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Art centre builds on success

AN indigenous community 280 kilometres south-east of Halls Creek has developed an international following for its innovative artwork.

The Balgo Hills community began as a small Catholic mission station for nomadic people in the remote country south and south-east of Halls Creek.

The vivid colours and bold, graphic composition of the works have found an eager market, both within Australia and overseas.

However, Balgo Hills art co-ordinators Tim Acker and Erica Izett target only a limited number of quality indigenous galleries in Australia.

And there’s a move to cut the galleries out of the financial equation by encouraging people to buy works direct, Mr Acker says.

“Galleries have a role … but it’s proving smaller and smaller but it’s still at an elite level,” he says.

“So that’s why we always use them. Their job is to get the work into national and international collections.

“Most of the indigenous galleries are for the tourist market and it’s pulpy stuff, which is fine in that market area, but that’s not why we turn over so much money.

“We field an unlimited number of requests.

“We have no exclusivity (to galleries) … each market is quite different. Sydney is quite different to Melbourne and Perth is very peculiar.

“We were a bit naive at the time. We had the remains of a show (from Perth) come back with some pieces we could sell 10 times over to other people.”

The art centre at Balgo Hills was established in the 1980s – consider-ably later than many other indigenous art centres.

“The painting started out as mainly ceremonial stuff, church banners for Pentecost and initially the women weren’t allowed to paint,” Mr Acker says.

In 1986 the Art Gallery of Western Australia hosted the first major exhibition of works from Balgo – Art from the Great Sandy Desert.

The stunning success of the show prompted the development of the Balgo Hills Art Centre and the appointment of an art co-ordinator to help get the artists’ work in front of the right people.

The centre now employs two art co-ordinators, who are driven by the insatiable demand for the Balgo Hills works.

Artists including Eubena Nampitjin, Lucy Yukenbarri, Helicopter Tjungurrayi and Susie Bootja Booja have built a strong international profile.

“There’s growing education in the marketplace and marketing definitely helps,” Mr Acker says.

“We’ve had an article in Qantas (magazine) and a documentary on SBS, so that kind of exposure helps.

“We get a lot of people who come out in the dry season on an art centre tour – we’re just the best place they stop.”

He said the art centre had been well managed in its relatively short history and had avoided the corruption and dubious business practices that have dogged a number of indigenous art centres around Australia.

“It’s gone from someone living and working in a single demountable to a separate office and house and a custom-built building,” Mr Acker says.

But in essence, the consistent quality of the art has underpinned the success of the works in the local and international markets.

“There’s far more demand for good works than supply, but the market is far more discerning now,” Mr Acker says.

“It’s still a bit of a blind lumbering beast, but there’s a much higher level of understanding in the marketplace.

“And we see that in the visitors who turn up here.

“The work is quite distinctly different and that’s why the first show sold so well.

“And this difference has increased over the years. Now, if you walk around a gallery, the colour schemes, the hot colours, really stand out.”

Indigenart director Dr Diane Mossenson maintains commercial galleries still play an important role in the development of indigenous artists in Australia.

“I see an important role for galleries to play in the indigenous art scene,” Ms Mossenson says.

“It’s a venue to showcase work and it a means to take the artist to the market.

“I think, in a way, for Balgo Hills we did a lot of work in the beginning.

“We did the marketing and we did the showcase … and I guess with the passing of time they’ve changed their mind.

“If we all stopped where would they go. They’d have to manage their exhibitions themselves.”

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