Friday, July 19, 2024

The freedom of the press still furnishes that check upon government which no constitution has ever been able to provide – Chicago Tribune.

HomeVolume 29Gallery: Whistle stop or gate to The Centre's soul

Gallery: Whistle stop or gate to The Centre’s soul


Visitors are welcome to our gallery where you can purchase paintings and learn more about the history of Papunya and its artists.”

This message is on the Papunya Tjupi website and Yuendumu’s Warlukurlangu Artists have a similar one.

Meanwhile the plodding preparations continue for the bombastically named National Aboriginal Arts Gallery (NAAG) in Alice Springs. The independent art centres’ invitations would suggest that a diverse gallery, in several locations, may be a better way of celebrating Indigenous creativity.

The News asked Arts Minister Chansey Paech: Would a gallery divided into a variety of locations be considered? In that form it would benefit the creators of the art and their communities, keep tourists in the region far longer and offer them an experience much more profound than just ambling through a museum.

To take advantage of that would mean dumping the ghastly building planned on a bitterly contested site, and investing public money in the vast region where art is the only activity not fully dependent on welfare

The multiple gallery components could be spread throughout The Centre where the authenticity of the movement is at its peak and closest to its origins: The languages, the Dreamtime are more likely to be reaching back in time much further and in greater detail than anywhere else. The News put this to the Minister.

Mr Paech, an Aboriginal person born and bred in The Centre, did not share any thoughts he may have about this notion. He rejected out of hand any change on the gallery’s make-up: “It will be located at the selected site at the base of Anzac Hill. There is no consideration of multiple locations.”

It seems the government wants to have cranes poking into the sky in time for the election in August this year: “During the coming months the NAAG will achieve a 50% design milestone. The construction contract will be released; and a senior curator will be announced,” says Mr Paech.

The industry lobby Tourism Central Australia supports the NAAG project in its current form and location.

For anyone interested in looking at Aboriginal artworks the NAAG is likely to be well down the list.

Four of Australia’s galleries in capital cities have a total of 15,000 Indigenous artworks.

But what the big galleries do not have are the live artists, many of them now world famous. The Centre has them, as well as the country that inspires them – major assets.

We put this to Mr Paech but he provided no comment.

A snapshot of Papunya, 247 km west of Alice Springs: Population 514. Median total family weekly income $519 (compared to $2213 for Northern Territory). Unemployment 10.5% (5.6%). Labour force participation 30% (61.7%).

There are a dozen similar locations in The Centre where poverty is side by side with burgeoning art based on millennia of culture.

They get no mention in the online Arts Trail spin, “a $100m investment into building a unique and culturally significant [trail] the length and breadth of the Northern Territory [whose] centrepiece will be” – you guessed it – the NAAG in Alice Springs.

Mr Paech: “It is an investment in cultural assets across the Northern Territory towards positioning Alice Springs as the nation’s artistic heartland, and the NT as a world-class tourist and cultural destination.”

Warlugulong, 1976, Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, Tim Leura Tjapaltjarri, Art Gallery of NSW.

According to the government’s website the Art Trail’s other “key transformational projects” are the National Aboriginal Cultural Centre which “will be” a dynamic and living centre; the Alcoota Megafauna Exhibition (Art? Click it and you get “page not found”); as well as the Art Gallery at State Square in Darwin and a 10-Year Museums Master Plan for Darwin and Palmerston.

The Top End, as usual is doing very well. No comment available on that from Mr Paech.

Meanwhile the nation takes pride in its native brilliance: The Art Gallery of SA has 2000 items; the Art Gallery of NSW 2188; the National Gallery in Canberra 7500 and Brisbane’s QAGOMA 2940.

About 10% of them are on display at any given time.

The South Australian Museum has one of the largest collections of Aboriginal artefacts in the world. It holds up to 60,000 items which are stored in sheds which leak in heavy rain, according to the project’s government-commissioned 2019 strategic business case by Ernst & Young (E&Y).

In the new spectacular extension to the Art Gallery of NSW visitors find Aboriginal art in the first rooms you get to.

There is currently a major exhibition in the Australian National Gallery of works by Utopia artist Emily Kam Kngwarray, donated by Central Australian pastoralists Donald and Janet Holt. Ms Holt was an early manager of the Papunya art movement.

On the right-hand wall of the entry lobby to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney’s Quay, opposite the Opera House, is a giant mural (photo at top) by Alice Springs artist Vincent Namatjira, celebrating the memory of his grandfather.

NAAG won’t own many artworks because it will be a “non–collecting” institution: “It would not amass a permanent collection for display, but will instead draw from the collections of other galleries and museums (and private collections) to display temporary exhibitions which would be changed periodically.”

That would put Alice Springs on the same footing as metropolitan and regional centres on the circuit of travelling exhibitions: Not a bad thing, but a long shot from being a unique national institution. No comment on that either from Mr Paech.

The decentralised art movement has since the 1970s demonstrated its commercial viability, a network of independent organisations owned by Aborigines and usually managed by white employees.

Warlukurlangu, for example, has 800 artists on its books and sells world-wide. Some get government money but there are a handful of art centres that do not rely on public funding.

Current NAAG plans are for spending $150m (official) or $180m (more likely) for a facility attracting tourists to a single place for as little as an hour or two.

A decentralised gallery would lure them to a vast area for days if not weeks and offer not just a stroll through an exhibition but contact with people and their culture in land of exceptional beauty.

It wouldn’t take much: A handful of three-star wilderness lodges, a pub or two, privately owned, decent roads.

The seeds are there: Aborigines run the Standley Chasm park and kiosk. Bobby Abbott and partner Mary Tupou provide excellent facilities at Ormiston Gorge and have ambitious plans.

However, there will be difficulties. For example, there is a small visitors’ accommodation facility in a major community which – according to a local – is usually closed because no-one can be found to clean it.

The economic benefits of a decentralised gallery would go to regions and people who have subsisted on government handouts for generations. However, it is not certain they would take advantage of the opportunities.

Massive unemployment notwithstanding, the NT Government sees itself compelled to mandate Indigenous employment by companies awarded government contracts.

The Alice Springs News reported recently that we could not get a straight answer from the NT Government about requirements for Aborigines to work on publicly funded construction projects.

Independent MLA for Araluen, Robyn Lambley, responding to a request from the News, is now seeking an explanation of policies.

Under the current E&Y business model, all that’s needed to tick the Alice gallery off on your bucket list is an hour or two, comfortably fitting into the time slot the Ghan stops in The Alice on its way between Adelaide and Darwin.

There is big money slipping through Alice’s fingers. Example: Arnhem Land Adventure, 16 days, from $16,000 per person. The train can carry about 300 passengers.

Depending on the season, you can have an “afternoon experience” in The Alice, arriving in the Ghan on Mondays or Thursdays at 1.45pm and leaving at 6.15pm.

Or there is a “morning experience” arriving on Thursdays at 9.10am and you’re off again at 12.45pm.

An “outback experience” can be crammed into those time slots by visiting the Desert Park.

“The vast majority of guests complete the journey without an Alice Springs stay,” says a spokeswoman for the Ghan.

Emily Kam Ngwarray became, in the final decade of her life, perhaps the most celebrated and sought after Australian artist of her time.

A leading figure in eastern Anmatyerr ceremony, Ngwarray was also the artist in whose work many white Australians first felt the force of an Indigenous art that could be seen to negotiate a space both within the aesthetics of Western abstraction and the timeless precepts of Aboriginal cultural traditions.

Emily Kam Ngwarray, Untitled (Alhalker), 1992.

E&Y seems to be aware that plonking a gallery where a significant number of Arrenrte people don’t want it to be is not the only solution to the apparent need for a “national” gallery. 

“An options analysis would normally explore non-infrastructure options that might address the central problem or the ‘Case for Change’ that the project is seeking to address,” says E&Y in its report commissioned by the NT Government in 2019.

“For example, increasing home and community health care delivery might be considered as an alternative option to building a new hospital.

“However, the central tenant [SIC – that word should clearly be tenet] of the ‘Case for Change’ for this project is the need to address the absence of a national institution dedicated to the celebration of the art and culture of Australia’s first people.

“Addressing this absence is unlikely to be met by non-infrastructure policies and programs but requires a physical location.”

Many would say that a “central tenet” should really be to establish whether or not there is a “case for change”.

The central tenet that E&Y clearly was handed from the government was to find reasons for building a gallery in Alice Springs.

That leads to a fundamental question: The 80 page E&Y report – still current – hardly at all touches on the traditional, religious and political implications embraced by the multitude of Aboriginal nations. These matters are now front and centre in the debate.

For example, for millennia people walking through The Gap without permission paid for it with their lives.

Senior custodians want the gallery – if anywhere at all – to be south of The Gap.

Anzac Hill is a women’s sacred site.

The report, in its early pages, includes a map (pictured) of the dozens of Aboriginal nations across the continent. Who gets the say which images, stories, songs and secrets from elsewhere can be taken to Arrernte country and displayed in the gallery? And vice-versa?

Talking about someone else’s country can be a mortal offence. Who’s going to be doing the talking? 

Mr Paech did not respond to this question notwithstanding that it is fundamental to Aboriginal law.

Observers may be excused for suspecting that the “they’re all looking the same to me” syndrome is at work here.

Mr Paech did not agree to a request for an interview about issues not dealt with in the written replies supplied by a minder.

The Minister resorts to his government’s bland hype when dealing with the public: “The nation’s artistic heartland … architectural excellence … world-class facility … iconic monument representing empowerment and self-determination” and so on.

Is there an update to the E&Y report? No answer from the Minister.

News: Is there a profit and loss projection for NAAG (at right) and if so, please provide a copy.

Paech: “The commercialisation strategy and operating model will be finalised this year.”

As we previously reported here are some important things the report does not do. It says so itself: “Ernst & Young … has considered only the interests of the Northern Territory Department of Tourism, Sport and Culture.

In the year 2025, the third full year of operations, the Gallery could attract an additional 53,000 visitors a year (our Italics.)

“This would bring the total visitation with a Gallery to 502,000. The Gallery is projected to have approximately 206,000 attendees in 2025.

The report is not an independent analysis: During operation, the employment of 55 full time equivalent staff could potentially increase output by $13.7m to the local economy; create 14 additional indirect jobs; result in $7.2m contribution to the local economy’s Gross Regional Product.

And then it may not.


  1. The only applicable word used in this pro whitey dot crap industry bullshit post is the small word: Gross.

  2. As usual, follow the money and you’ll see what this mega gallery nonsense is all about.
    For a fraction of the price, the Mall could be renovated and converted into a whole street of galleries, each gallery featuring Aboriginal works from distinct parts of Central Australia.
    Direct payments to the artists. A hub of activity where artists can also come and work – as Yubu Napa have already well demonstrated.
    That is the model of a successful local gallery.

  3. Living in Alice Springs for an extended period of time can be character building. Or character defining. Not always in a positive sense. Peter Bassett must be a great ambassador for The Centre in his retirement Down South.

  4. Jon Rose: It seems to me that the Mall is well on the way to doing just that. With a few cafes as well, the gallery visitors need sustenance.
    But you are confusing apples and quandongs.
    If one can derive anything useful from the phantasmagorical bullshit coming from Chansey and the rest of the Government it is that the NAAG is intended to be a showcase for the cream of Aboriginal Art from the whole country.
    Not a collecting Gallery.
    Not a sale gallery.
    The Gallery would be to exhibit the high end art collected by the State, Commonwealth and perhaps private collectors.
    The art on offer in the local galleries is not that.
    It is good, authentic, and in the price range of the discerning tourist who wants something to hang on their wall.
    As I understand it, the high end stuff, Namatjira, Nelson, Possum, Emily quality goes directly to the capital cities, or even overseas.
    And yes, Yvonne, it should be at the Desert Peoples precinct, and a Central Australian style, not a monstrous bunker.


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