Aboriginal Art Centres on Nicolas Rothwell’s Frontier

For this post Iconophilia is pleased to draw on the recent essay by Darren Jorgensen, “Bagging Aboriginal Art: The Intervention and the community art movement” first published in Arena #111 (March – April 2011) pp 38-42.

Jorgensen writes: “In the wake of a 2007 Senate Inquiry into the shoddy ‘carpetbagging’ practices that work to rip off remote Aboriginal artists, one would think that the ethical alternative of remote art centres would be looking good. Yet in the mainstream media at least the centres find themselves more embattled, and the journalist whose work sparked the enquiry, The Australian’s Nicolas Rothwell, has changed his mind about the centres’ place in the greater Aboriginal art industry. After supporting the work of art centre co-ordinators across the deserts and Top End of the country for many years, Rothwell’s writing now holds art centres responsible for a deterioration in the quality of Aboriginal art.

“The reason for this shift, however, appears to have less to do with Aboriginal art than its changing political context. In “The Intellectual Class should support the Intervention,” Rothwell complains about welfarism and the chattering leftist class (Australian, December 3 2007). It was also in 2007 that Rothwell shifted his longstanding support for art centres. His writing was always a touchstone of positive news in a newspaper otherwise dedicated to constructing the most troubling representations of Aboriginal people. And this style of reviewing has continued, contributing valuable accounts of artists’ work in remote Australia. However Rothwell has also begun to pen another kind of position, coincident with the government’s own. My argument here is that this position has spilled into his writings on the work of Aboriginal artists themselves, in a worrying conflation of the politics of the moment with opinion about the quality of art from remote communities.”

Iconophilia has also commented on Rothwell’s perverse usage of the figure of death in his writing from this period, (cited here, referencing back to April 1, 2006) and his later more pessimistic view of the contemporary developments in Aboriginal modern art – a concept first articulated by Ian McLean, from which Nicolas Rothwell would surely resile.

Jorgensen marks June 2007 as “the turning point in Rothwell’s writing, …the month that the Senate inquiry made its recommendations, and the ‘Little Children are Sacred’ report was released and served to justify the Intervention. When Rothwell released his first pessimistic essay about the future of art centres, “Colour fades into Shadow”, on June 22, the Howard government had just announced its intention to stage the Intervention on 20 June. He argues that few art centres “are profitable, and making large new funds available to them will not automatically change this picture,” and that “the policy map in place today is really a subsidised culture industry program.” The real crunch comes later in the essay, where Rothwell somehow aligns the death of a young artist with his argument about the Aboriginal art industry:

The attempt to fund, and fence, and define this creative current carries its subtle, inevitable costs. Deep in the Western Desert, at Kintore, the heart of the Pintupi painting movement, and the source of the Centre’s most collected art, a young man died of a heart attack in the smart new clinic building a week ago.

Jorgensen continues: “The tragedy that Rothwell builds around the failure of the Aboriginal art industry, and more specifically the profitability of art centres, is bizarrely to blame for the tragedy of this youth’s death.”

This is however a characteristic trope in Rothwell’s writing (see his “The Vanishing”, December 13-14, 2008). He methodically exploits Indigenous tragedies (historical or anticipated) to illustrate systemic issues, then holds the sociopolitical context to blame for the specific instance he references – with little concern for the effects such invasions of privacy may engender. As a journalist Rothwell seems to have little respect for the ethics of permission or reference to his sources. And he’s always on the lookout for a catchy turn of phrase. Thus most recently (Australian, April 30) he announces that the whole culture of North West Aboriginal Australia is committing suicide: “an entire culture, acting collectively, destroys itself.” And here, Jorgensen engages with his claim that it is the art centres that are “mining” Aboriginal culture:

“This gloss of art with tragedy, that confuses sentiment with rational argument, strikes a theme that will recur through many of his recent essays on Aboriginal art. The problem is not only that he defers to tragedy in order to make arguments about the art centre system, but that his place as the most influential critic of Aboriginal art becomes confused with his role as a political reporter. The art itself comes to appear tragic, as it stands for the demise of an entire era of remote communities, and ultimately the era of self-determination. His tragic view of art centres is little different from the government’s own moves to close outstations, end CDEP and override the Aboriginal governance that has been the backbone of remote communities. Thus in 2008, reviewing the annual Telstra awards, Rothwell writes of art centres:

The upshot is a vast production of market-based art designed to appeal to Western eyes. To succeed, it must be within the accepted template, it must be recognisable, almost brand-like. It is, to borrow anthropologist John von Sturmer’s devastating term, neo-traditional, and it is best if it comes from a new, ‘undiscovered’ art community, where prices and speculative profits are rising at speed. (Australian, August 15 2008).

“I have not been able to find the relevant Sturmer essay, but in my own field of art history, neo-traditional is not a pejorative term. It is instead interchangeable with neo-classicism, or simply classicism, that simply describes a form of art that refunctions older subject matter in a new way. In this same article, Rothwell goes on to further the analogy between the mode of production of Aboriginal art and its quality, arguing that,

The bitter truth is that much good art now comes from private dealer channels, and a great superfluity of market-driven, mediocre work flows out of art centres in the remotest corners of the continent.


Indeed, art centre minders seem in danger of overreach: desert and northern artists want to maintain their culture themselves, they want the freedom to do so, more than the help. The art centres, like all the art trade, are mining culture. To many artists, all those coming to buy look, in essence, much the same. (Australian, August 15 2008).

As Jorgensen rightly points out: “The analogy between mining and culture only represents a problem if one does not recognise the modernity of remote Aboriginal communities. The communities and outstations that host art centres are an invention of postcolonial times, as is the contemporary Aboriginal art movement. That artists are able to recreate culture for the artworld should be celebrated for its innovation and success, rather than condemned for its capitalisation. The contradiction within his writing is the difference between the community arts model and the expectations that the high art artworld has of Aboriginal artists… If there is one thing that the Aboriginal art movement should teach us, born as it was out of great disadvantage, it is that great art happens in spite of its circumstances, rather than because of it.”

There is clearly an ethical and economic conflict at play in the different practices of the Aboriginal-owned and run art centres (of which there are perhaps a hundred across Aboriginal Australia) and the ways and means of so-called carpetbaggers – those independent and self-interested dealers who bypass the art centres to exploit the vulnerability of individual artists. The capacity of independent dealers to control and influence the (aesthetic) direction of an artist’s work is at the opposite end of the scale from the ethical responsibilities that are a constant issue with art centre managers. Here Jorgensen points to the underlying resilience and authority of the artist in either context:

“A good manager not only administrates the business of day-to-day painting, exhibitions and finances, but gives artists guidance as to what makes their paintings more successful. It is on this point of quality that Rothwell’s criticisms of art centers are harshest. For in the artworld the facilitation of work and its sale is the role of dealers rather than community workers. Yet Rothwell overstates and generalises the influence these managers have on the art. Artists are always and finally responsible for their own production, and managers, like dealers, can do no more than advise. Arguments like this presume that Aboriginal people have no agency, and imply that art centres themselves are the dominant partner in their relationship with artists. They do not take seriously the fact of their Aboriginal governance.”

And so Jorgensen continues, making the point that art centres are, in relation to their sociocultural benefits, grossly under-funded. And, that the range of models of engagement with the art world and the art market, from Jirrawun to Warburton, frames the options available to the arts centres and their managers.

“The Jirrawun and Warburton models suggest that the art centre is not the only way forward for Aboriginal art, but also that the choice between the free market and art centres is not as starkly defined as all that. By comparison with Jirrawun and Warburton, art centres represent something of a middle road, marking out the compromise between the market for Aboriginal art and its place in remote communities. The ongoing success of the art centre model in creating and maintaining markets for Aboriginal art makes economic criticisms of their practices difficult to sustain.”

Jorgensen then digs deeper as he explores the overlaps and contradictions between Rothwell’s roles as as a senior journalist with the Australian, writing as often on Aboriginal art as on the politics of the Top End, as much as he ruminates on his own enlightenment.  Jorgenson perceptively points to Rothwell’s influence and authority with other critics:

“…in an essay in Art Monthly Australia by The Sydney Morning Herald‘s art critic John McDonald, [who] quotes Rothwell in an account of the trials of the dealer John Ioannou (“Tommy Watson and the politics of the Indigenous art market,” April 2010). When Ioannou signed up the art centre at Wingellina, in the Gibson Desert of Western Australia, to his own Agathon Gallery in Sydney, he broke the ethical rules that underlie the system… The facts that McDonald gets wrong in his essay only betrays the level of misunderstandings circulating about the Aboriginal art industry, even among Australia’s top critics. When McDonald writes that, “There is always the temptation to give a successful artist a smaller cut, perhaps no more than twenty-five percent of a purchase price,” at an art centre, he misunderstands the regulations that these centres operate under… In his statement “There have been instances when record keeping was virtually non-existent” McDonald could just as easily be referring to Ioannou. Neil Bell, in an Organisational Audit of Irrunytju Arts commissioned by Desart, found that Ioannou had not documented transactions or agreements with the artists he represented…

Jorgensen then asks: “What is the source of Rothwell’s change of mind? What continuity lies between his recent ambivalence toward art centres and the pre-2007 journalism on carpetbagging that made him such a pertinent critic of the Aboriginal art industry in the first place? It lies in a romanticism about Aboriginal artists, a romanticism that has long characterised his reviews of Aboriginal art in The Australian. The exuberant prose with which he celebrates the renaissance of Aboriginal Australia is bound by the romantic contradiction of a disappearing frontier. As the old artists die, Rothwell is concerned that there will be no more great artists, no more hunter-gatherers who once relied on their senses to survive, and who now employ these senses to brilliantly paint. Turning to a free market is a way of keeping the frontier alive in the face of the demise of the first contact generation. This is the point at which the ideology of Rothwell’s political reportage spills into his art criticism. Numerous reviews end by evoking the passage of Aboriginal artists, and the end of Aboriginal art as we once knew it.

“These pessimistic conclusions can be read as the other side of Rothwell’s romantic coin, the one that wants to preserve the frontier while being critical of it. He writes at the juncture of an era of self-determination and a new era of assimilation, of art centres as signs of a compromised vision of Aboriginal autonomy and the end of the illusions that this autonomy brings about. Carrying their anti-colonial and anti-paternalistic colours, Rothwell and McDonald thinly disguise a neo-colonial position of assimilation. Tracing the demise of elderly artists and remote communities becomes the opportunity to rebirth the Aboriginal art movement in a market freed of its responsibilities to remote communities. Art centres become a sign of the stasis of the market rather than its excitement; where they were once a sign of Aboriginal autonomy, now they signal Aboriginal oppression.”

Jorgensen concludes: “Yet if there is one legacy of the self-determination era that should be praised for its total and unremitting success, it is the art centre. In economic terms, these centres generate capital in places popularly thought to be economically unsustainable. If some public funding is necessary to keep this capital in community hands, this minor expense should be seen less in terms of what generates high, collectable art, but in [the same] terms [as] having a national orchestra. If it is necessary for Australia to have an orchestra for reasons of cultural prestige, surely it is necessary to have an indigenous people capable of sustaining what is the most original contribution, if not the only original contribution, that Australia has made to global culture.”

Iconophilia thanks the author for his permission to publish this abbreviated version of the original Arena article.


#1 FM on 05.03.11 at 4:53 pm

Not wanting to ad-hominem, but I do think Rothwell’s recent turn away from the art centre should be read in the context of Alison Anderson’s “ideological differences” with the former Acting Director of MAGNT and her recent comment that “the white art mafia” [art centre coordinators] want “…us to stay in misery and poverty so that we [Aboriginal artists] continue to rely on them…they’re all just amateurs – unemployable in Sydney or Melbourne!

#2 Nigel on 05.03.11 at 6:53 pm

Where were these comments published?

#3 Franc Fife on 05.03.11 at 10:21 pm

People like Andrew Bolt and this Rotter are a real worry ,they are saying whatever to buy publicity time Unfortunately these people get too much air, so to say .

#4 Ken McGregor on 05.03.11 at 10:24 pm

I would like to congratulate Nicolas Rothwell on his very well researched and informative articles about the Indigenous art scene. He hasn’t changed his mind; he has just looked at all the facts. During the past twenty five years I have spent an enormous amount of money and time supporting the art centres which were originally established to represent the artists living on the communities. I still support them, but, I also support the artists like Tommy Watson and Nyurapayia Nampitjinpa who choose to work for people in Alice Springs.
The rules and regulations set up to protect artists in the 1970s just don’t work in today’s world. Aboriginal artists are much more educated, we can’t tell them where to paint. It is racist to tell them they have to work solely for the community art centre; they do have a choice like every Australian does. Can you imagine telling a white artist where he or she can or cannot paint. Unlike the old days there are several people in Alice Springs, like Yanda Art that are really looking after the artists they represent. And their artists are producing some of the very best works around. If the Aboriginal art world is going to continue to grow, the two opposing sides must work together and stop tearing each other to pieces. I will always fight strongly against the unscrupulous carpet bagger and the exploitation of black and white artists and will continue to do so.

Ken McGregor

#5 Alex McCulloch- Director Metro Gallery on 05.04.11 at 10:12 am

Times have changed. I have to agree with Ken McGregor and Nicholas Rothwell. Imagine telling a white artist they can only paint for a particular group or organisition. We will continue to purchase works from both art centres and private dealers. We will not be strong armed and told where we can source our work. I have seen first hand how Chris Simon looks after and cares for his artists (Easther Giles, Mrs Bennett). His facilities are world class and I challenge anyone who is in doubt to make a trip to Alice Springs and see for themselves.

#6 vanessa on 05.04.11 at 12:51 pm

A good art centre director would be offering a steady wage for artists in the community, which varies depending on an individual’s level of experience and sales success and be open to their artists also employing reputable art dealers to market their work in the city. To cease funding art centres would result in many artists turning to ‘carpet baggers’ as their only option. Criticising art centres (which are of course all different depending on staff and community) risks enticing governments to cease funding them altogether and fails to take into account their indigenous president and board members who obviously support their operation and value their presence as a cultural/educational centre of the community.

#7 darren jorgensen on 05.04.11 at 1:18 pm

Regarding the comments of Ken McGregor and Alex McCulloch, there is no question Aboriginal artists have a choice where and who to paint for. Nobody is trying to regulate their choices. There are no art centre cops running around throwing artists or private dealers in jail. The real issue here has to do with the transparency of business models. In Australia, the Australian Commercial Gallery Association are there to regulate the ethical behaviour of its members, including the percentages that artists receive for their work. In the Aboriginal artworld, the new code of practice is mandatory for community run art centres. It remains to be seen how well it will help change the behaviour of many buyers and private dealers, but the idea is the same. In all industries there are regulations protecting wages and conditions, why not for artists? It’s lovely to kick back in the cities and natter about the ‘freedom’ of artists to choose, but in the bush the bullying and abduction of artists still remains a problem. Many artists are very old and infirm, many have poor english skills and are living in isolation. Such conditions add up to vulnerability for anyone, Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal. One way to stop the ongoing problems is through transparent business models, whether in art centres or in private operators. Art centres remain the backbone of the Aboriginal arts industry simply because people can be sure of what they are buying.

#8 rohan robinson- manager, Kayili Artists on 05.04.11 at 5:42 pm

I’m sure Alex McCulloch, would be quite happy for one of his stable of artists to be painting for another gallery in Melbourne, perhaps even behind his back at the same time… and everybody would be happy about the free choice made by the artist… even if that artist were a share holder/part owner in Metro Gallery.

One fact that hasn’t been revealed here is that art centres such as Kayili Artists are incorporated bodies owned and directed by its members, The art centre manager is employed by the art centre and the art centre members/owners of the business decide who will be the manager, and the manager consults with the members about the conduct of the business… Yanda art is not owned by the artists, the artists are merely sub-contract employees, in a purely profit motivated business… but wait there’s more.

#9 Ken McGregor on 05.04.11 at 5:53 pm

I agree with you Vanessa, don’t stop funding art centres, in fact I would like to see them get more money to help the artists that live on the communities. But how about the artists that don’t for some reason or another want to live on the community, should we just say to them, don’t paint your no good because you have decided to live in Alice Springs or Adelaide, I don’t think so. What should we say to artists like Dorothy Napangardi and Kathleen Petyarre. What is difficult to understand is why some artists are accepted outside the government system and other are not. Darren Jorgenson’s comment about nobody trying to regulate their choices is simply not true. It is a common fact that many Desart members have been told not to deal with any commercial gallery that exhibits non community art. That statement just inflames the situation, it can’t work, and it hasn’t worked since the first dot was put on a board in Papunya. It is a restriction of trade, and what they are actually saying is, if you want to be a serious artist you have to go back to the reservation to work. Now I do agree with Darren about making everything transparent, that is very important, check the living conditions of the artists working for private dealers, check they get the correct money for their paintings but as I have said many times before, work together to make it better and I think you will find the real low life carpet baggers will disappear really quickly.

#10 Jon Altman on 05.04.11 at 9:51 pm

There are many models out there and Rohan’s point that these are community-controlled enterprises most receiving NACIS (National Arts and Crafts Industry Support) funding from the Australian government is important. What is also important to note is that artists make significant (usually the main) contributions to the running of centres, they generally operate along the lines of a restricted common property regime (Elinor Ostrom) so that to be workable they require member artists to adhere to the policies and rules that members have made. Yes, art centres are not monopolies in most cases, but by-passing the art centre to deal direct with a dealer or commercial artist financially impinges on the centre and the membership. There is no doubt that they most famous artists could probably operate without art centres and gain better returns. But this overlooks the development work that an art centre may have made over many years (subsidised by an earlier generation of the most famous artists). And so today’s generation of established artists are needed to financially assist the next generation. The important issue is that all practice is transparent which mainly means that markups charged by art centres (that can vary by arts medium or artist) are clear to the artists. Some centres have different policies for exhibitions; some buy everything up front (although since the introduction of the resale royalty regime this is less common); and some have big right off costs owing to damage or inability to move art that needs to be covered. Alison Anderson’s comment is quite uncalled for in my opinion: most art centre coordinators that I have interacted with in the past 30+years are highly qualified and deeply committed to what they do often in difficult circumstances. This is a difficult intercultural mediating role and some do struggle, especially with the marketing and commercial aspects of the job. But let’s get real here: what Flick Wright referred to as ‘the art centre story’ is one of the successes of remote Indigenous Australian cultural production and enterprise. It is easy to criticise although one rarely hears criticism from the commercial dealers who have established strong and ethical relations with art centres. Of course as a dealer one always wants direct access to the best artists, but one has to ask the question: what is best for the artistic development of artists and their arts and wider communities? In a complex Indigenous affairs environment art centres are a successful model that should be lauded and replicated, again recognising that there are various models currently at work. NACIS by the way is 20 years old this year, a remarkable achievement in the volatile world of Indigenous funding regimes and owing to market failures (mainly linked to remoteness and diseconomies of small scale) few art centres have become financially independent. Realism suggests that this is an important program generating both private and public benefit at little public cost, long may it continue, perhaps until all the gaps are closed. My perspective is biased by the fact that I worked hard to develop this funding model and by my observation of how well it works for most artists most of the time at least in the numerous communities that I have visited. If anyone has better models to propose by all means let’s hear about them.

#11 FM on 05.04.11 at 9:58 pm

For Alison Anderson’s “ideological differences” with the former Acting Director of MAGNT see “Museum boss booted“, Northern Territory News, 18 May 2009, “Secret art business stirs pot on public exhibition “, Northern Territory News, 20 May 2009 and “Minister lashes `culture vultures’ of Aboriginal art“, The Australian, 11 May 2009.

Anderson made her comments about the “white art mafia” at the opening of her recent exhibition at TVH gallery. The comments were reported by Jeremy Eccles at Aboriginal Art News.

#12 Alex McCulloch on 05.05.11 at 9:55 am

Rohan, some of our artists do paint for other galleries in different states. You miss my point, I do admire what the art centres do, and I do support them, they do a great job under difficult circumstances. But what if one of your artists decided to live in Alice Springs? I would rather that artist get looked after very well than sleep under a bridge. I know Yanda Art is not owned by the artists, most employees don’t own the business they work for. But I know the artists get paid well, get three meals a day cooked by a chef and their accommodation is warm and secure. They really enjoy living there.

#13 Nigel on 05.05.11 at 12:43 pm

And an anonymous donor pointed me to this article by Jeremy Eccles, on Aboriginal Art News in which the battle lines and alliances are well spelt out.

#14 Cecilia Alfonso on 05.05.11 at 1:06 pm

If private dealers lobby to stop art centre funding one of the effects of the main effects will be to dry up their source of artists… it is very unlikely that many private dealers will venture out to the remote places we operate in and spend years nurturing hundreds of artists from which the good painters evolve… all private dealers whatever their leanings on this argument should be actively lobbying to ensure that the art centres continue to receive adequate funding for this reason alone!!

#15 vanessa on 05.05.11 at 4:56 pm

WOW I wish I could have a dealer like Chris Simons.

#16 darren jorgensen on 05.08.11 at 7:50 pm

Jon & Celia point to the larger issue at stake here, which is sustaining a viable market for Aboriginal art. Careful management creates artists in the long term–although nothing short of being a brilliant painter, Fred Williams would never have had the reputation he does today without Rudy Komon placing him carefully in Australian collections. But managing an entire national scene is a very different and more problematic situation than this, and Australia could look overseas for examples of how art scenes become viable and successful internationally, which Aboriginal art will need to become if it’s going to last. Russian art might be the most successful example of this kind of operation–Russian artists were very clever after the fall of the USSR to convince collectors in Europe and the US that they had something nobody else had. In Australia, however, many of our top artists have fallen into the problem of having duplicitous management situations, making it all too complicated for overseas art investors who aren’t sure of their returns. At present the best investment in Aboriginal artworks remains those artists who work exclusively through art centres and some reputable dealers, simply because the provenance is assured. The question remains whether Australia will achieve what Russia has on the international art market, and my feeling is that this will probably not happen because of the confusion that surrounds the provenance of Aboriginal artworks …

#17 Nigel on 05.09.11 at 11:39 am

Sure, but provenance implies much more than authentication of the place, date and hand of the artist. Behind this question, yet seldom fully resolved, lies the other question of “authenticity” – for who ever knows the degree to which an art form that depends so heavily on the facilitation of various agents (art advisers, private dealers, curators etc.) – how such facilitation translates into (artistic) intervention? If we know, from documented examples, that intervention sometimes descends to choice or the availability of colours, then who knows to what degree any given aspect of any given work of art (that excites us, moves us, stimulates us, surprises us) is the outcome of a kind of collective agency? And this is not what the values of the artworld (art market) are based on… An ethical position on intervention is at the core of the issues here.

#18 Nigel on 05.14.11 at 7:51 am

There’s a cross-link here at Side-by-side.

#19 John Ioannou on 08.25.12 at 11:58 pm

Just found this blog by mistake. Independent auditor??? Neil Bell? Do your homework before you open your mouth.If you believe that, and all the rubbish that’s been said about me, you must believe in father Christmas . It was a total set up, and I stupidly fell for it! I’m off to bed, but I’ll be back soon. No shortage of misinformed gullible idiots in this country.

#20 Australian Indigenous Art on 11.13.13 at 4:49 pm

Very good post. I have seen first hand how Chris Simon looks after and cares for his artists.

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