This literature review surveys writing about the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art and craft sector of remote Australia. The review has been compiled as a foundational text for the ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Economies’ research project being undertaken by the CRC for Remote Economic Participation (CRC-REP). The Art Economies Project (AEP) is a unique opportunity to investigate, analyse and enhance key points of exchange within the sector, many of which are poorly understood, under-researched and characterised by different kinds of fragility or instability.
The sector is a significant contributor to the cultural and social life of Australia and simultaneously creates important enterprise and employment opportunities for remote-area Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Broadly, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are more likely to be employed in visual arts and crafts occupations as their main job (52%) than non-Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (9.7%) (ABS 2006), and investments in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts centres generate positive financial returns to artists, calculated at a ratio of approximately 1:5 (Commonwealth of Australia 2007a).
This review is linked to the primary zones in which AEP research will take place, presenting the current understanding and gaps in each of the six areas of interest: the scope and scale of the sector; the business of remote-area art centres; artists and art business outside of art centres; marketing and consumer dynamics; remote area human resources; and e-commerce and licensing.
Publications describing the aesthetic, social, cultural and economic dynamics of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art economy have been generated by a broad range of people, from economists to anthropologists, art historians to art dealers. This diversity creates challenges in assembling an encompassing literature review. Despite the range of material, however, it is also clear that there are sizeable and important gaps in knowledge about the art economy. These gaps range from understanding the size of, and financial flows within, the sector through to the barriers for remote enterprise and the opportunities for (and obstacles within) new marketing and business models. In contrast to the knowledge gaps about the commercial forces at work is a considerable body of research into the social and cultural worlds of remote area art and artists.
Recent years have seen a major contraction in the art economy. The Office of the Registrar of Indigenous Corporation reports a 52.1% reduction in sales in remote art centres (Commonwealth of Australia 2012:2) since 2007, which accords with other anecdotal industry information as to the fragility within the sector. Understanding this fragility and the potential for expanding the success of the art economy, lie at the nucleus of the AEP’s research work.