So you want my arts job: Aboriginal Art Center Manager

For many of us working in the arts, we are deeply touched by First Nations narratives and creativity, and hungry to learn more. One career move that locates you at that grassroots level, is to head out on Country and become an Aboriginal Art Center Manager.

There are over 80 Aboriginal Art Centers across Australia, in a network that stretches from the humid tropical north of Arnhem Land, to the Red Center, to the home of dot painting – the distinct APY Lands, and to the diverse country of Western Australia.

What unifies them all is a vastness of space, but also a palpable feeling of connecting – at the source – with what we see hanging in the world’s major art museums. The walk away they offer is a sense of privilege, in the role of art manager. But there are also challenges with the reality of the job.

ArtsHub caught up with Bryce Harnett, manager of Keringke Arts, which is located in the community of Ltyentye Apurte (NT) about 80km from Alice Springs and is only accessible by secondary roads. It was established in 1987.

How to get started

Speaking about taking the job on, Harnett said ‘My philosophy was, I am not an artist; they do not need help with their art. They paint what they like; that is not my job. My job is to increase the visibility of the Art Center and try to get more money in their pockets.

It is about creating an art center that is going to be there in another 30 years. That I can do.

Bryce Harnett, Keringke Arts

Harnett went to Keringke (which means Kangaroo Tracks) straight after school as a volunteer on a reading program. He stayed for six months in that first visit. He has now returned seven times, and has grown particularly close to a family there. Then, the ladies at the art center asked him to take on the job as its manager.

‘Managers are a bit hit and miss. I said to them, I will give it a try, but if you hate me I will leave and I will let you know also if it’s not working for me, so we had this loose agreement and so far we have stuck, ‘Harnett said .

Harnett was in the unusual position where the job chose him, but he believes that most people have some link before they go out and take this job on. ‘Sometime in their life they have had a link, whether as a school kid going to a community, or just being interested in Aboriginal Studies. I do not think this is a cold calling. It is usually a thread through people’s lives that draws them out here. ‘

‘You would not be there unless you loved it,’ he added. ‘I do not have any skills that no one else has; it’s simple stuff. Mostly it is about wanting to help people who deserve some help. ‘

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Finding the awe in this job

While talking with ArtsHub, Harnett was sitting with Aunty June Smith, who has been working at Keringke Arts for over thirty years. ‘Every second picture of June’s is something new – something I have not seen before – and it’s just a testament to how creative she is, and how in touch with her own feelings and expression she is.

‘It shows how creative people in community are, and how they can express themselves in patterns, and color and designs. They have no formal training. It’s almost like a meditation sometimes – it’s very quiet in the center and the ladies might be fine dotting for hours and hours, ‘said Harnett.

The importance of community & connections

‘It’s really about simple things – just getting out there and getting known, and participating in any opportunities that come your way,’ said Harnett of promoting the center, as part of the job.

‘You turn up and say to the ladies “Hey I’m your new boss”, that can cause some friction,’ said Harnett. ‘I guess there is a bit of pressure, just do not stress. There’s plenty of people there to help.

‘It’s an industry where people are always ready to help you,’ he continued. ‘Even if you have not done it before. Other art center managers, especially at the beginning, are happy for you to call for help or advice. At the beginning for a lot of art center managers there is no handover – that is not unusual. I have had IVAIS sit on the phone with me as I go through the funding paperwork. ‘

The national peak network that connects around 80 Indigenous-owned Art Centers is IVAIS (Indigenous Visual Arts Industry Support program). There is also ANKA (Arnhem, Northern and Kimberley Artists Aboriginal Corporation) the peak support for Top End artists representing around 50 Aboriginal owned remote community Art Centers, and Desart a member-based organization based in Alice Springs.

‘Being an art center manager is great but if we did not get funding we could not exist. Without IVAIS nothing would happen. I have to thank the government for that ‘, said Harnett. He said that IVAIS has been trying to get all the arts centers on the similar level of funding.

‘Some have had to give up some funding; I know Keringke has, but I think that is fair and just. Other art centers need to survive as well, ‘he told ArtsHub.

Harnett also praised the work of Desart, a 30-strong member network that Keringke is part of, and the peak body for Central Australian Aboriginal Arts and Crafts Centers.

‘Desart are awesome, that is what I mean about so many people ready to help you. What they charge [for membership] you get back ten times that, ‘he said. ‘Philip Watkins [Desart CEO] is a force. I have had some great mentors, and he is right up there – without him, a lot of managers would not have the confidence at the beginning, because that is a testing time at the start.

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He said that Parrtjima was another organization that has supported Art Centers.

‘These organizations come in and say “how can we help? What can we do? And when you have an org like Parttjima – who are really professional and focus on one of your artists – it lifts up everybody and gives exposure to us as a tiny art center, and that is really hard to do.

‘That partnering with us really helps us in a lot of ways; it is really one sided in that – they are helping us, ‘he added.

Keringke Arts artist Aunty Jillary Lynch, while in residence at the Gallery of Central Australia, Uluru. Photo ArtsHub.

The role of selling

When Harnett started at Keringke, their participation at art fairs had dropped off.

‘Beyond the people who are adventurous enough to come out to community – and that is a hard ask – and a lot of people are not sure even if they are allowed to, and if they wanted to, how do they? and that is only the people active in trying to visit. So our audience is only those people, and anyone else we can reach through having relationship with galleries to present us. ‘

‘There is a lot of competition, so when someone says they want to have your stuff – and that is also a gamble for them – it’s a big deal that our artist get picked up and we are able to get attention for a small community.

‘For us as a small community – only 500 people – to get exposure at something like GoCA (the Gallery of Central Australia at Uluru), is massive. This money we make from selling to galleries like this, goes directly to community, ‘Harnett told ArtsHub.

He said that the artists have a network of people who are reliant on them to make money. ‘It’s a real web that you do not realize. When you buy something from community directly or a gallery like this, that supports art centers. It’s more direct than any government funding, and it really hits the spot, ‘Harnett said.

He added: ‘Art centers are really the only industry in community, and there needs to be a much greater focus on developing this by the government.’

‘We are a little arts center; we have eight artists who are employed on a wage, on top of their commission on sales. Keringke’s model I think is a fair model. A lot of art centers are 50/50% [commission] but we do 60/40 [favouring artists], and for artists royalties we do 70/30. It’s a business for all of us, ‘he added.

Managing the challenges

There is a consensus among colleagues that ‘every art center manager is crazy’. Harnett said that is because there are no shortages of challenges working remotely in community.

‘Community life is difficult; there is stuff happening in these ladies’ lives that is seriously hard. The communities are seriously disadvantaged places – you can not go to one and not have that interpretation. There is overcrowding, which leads to health issues and education issues – the knock on effects are massive. Largely the decisions are made by someone, somewhere, who has never spent any time in communities. ‘

He said that despite that, the women at Keringke manage to ‘have a laugh every day, and that teaches me a lot too. I want it to be fun too – I want the ladies to want to come to work. ‘

He said the greatest challenge is keeping an eye on the funding. ‘It is obviously very important to us; without our funding we would not exist. I have to pay for power and water and rent, from that [funding]… And things like freight, no one pays for the hours drive to Alice Spring to the post office. They will pay for the Australia Post receipt, but not the time and petrol. ‘

Advice for considering the job

Harnett’s big advice for anyone considering becoming an art center manager was to “be open”. ‘If you put out promo saying you are open 9-4, then be open 9-4. If you are remote, and people care and are gracious enough to come out there, then be there for them. ‘

He continued: ‘If someone buys something, send it; pack it nicely and send it. If someone writes a nice message, write back and say thank you very much. ‘

Clearly, it takes a particular person to really thrive in that environment. So, what if you get out there and find that the fit is not right? How do you leave respectfully?

Harnett concluded: ‘I guess the thing is, you are a bit of a crucial link as far as these artists go, and how they are supported. You are pretty important as far as them being able to make a living. So if you realize it is not right [for you]they will understand, but you have people relying on you so just give it your best and stay to at least give a handover to the next manager. ‘

Visit Keringke Arts.

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