First Published in Art Monthly, 1995

The claim by former Aboriginal Arts Board chair, Lin Onus, that Aboriginal artists accounted for half of all Australian artists prompted DAVID LANGSAM to undertake a month of number crunching - demonstrating that Aboriginal art challenges uranium sales in the league table of export revenue for Australia.

ABORIGINAL ART is internationally renown as both an ancient and contemporary art form, but what is generally unknown is the astonishingly disproportionate Aboriginal involvement in the arts industry and contribution to arts revenue.

The return to Australia's economy from Aboriginal visual art has grown rapidly since the 1980s and there is sufficient evidence to conclude that it has probably outstripped non-Aboriginal visual art - not just on a per capita basis but in absolute income generated and the number of working artists.

From a tiny 1.7 percent of the Australian population, Aborigines make-up at least 25 percent and probably around 50 percent of working visual artists as well as creating more than half the total value of Australian visual fine art and dominating the export market.

The estimated value begins at a minimum $30 million a year with a total value of all Aboriginal arts and crafts (not including imitations) is said to be at least $100 million a year.

The Australia Council assessment of visual fine art - including urban Aboriginal works, but not that from rural communities - at around $66 million. It is undisputed that Aboriginal people account for revenues in the same order of magnitude as the rest of the Australian population.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), documented exports of all fine art came to $22.4 million in 1994-95. The ABS says Australia has about 4,800 (plus or minus 23 percent) full-time and part-time painters and sculptors.

The 1994 Australia Council funded But What Do You Do For a Living report said the income generated from all creative sources (not including rural Aboriginal art) was estimated at $720 million, with the 7,500 urban (Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal) visual artists surveyed in the Council report contributing $129 million to the economy - $66 million from their principal artistic occupation and a further $63 million from "other arts work".

Putting the figures in perspective, the arts total is about the same size as the bauxite ($774million in 1992-93, ABS) or copper ($875million) industries and massively more important than uranium mining, valued at $193 million for 1993-'94.

Collecting accurate figures for the value of Aboriginal art is difficult. Much is produced in isolated communities and records are unreliable. But the following accounts describe the scale of the Aboriginal art industry.

Hubert Umlauf's Tribal Art gallery opened in Melbourne in 1976, before Aboriginal art was in vogue. There are now half a dozen art galleries dealing primarily with Aboriginal art at the top end of Melbourne not including the tourist and duty free shops, as there are in other Australian capital cities.

Umlauf said that of the 6,000 working Aboriginal artists (see below) "one thousand are full-time - permanently producing as artists."

He said only about 100 were top class like Clifford Possum Tjapaljarri, Emily Kame Kngwarreye and Lin Onus and they could be producing works worth $30,000 a month. But estimating 600 artists each producing one good painting a week, (600 x $1000 x 50 weeks) Umlauf said: "Thirty million dollars is a conservative estimate of fine art sales."

A co-manager of the Papunya Tula Artists, Janis Stanton agreed with Umlauf's assessment and nominated three Papunya artists - William Sandy, Michael Nelson Tjakamarra and Long John Phillipus Tjakamarra - among the best painters. In 1988 Papunya Tula took more than $1 million but the 1994-'95 income was around $600,000.

It is just one of 63 Aboriginal Art Centres and there are about 200 outlets listed in the 1995 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission Visual Arts and Crafts Resources Directory.

Hank Ebes says 80 percent of his Aboriginal Gallery of Dreamings' (Bourke Street, Melbourne) annual $1.5 million sales goes offshore. He expects sales to double over the next two years.

An Australia Council survey analyzed by Council research manager, Jane Spring, showed that foreign tourists bought $46 million of Aboriginal arts, crafts and souvenirs in 1993. That figure includes fine art and decorated boomerangs, but reinforces the scale of the industry. The survey did not include domestic sales, professional exporters or wholesalers.

The Aboriginal souvenir shop at Sydney airport is said to takes more than $1.5 million a year and a similar amount is said to be the income of one Arnhem Land community. The hardest assessment of Aboriginal visual fine art is Umlauf's estimate of $30 million, but more generous guesses begin at $100 million.

A group representing 1.7 percent of the general population is generating about the same value and possibly more than the official national total - two orders of magnitude beyond its natural representation.

With total Australian visual fine arts income valued from $22.4 million (ABS) to the Australia Council $129 million figure, the contribution of Aboriginal artists by proportion should be $380,000 to $2.2 million a year. Some individual Aboriginal artists generate art worth that amount in their own right.

The question of time spent by Aboriginal artists on their primary artistic activity was raised repeatedly along with comparisons with non-Aboriginal "Sunday" painters. It is a difficult question and might not be fair. For many Aboriginal artists, any income earned is more likely to be primary income, than for a Sunday artist, employed elsewhere in society.

Never-the-less Aboriginal people with restricted job opportunities are fruitfully expending their energy on producing commodities highly valued by Western society - and more valued by international visitors than the domestic market. Non-Aboriginal artists, more popular domestically, are virtually ignored internationally. The Sundays are ignored altogether.

The (ABS) says there are about 4,800 (23 percent error factor) full-time and part-time painters and sculptors and the Australia Council says that of its claimed 7,500 visual artists, "only 11 percent spend all their working time at their primary creative activity". The latter figure includes urban but not rural Aboriginal visual artists.

ATSIC-funded researcher, Ms Belinda Scott, counted 5,500 Aboriginal visual artists in the area from the Queensland border to the Kimberleys. She had to stop after 2 years of investigation, due to lack of funds.

Leading artist, and former Aboriginal Arts Board chair, Lin Onus, says the number of artists is compelling. He says "comparing Arthur Boyds to Gordon Bennetts", Aborigines make up more than half of Australia's fine artists.

That the number of artists and economy they generate is even in the same order of magnitude is so astonishing few can believe it. But a community representing 1.7 percent of the population is making an amazingly disproportionate contribution to fine arts.

A better analysis of that value would be welcome and to that end Belinda Scott's survey should be revived. Exports should be measured so that fine art value is known, separating Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal art, which in turn can only be done through a self-funding and aggressively-policed authenticating label - ensuring that most, if not all, Aboriginal artists are included - and a real assessment can begin.

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