2014 - Indigenous Art in Review: a glass half empty or, half full?
2014 may not have been the most brilliant year for Indigenous art but, as we reach the middle of the second decade of the 21st century, more people are collecting art now than ever before - and this is certainly so of Australian Aboriginal art.
The secondary market has been experiencing a substantial recovery since it bottomed out in 2011. According to John Fuphy’s Australian Art Sales Digest (the most invaluable guide to secondary art market statistics) Emily Kngwarreye recorded the two highest prices achieved for Aboriginal paintings at public auction in 2014 ($216,000 and $207,400) with Rover Thomas third at $144,000. Only 10 paintings sold for more than $60,000 including individual works by Lin Onus, Paddy Bedford, Maggie Watson, Tommy Watson, Albert Namatjira and an iron wood sculpture by Tiwi artist Big Albert Croker. Interestingly the highest price achieved by Menzies (the most successful Australian Auction company in 2014 with total sales exceeding $32 million), was for a work by Albert Namatjira for $61,364. But then Rod Menzies pulled out of the Aboriginal art market altogether in 2008 and has no immediate intention of returning.
Other Aboriginal artists to achieve record auction results for their works in 2014 besides Croker were Wandjuk Marika ($48,800), Gulumbu Yunupingu ($28,800), Dick Nguleingulei Murrumurru ($23,180), Tiger Moore and Wakartu Cory Surprise. The most traded individual artist by value was Albert Namatjira (with 32 works sold for $939,624) followed by Emily Kngwarreye (19 paintings for $831,491) and Paddy Bedford, Lin Onus, Rover Thomas, Bill Whiskey, Minnie Pwerle, David Yirawala, Tommy Watson and Freddie Timms in that order.
We may be far from the heady days when a single work by Clifford Possum or Emily Kngwarreye sold for more than $1 million, but the future appears promising. A good look at the graph below is worthwhile.
It clearly demonstrates that since 2011 when the secondary market bottomed out at $8,164 million it has risen inexorably back above $11-12 million i.e. roughly equivalent to its strength in 2003-4. If ‘hidden sales’ represented by the jump in secondary market dealerships and consultants, burgeoning internet sales, and the growth of sophisticated overseas dealerships are taken into account, the total secondary market may well be equivalent to 2005-2006 values.
The growing strength of the secondary market is matched by signs of revival in primary gallery sales and the spectacular success of a number of currently practicing artists. Urban artists Danie Mellor and Tony Albert, were the most triumphant during 2014 – Mellor’s QAGOMA exhibition and catalogue was a highlight along with his appearance at the Edinburgh Festival; and Albert won two of Australia’s most prestigious awards (the NATSIA at the NT Museum & Art Gallery, and the Basil Sellers Art Prize for a work with a sporting subject). The primary market has witnessed bullish interest in paintings by Tommy Watson and Kudditji Kngwarreye (whose works are more akin with those of Mark Rothko than were those of Rover Thomas).
Tony Albert’s NATSIAA win caused some controversy, given it was the second time in a row that an urban work had won Australia’s most prestigious indigenous art award. Once again it brought into question whether urban and remote art really sit all that logically together. That controversy was mild however, compared to the storm Nicholas Rothwell stirred up when the SA Museum staged its important Ngintaka (Perrente Lizard) Songline show. The exhibition comprised paintings, carvings, ceramic pieces, photographs and films illustrating stories told traditionally round the camp fire to children on the AYP Lands.
Ngintaka Songline Exhibition – Tjala Arts Collaborative (detail) by artists Paniny Mick, Tingila (Yaritji) Young, Tjungkara Ken.
Rothwell’s article prompted a spirited defense of the curatorium by ANU Senior Research Associate, Dr Diana James, and a furious response from a number of commentators. Bob Gosford on Crikey.com accused Rothwell of ‘extreme disrespect’ having referred to the traditional owners of the songline as ‘plausible-seeming desert leaders’. Who asked Gosford, had given Rothwell the right to ‘judge their traditional knowledge or status?’ As it turned out all of the senior men from Amata, who included Hector Burton, Willy Kaika Burton and Mick Wikilyirri had attended consultation meetings with the project partners from the outset of planning, and had never raised the issues or opposition Rothwell referred to in his page-one Australian story.
Rothwell appears to be addicted to making sensational and insupportable claims in the public arena. He saw the closure of Gabrielle Pizzi Gallery in Melbourne, for instance, as a sign of the demise of the high-end market for traditional indigenous art. ‘The heart of the famous movement is scarcely beating any more’ Rothwell claimed.
Oh really! While no one would deny the important role that the wealthy and well-connected Pizzi played in championing Aboriginal art, or withhold praise for her efforts in breaking into the European market, she passed away in 2004, 3 years before the peak in market interest. Since that time the gallery bearing her name has been owned by her daughter Samantha and run by her two long-term staff. Samantha's Italian family commitments, generational change, and the impact of high end sales through art fairs was the obvious reason behind the closure- to all, that is, bar Rothwell who went on to extoll the role that Graeme Marshall played in promoting similar work. But Marshall was just an Adelaide dealer who never organised a single exhibition for the artists he ‘represented’. Many galleries did their share of heavy lifting when it came to introducing well-healed clients to the art of the first Australians, but Rothwell chose to ignore their contributions. It was left to long-time industry observer Jeremy Eccles to praise the role played by others including Coo-ee in Sydney, Art Mob in Hobart, Short Street in Broome, Fireworks and Andrew Baker in Brisbane, Mbantua in Alice Springs and a number of others.
While it is true that 2014 has seen the continued closure of conventional bricks and mortar main street galleries, it is fair to ask how much fine Indigenous art has migrated onto the internet and into the art fair marketplace? The Cairns Indigenous Art Fair, the events in Darwin including the NATSIAAs, the Salon des Refuses and the Darwin Art Fair all have artworks on sale. Not to mention Desert Mob in Alice Springs, the Corroboree Festival art fair in Sydney, the Rio Tinto-sponsored annual event in Perth for WA artists. And then there is the Melbourne Art Fair, Sydney Contemporary and Tarnandi Festival in Adelaide (to be held this year), in addition to Art Paris, Masterpiece in London and a host of overseas dealers including Julie Harvey in the USA, all giving audiences the opportunity to buy works from art centres and independent artists.
The roll out and acceptance of the Indigenous Art Code was hampered throughout 2014 due to the the Chairman (Ron Merkel) and CEO (John Oster) pushing single-mindedly for the Federal Government to make the code mandatory for all dealers (but not art centres or artists). This ‘big stick’ approach came unstuck when they failed to find the necessary political support. Their resignation has paved the way for a more conciliatory approach under new Chair, businessman Richard England and CEO Gabrielle Sullivan (formerly at Newman, WA, with Martumuli arts). There's a widespread feeling that the Code's Board is too large and lacks objectivity due to an imbalance between artist, art centre and dealer representation. An independent review is being commissioned.
Nicolas Rothwell blamed the Code implicitly for the downturn in consumer sentiment. Other ‘excessive government interference’ in his firing line were Resale Royalties and rule changes in regard to collectables in Self Managed Superannuation Funds.
Two reports tabled in 2014 provided fascinating insights into the functioning of Aboriginal of art centres. The Art Economies Value Chain reports on art Centre finances, (Acker and Woodhead - Ninti One Limited, Alice Springs) provided data that indicates that if present trends continue there will be an increasing number of Art Centres that become insolvent, while others move more (under the influence of influential external agencies) toward providing social and employment services, with art production and sales as ancillary. The main income for more than 60% of Art Centres is from grants, rather than sales; the number of Art Centres in this category is now around three times more than it was in the early 2000s. Art Centres whose biggest expense is salaries, rather than artist payments (from sales), have doubled. Yet average revenue from art sales per art centre has halved.
2014 saw the passing of several important Australian art world figures. Amongst those with a love of Aboriginal art were Margaret Tuckson and Senta Taft-Hendry. Artists no longer amongst us include Shorty Janagala Robertson, Walangkura Napanangka, Gordon Bennett and Peter Taylor.
Margaret Tuckson and her husband, the contemporary painter Tony were amongst the first to visit northern communities with Stuart Scougall and Dorothy Bennett in the 1960s. The magnificent group of Pukumani poles at the entrance to the Art Gallery of NSW was part of this rich legacy. Margaret’s love for the people and art of Arnhem Land and the Tiwi Islands continued throughout her life.
Pukumani poles collected for the Art Gallery of NSW in the early 1960s.
Senta Taft first encountered indigenous art in Papua New Guinea, where she hitchhiked on cargo planes to visit highland and Sepik villages. Her interest in nature, art, and indigenous spirituality, also expanded and grew inexorably into a lifelong passion. She, and her long time friend and associate Leo Fleishmann ran Australia's oldest tribal art gallery, Galleries Primitiff (opened in 1959) showing Aboriginal art alongside artifacts from New Guinea, the Solomon's, Timor and many other small Pacific nations. The Paddington gallery closed immediately following her death on December 6th. ‘The nature of art’, Allan Myers explained to Jeremy Eccles for the Aboriginal Art Directory earlier this year, ‘is the expression of personal experience’. Margaret and Senta would both have certainly agreed with this sentiment.
Quote of the Month The largest part of ‘contemporary’ is ‘temporary’. Don Thompson, The $12 million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art and Auction Houses, Aurum Press, 2008
Knowing what to purchase, what to avoid, and how to add value to a painting, are fundamental skills in the armoury of any good collector.
Best wishes to all for a happy and successful 2015,
Adrian Newstead, President, Art Consulting Association of Australia