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How to invest in Aboriginal art ethically


Taking a holiday to the Northern Territory isn’t complete without buying an Aboriginal artwork to take home and hang on your wall. It’s a special reminder of your trip as well as a great way to support remote Aboriginal communities in the Outback.

Making sure you buy art ethically is not just about protecting your own investment, but showing respect for the world’s oldest living culture, ensuring the artists are paid fairly and securing a sustainable future for Australia’s vibrant indigenous art industry.

For many Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory art sales are a main source of income, and on a global scale contribute $100 million to the Australian economy.

Through the acquisition of artworks, buyers are injecting a much-needed cash flow into communities that live remotely and may not have the same opportunities as those living in big cities. Often art forms a bridge between indigenous communities and the wider society.

It’s important to know how to invest ethically, so you’re supporting the artists and the art centres that are helping build communities. Keeping all of that in mind, take note of these ‘4 Golden Rules’ when investing in indigenous art ethically:


1. Do your research

Many art enthusiasts buy art based on their own aesthetic and emotional responses to an artwork, but to truly connect to the work it’s best to do your research, understand the culture it comes from and be able to resonate with the story it reflects. Buying indigenous art the right way can have a huge effect on remote communities and personal values alike.

Warlukurlangu Artists Aboriginal Corporation has been operating for over 30 years, with Art Centre Manager Cecilia Alfonso at the helm for the last 17 years. Warlukurlangu is a non-profit organisation that is 100% Aboriginal-owned by artists from the remote desert communities of Yuendumu and Nyirripi in Central Australia. Alfonso says, ‘Our finances are completely transparent. In a good month, sales are around $400,000 of which the artists receive 50%. We pay the bulk of it up front to artists and once their work sells they receive the balance. The other 50% goes to the running of the art centre’.

Alfonso notes, ‘It’s important to know the provenance of the artwork and whether it’s from an ethical art source’. The provenance is verified by documentation that authenticates a particular art piece and should be supplied along with the work. These documents outline details such as the work's creator, history, and the piece’s appraisal value.

It’s a good idea to see which dealers are signatories to the Indigenous Art Code.


2. Ask questions

Asking informed questions about the art process is a great way to understand more about the artwork, its creator and its story. Across the Northern Territory there are distinct regional differences in style, for example, artists from the Tiwi Islands have a very different approach to those living in Central Australia.

Arts Manager Hannah Raisin from Jilamara Arts and Crafts Association in Milikapiti on Melville Island, north of Darwin, says, ‘the signature style for Tiwi artists is deeply embedded in the cultural and ceremonial practices of the islands, which often incorporate natural ochres’.

She echoes Alfonso’s comments about buying from art centres: ‘Buying directly from art centres registered through organisations such as ANKA, DesArts and the Indigenous Art Code is a great way to ensure artists are being renumerated appropriately and directly for their work’.

Raisin continues, ‘Cheap isn’t always better – black market can undermine the value of established and emerging art careers and takes money away from artists and communities that work hard to establish their reputations. Keep in mind also that commercial outlets will add an additional retail commission that can vary substantially. People should feel free to ask galleries and art centres what their retail commission is as a preliminary way of gauging how much money will end up in the pocket of the artist’.

Art centres have high ethical standards and a genuine sense of responsibility to indigenous artists and their communities. As a buyer you have the right to ask all sorts of questions about the artist, the work, and where your money goes to.


3. Beware of forgeries

If you are investing substantial dollars into buying work, one key thing to beware of is forgeries.

Raisin says, ‘There has been a lot of recent media coverage around fake art and my understanding is that it is coming from developing countries overseas. Buying through art centres and galleries who work with the artists is a great way to ensure you are buying the real deal. You should also always get a certificate of authenticity with your purchase. You can do a quick internet search of the artist or art centre – most art centres are registered not-for-profits or charities’.

If you can’t afford the artwork itself you can often still own a slice of it by buying related merchandise such as tea towels, crockery and rugs. If these are authentic the prints have all been legally licensed so the artist is properly compensated.

4. Support Community Art Centres

Buying direct from art centres adds certainty as they are legally constituted, non-profit cooperatives owned and run by the Aboriginal artists and their communities. For example, Jilamara is the creative cultural hub at Milikapiti and the centre supports a wide range of community members from school children to established artists and people with diverse support needs.

Alfonso also notes the integral support from private galleries as ‘vital commercial channels to selling original indigenous artworks. Private gallery relationships are very important as it’s another way of selling art when it’s just not possible for potential buyers to access an art centre’.

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