An overarching purpose of this study is to investigate and analyse the extent to which art and cultural production that has market potential can provide a viable pathway towards economic empowerment for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living in remote towns, settlements and outstations across the Kimberley region of Western Australia. This study is a part of a wider project – a National Survey of Remote Indigenous Artists. The objective of the National Survey is to produce a nationally representative database on how individual Indigenous artists in remote Australia establish, maintain and develop their professional art practice. The Kimberley region of northern Western Australia is the first region to be included in the database.
The results of this study provide the first comprehensive picture of the circumstances of Aboriginal artists in the Kimberley region. We argue that the visual artists, performing artists, composers, writers, filmmakers and multimedia artists in the region represent a rich resource of cultural capital of significance not just to the Kimberley but to the country and the world. The timeless cultural inheritance of these artists finds its expression in the works they produce. We have argued that the cultural value of this production is of fundamental significance, but also that its deployment for economic gain can in the right circumstances contribute to providing a sustainable basis for remote community development. Our survey data indicate the wide range of cultural activities in which these artists have engaged during the course of their lives, including the production of artistic goods and services and a range of arts- and culturerelated activities. The data emphasise the vital role played by this latter group of activities not only in supporting the continuing production of creative work but also as a source of income in their own right.
- We have pointed to the need to understand the working conditions under which individual Indigenous artists in the Kimberley produce their artworks or pursue their artistic activities, as a basis for considering appropriate support and development strategies. A striking result is the importance of being on country. After family transmission, being on country is the second most important pathway for acquiring knowledge.
- In particular the survey results illustrate the interconnectedness and the blurring of boundaries between work and life for the Kimberley artists. Cultural activities may be undertaken for purely cultural reasons, with no expectation that they will yield any money. In other cases these activities may be a source of income, either actual or potential; in such cases the value of the work produced or the service provided yields both cultural and economic value.
- Given the number of cultural practitioners in the region who have skills and experience in various cultural-economic activities, our data suggest that there is a significant underutilised resource of cultural capital in the Kimberley that has the potential for further production of cultural goods and services that will yield both cultural and financial sorts of value.
- The findings of this study provide some strategies for the formulation of regional arts and culture development for these artists in the Kimberley. The use of the plural “strategies” is significant, as no single measure, either cultural or otherwise, to build sustainability in remote communities. Rather, different needs can be identified in different locations depending on a range of factors.
- Production, distribution and marketing of cultural product in any context need to be supported at all stages in the supply chain by adequate infrastructure. Visual artists who are based in communities or regions where an art centre has been established are supported through the centres, which in most cases receive Government funding. The art centre model has been adapted and developed over the years but has remained resilient in response to a changing environment. This model is a great contributor to the arts and cultural sector and needs to continue to be supported.
- Performing artists do not have access to widely available facilities to assist in the development of their creative work, and must often rely on their own resources. Many of 46 the performing artists in the region also face problems with finding opportunities to present their work due to a lack of appropriate venues or events.
- There are examples in the region of community facilities with a capacity to foster musical work by creative individuals, including radio stations, such as those funded through the Broadcasting to Remote Aboriginal Communities Service. These are the sorts of infrastructure facilities that can make a difference, especially for young people who have the potential to develop their creative skills and perhaps embark on a creative career.
- The distribution and marketing components of the value chain need to be well established if work produced is to find an appropriate market. The demand for the output of artists may be local, for example a dance performance for visitors, sale of artworks or records through local outlets, or musical performances in local venues. Alternatively, markets may be found beyond the region, and even internationally.
- On a local level these activities are regularly provided by artists on a voluntary basis, for example in the form of: translation and interpretation for family or community members; cross-cultural consulting for a family business or local organisation; medicine and health services for self or family use; cultural tourism for friends and visitors to an art centre, and so on. At regional, national and international levels these activities have also been generating some economic opportunities for Aboriginal cultural practitioners who engage in them, for example via cultural archiving and museology services to museums and galleries, or cultural and language education for students outside the region. With the right support there could be significantly more economic opportunities that could be derived from these sorts of activities, contributing in turn to developing a stronger arts and cultural sector in the region.
- The role of cultural tourism as a potential revenue source to support art and cultural production in the Kimberley remains to be further explored. There are some limited initiatives in place managed by art centres, and some commercial operators offer arts, cultural or cultural/environmental tours. Our survey found a strong belief amongst artists concerning the potential for cultural tourism: 93 percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the proposition that tourists can bring jobs and incomes to their community. They also acknowledged unanimously that tourists should visit their communities in order to experience their culture at first hand.
Overall, the prospect for expanding the role of art and cultural production as a means for generating incomes and jobs in remote communities, especially for young people, appears to be viewed favourably by artists in the Kimberley region. The results of this work support moves to integrate the arts and culture more effectively into regional development strategies, as a source of both economic and cultural empowerment for Indigenous communities.