A critical look at current Aboriginal art production is sobering. The primary market appears healthy on the surface but is largely dependent on an overabundance of ubiquitous generic works supplied by independent dealers working out of Alice Springs. While many good exhibiting galleries vie for the finest works created in art centres, the centres themselves advertise widely in the art press in an attempt to bypass the primary market and generate added value. However, few great artists continue to make works of the highest quality and promising artists are emerging in successively decreasing numbers. Many regions, with dozens of artists, create little that sparks genuine interest. Only glimpses of new regional art styles and exciting new artists appear to those who search intelligently amongst the burgeoning dross.
Listed amongst Art Collector magazine’s 50 most collectable artists for 2010 are just seven Aboriginal artists, of which all but three, Bill Whiskey, Sally Gabori and Timothy Cook, are urban. Whiskey died in 2006 having painted for just four years. His high auction prices are believed by many to be unrepresentative of the true value of his work. The jury is out on Sally Gabori’s deconstructivist colour field works. Interest in highly colourcharged works may have had its genesis with Emily Kngwarreye, but it exploded following Judith Ryan’s exhibition Colour Power at the National Gallery of Victoria in 2004-2005. The exhibition legitimized the trend toward freer painterly expression and underpinned the emerging careers of a number of highly gestural artists through exposure alongside firmly established painters such as Eubena Nampitjin, Jimmy Pike, Ginger Riley and Maggie Watson. They included Bidyadanga’s Alma Webou and Weaver Jack, Mangkaja’s Paji Honeychild, and a number of western Pitjantjatjara painters including Wingu Tingima and Tommy Watson.
Interestingly Sally Gabori, arguably today’s “artist of the moment” was not included amongst those exhibited just five short years ago, an oversight that would be unthinkable today. Yet, in my opinion, the whole notion of “Aboriginality” founders when the cultural content of works becomes so obscure as to be insignificant. Surely serious art collectors are better advised to look to the work of superior contemporary abstract painters such as Ildiko Kovacs, Ann Thomson and Aida Tomescu rather than these superficial works that barely resonate with landscape. Works like Gabori’s have always fared poorly on the secondary market. The eight of 10 sold at auction to date have averaged only $4,800 each, making her, statistically at least, 281st on the list of the most successful Aboriginal artists at sale since 1990. The final artist to make the Art Collector list is Tiwi Timothy Cook, who with 11 of 18 works sold at auction for an average price of just $2,683 is clearly out of place in this company.
To my mind the most productive places to look for exciting new artists are definitely north Queensland, the Torres Strait Islands, and the Western Pitjantjatjara lands, where surprisingly fresh work continues to be uncovered. Just a sample of those who have emerged during the past 12 months includes Faith Thompson’s fresh semi-realistic landscapes from Ngukurr and senior female elder Bonnie Connolly at Maruku, whose detailed and painterly works are reminiscent of the earliest Balgo artists. Others that have come to my own notice are Geraldine Nowee, the latest to emerge from a dynastic family of painters living at Balgo Hills, whose works were recently featured at Gabrielle Pizzi Gallery in Melbourne; and Gunybi Ganambarr who seems to be following right behind the successful career path of Djambawa Marawili AM, and who injects a new vitality into Yolngu art through extremely innovative bark paintings and sculpture. Meanwhile several of the most exciting and talented young artists, wary of becoming victims of their entourage and the market, produce works slowly that rarely if ever enter the gallery domain. Art centres and agents protecting the interests of the likes of Daniel Walbidi and Christine Yukenbarri sell works direct to waiting lists up to 50 clients long.
The Global Financial Crisis hit European and US collectors far harder than those here in Australia. As a direct result local dealers in high-end secondary works have been expected to discount their prices heavily in order to secure sales from their international clients. Unprepared to do so, major overseas sales languish in a kind of Mexican standoff. “The prices are way beyond our budget” has become an increasingly typical response from those requesting images and prices of works by the likes of Paddy Bedford, Emily Kngwarreye and other highly collectable artists. The European market may be relatively small compared to that locally but no less than six Aboriginal art auctions have been held in Paris during the past two years and another is planned by French auction giant Tajan, for March 17th. While generally limited to between 50 and 80 works, with a total value of $500,000, these sales have resulted in respectable clearance rates of 50%-60% for works under €10,000 ($15,200). Tajan’s decision to offer 20 of 53 works above this ceiling is believed likely to result in an overall clearance rate by value of 30%, still an encouraging result in a developing market.
The fierce dealer rivalry that fueled accusations surrounding authorship, authenticity and fraud during the past decade has given rise to a soon to be introduced industry Code of Conduct. But many believe that this overly prescriptive, paperwork-generating behemoth is more likely to stir up controversy than still it. Nevertheless, its imminent introduction, along with the resale royalty scheme, (outlined in this issue in Art Business) will frame the new reality of the Aboriginal arts industry in the years ahead.
Both initiatives are fueled by the increasingly entrenched perception that even the most successful artists receive an inequitable share of the income from the burgeoning primary market. Meanwhile the secondary market has fallen to just 46% of its 2007 peak and, while several auction houses continue to hold specialist sales, many are operating at unprofitable levels.
In Australia the most newsworthy announcement at the beginning of the decade has been that under Sotheby’s new ownership, long-term specialist Tim Klingender would depart the company. Klingender has been rightly credited as the architect of their market dominance in Aboriginal art since the early 1990s. Others, however, will view his departure as timely.
Industry insiders will acknowledge the appointment of Klingender’s replacement, 36-year-old D’Lan Davidson, as inspired, if a little surprising. Largely unknown to the art collecting public, Davidson has been a vital conduit of high quality tribal art to Sotheby’s during the past decade. He is seen as an honest broker with excellent sources for good oceanic and Aboriginal pieces, having spent more than a decade attending auctions throughout the UK including small provincial sales that slipped under the radar of tribal art collectors. During the same period he developed relationships with many of the world’s most important tribal dealers, funneling pieces to Sotheby’s and other auction houses that were collected by oceanic and tribal art dealers in the UK, Europe and the USA.
Operating discretely from his home in suburban Brisbane, Davidson has scoured Australia uncovering some remarkable old private collections during recent years. These have included the magnificent collection of bicornual baskets from Muralambeen homestead near Ingham in central Northern Queensland which all sold for around $50,000 when offered through Sotheby’s; and one of the finest collections of early Papunya boards in the hands of the family that originally collected them in 1971. A sweet, small, possum tooth-engraved stick Davidson uncovered in the UK, became Lot 1 in Sotheby’s July 2007 sale. Estimated conservatively at $5,000-$7,000 it was sold to the Koori Trust for $25,000. Davidson has long coveted the opportunity to work more closely with Sotheby’s and has now relocated to Melbourne with his young family while Klingender remains the head of the department until the realization of the next Aboriginal art sale in July. He intends to act as a senior advisor until the end of 2010.
While the Goodman-Sotheby’s team have ensured that they will continue to dominate the market for high quality artifacts and museum pieces, for the foreseeable future at least, they will need to rely on other members of their team for assistance with contemporary Aboriginal artworks of which Davidson freely admits he currently knows little.
His amenable personality and lack of pretension will be welcome during the year to come as those marketing the entire spectrum of Aboriginal art, from collectables to tourist product, will need to engender conciliation and good will if the burgeoning gallery and retail sectors are to live up to the expectations of the hundreds of Aboriginal people hoping to earn income from the sale of their art.
The resale royalty and the Code of Conduct may well frame the new reality for operators working within the Aboriginal arts industry during the years ahead, however the general health of the market will rely far more heavily on the quality of the art that continues to be produced. The stance that Sotheby’s and other auction houses take on provenance once suppliers are code signatories will prove vital to the success of these new industry initiatives.
Regardless of the commercial pitfalls along the rocky road ahead, everyone who has the best interests of Aboriginal people at heart will be hoping that at this, the beginning of a new and exciting decade, the future of the Aboriginal arts industry will become increasingly harmonious, productive, and healthy as the decade unfolds.