of the lockdown, there is also a realisation that we can leverage off the two – online and live events – so maybe the future is a mix.’


Desart understands distance, with its 34 member art centres sitting across three state borders. Audience reach peaked as was evidenced in the many comments  received in response to this year’s digital Marketplace, which illuminated the power of engaging in alternate ways.

‘I live in Denmark and went online in the quiet dark night and I was blown away by paintings in the most beautiful colours. Being able to visit the Marketplace again and again was such a pleasure. And I discovered a wealth of art and explanations when visiting the art centres. I did not know they were also online.’ (visitor comment).

Young said: ‘Most of our member art centres have an online shop, and those that didn’t, about 7 art centres across our membership, we assisted to get marketplace ready and now they are set for online trading. And Desart’s muscle behind promoting them has been a real strength in this new space.’

Over the two weeks of the September event, Desart doubled its online page views. Young made the point that while many of these online hits were directly related to ethical art sales and wanting to support Aboriginal artists, it was also an opportunity for Desart to promote the value of art centres more broadly.

‘The new visitors are being inculturated into what art centres are, and how culture is kept strong through those centres,’ she said.

Rather than sit back, take a breath, and feel assured they’d done their bit in the digital space, Desart has recognised how important it is to harness this success and keep the momentum going.

They are currently planning  a Christmas Marketplace from 14-15 November, again online. ‘We have all become more online aware. It is now about maintaining that appetite,’ said Young.

With more people shopping online than ever before this festival season, it was a ‘no brainer’.

‘It was great browsing on the Marketplace – less frenzied than the physical event … I went back to browse after I bought and would have liked to buy more!’ (visitor comment)

‘It is about testing the online market capacity. Is this something we can continue to do in 2021, and beyond? And maybe that translates to more people eventually visiting the Territory and art centres, and we think that is a good thing,’ explained Young.


While cash flows through online sales have been a vital lifeline for Aboriginal artists during COVID, so too has been the maintenance of culture.

The membership organisation chose to continue with the 2020 Desart Photography Prize, which attracted work from 11 finalists across four Art Centres, despite the difficulties of lockdown.

The Prize comes out of Desart’s Art Worker Program, and has been a way to build strong visual and technical skills. Aboriginal art workers then apply to learn curatorial skills and work with Indigenous curators to hang the show. The workshops offer real professional development opportunities for their needs.

‘It is again about Desart’s vision of making ‘strong business’, and ‘career pathways’, Young said.

The prize was judged by Glenn Iseger-Pilkington and Gloria Moketarinja, an art worker from Iltja Ntjarra Many Hands art centre, and the 2020 Prize was awarded to Manjal Jampijinpa/ Liam Alberts of Warlukurlangu Art Centre in Yuendumu (NT) for his photograph Mt Wedge Outstation (pictured top).

Young added that this year there was an exciting mix of subject matter, including images that addressed climate change, family and political issues.

The Desart Photography Prize exhibition can be viewed online, and is also hanging in the Desart ArtSpace in Alice Springs. 

Next year will be the 10th anniversary of the Photography Prize, and plans are underway to celebrate this decade of Aboriginal photographers from the Desart membership.

To learn more about Desart’s programs, and its upcoming Christmas MarketPlace

Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years, including the regional gallery, biennale and commercial sectors. She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW. Twitter: @ginafairley Instagram: fairleygina