Examining the Aboriginal Art Centre Model

Case studies, Craft, Handloom, Art

Examining the Aboriginal Art Centre Model: A Case Study

Wood, Sharmila

This is a brief case study of the structure of Aboriginal art centres in Australia. The purpose of this case study is to examine a model that could be applied to other craft centres, in India and elsewhere. It does not propose how the Art centre structure could be applied in different contexts; it instead, provides an overview of the governance, legal and organizational framework of an Aboriginal art centre. A key element of the Art Centre model is that Aboriginal artists having control over the key decision making, priorities, and strategic direction of the centre, and have a stake in administering their own affairs. Successful art centres have been best practice models of livelihoods and enterprise development that provide a co-operative structure, that effectively services it artist/members.


Aboriginal Art Centres are broadly defined as locally owned and managed Aboriginal Arts enterprises that support the production and marketing of diverse works of art and craft.1 They are commercially focused organizations, that reflect the values, and distinctiveness of Aboriginal cultures. Their aim is to provide access to independent incomes for Aboriginal people living in remote communities, and to share business experience. They are usually operated as non-profit co-operatives, with artists earning a percentage of each painting, or art object that is sold. The remaining amount is absorbed back into the art centre to pay for materials, staffing, and organizational costs. In remote Aboriginal communities, people have limited opportunities to access independent income, and achieve self employment, therefore, the art centre promotes economic opportunites through engagement with the market, in a way that enables artists to engage equitably with mainstream markets. They broker the gap between the marketplace and Aboriginal artists, who face obstacles related to geographic location, language, and cultural differences, in accessing the market. Art centres are mandated to provide employment opportunities for Aboriginal people.

Most Aboriginal art centres have been developed under the guidance of Aboriginal councils and management committees. These committees have employed arts advisors, usually from outside the community, with skills in art production or marketing to run the centres. The first Aboriginal art centre was established at Ernabella, in northern South Australia in 1948. It was originally set up to provide employment for Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara women by applying their wool spinning skills. The centre continues to operate. In the 1970’s, the artists took up batik work on silk, for which they have subsequently become famous. Most art centres are involved in the trading of paintings, but others, such as Maningrida Arts and Culture in Arnhem Land, in the North-East of Australia sell weavings, sculptures, prints, works on canvas, and bark paintings. There are now Aboriginal art centres throughout regional and remote Australia.


Most Aboriginal community-based organizations are incorporated under Australian government legislation, through the Commonwealth Aboriginal Councils and Associations Act, 1976. The Registrar covers such matters as approvals required for alterations, to rules, objects, memberships, and so forth. An annual submission of an up to date list of members, and Committee’s Report on compliance with the Act, its Regulations and the association’s rules, including an audited financial statement are required. The Registrar has the right to appoint an administrator, if various legislative and funding rules are not met, or financial and procedural accountability is not in compliance with the Act.

Organizational: The Governing Body
The Governing body of an art centre is a group of people given power and authority, to govern the art centre. The main beneficiaries for the services they are offering go to the board members, and the constituents, who are made up of members of the organization, in this case, the artists. As representatives of the art centre, they must be able to speak on behalf of all members, and protect their rights, interests, and well being. The governing body must be able to clearly and effectively, communicate the goals of its members to the organization’s management, and should reflect the mix of people and members of the community and the organization. They must be committed to their role as ethical leaders, and to their legal, moral, and cultural responsibilities to members.

In general, the governing body is elected through a process of nominations and voting, this extends to members of the board, financial members of the organization and general members. Some organizations conduct elections for the entire governing body, annually or bi-annually. The length of time served on a board also varies, and depends on organizational needs; it is ideally a mixture of new members, who can be mentored into leadership roles, and more senior governing body members, who offer expertise and skills. The structure and size of a board is diverse, and in some cases, there is a need for the board to represent different families, clans, language, or skin groups, regions, or other community controlled organizations, to give the board adequate representation, and legitimacy. Some boards also include a staff member or employee representative.

The governing body is responsible for making policy, and setting the strategic direction of the art centre. They must manage the centre’s finances and transparently acquit funding, whilst monitoring income/expenditure, look after assets, and liabilities, and ensure that financial policies and procedures are robust and transparent. The management’s role is to implement these policies effectively. Management and the governing body, operate as a collaborative leadership team, with different responsibilities, and distinct authority with a clear separation of powers. The governing body are active in the recruitment of staff, and key to the ongoing retention, and evaluation of staff, including participation in performance reviews.

Critical Factors for Good Governance
According to Professor Stephen Cornell, Co-Director of the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, governance is defined as, ‘how people organise themselves to get things done. The heart of governance is the rules a community or business puts in place to meet its overall objectives: how authority and responsibility are distributed, how disputes are resolved, what our obligations are to each other, and how we work together. Effective governance means having rules that are capable of achieving your objectives.’2 The following are a set of criteria that have been proven to support strong governance in Aboriginal art centres. They include:

  • Representative Governing Body. There is a balance between community representation (age, gender, background, and region) and the expertise/experience needed to govern effectively. There are mechanisms for youth participation in the organization’s governance and programs, with opportunities for external leadership development.
  • Financial Management. The art centre has their accounts audited annually and produces an Annual Report; there is a preparation of a clear budget each year, with regular financial reports to the governing body, and policies outlining financial procedures and delegations.
  • Accountability and Decision making. Staff and artist/members know what decisions have been made, and a record of decisions is kept with information circulated to everyone. There is a clear separation of strategic and operational decision making – decisions are made through a democratic process, so that consensus is developed. Appropriate performance indicators are implemented for each program, and there is the development of appropriate processes. The governing body meets regularly, fortnightly, monthly or quarterly, and holds an Annual AGM, where the organization’s financial information is submitted for scrutiny.
  • Strategic Planning. There are clear and well developed planning systems that flow from a broad long term strategic plan, through to more detailed business plans, into shorter term work plans. Frameworks and tools such as strategic direction documents, guides and plans are in place, which help the governing body make good decisions. There are good systems in place for managing succession of staff, and board members, and the active mentoring of new members.
  • Policies and Procedures. The governing body, staff and others are aware of the systems, policies and procedures that are in place to clarify roles and responsibilities. The relationship between the management or CEO and the governing body is clear, their roles are both distinct, and understood. Clear guidelines and frameworks are set with the confidence that staff will fulfil their responsibilities, and given independence to do so.
  • Leadership. The governing body has positive and confident leadership. There is a commitment to achieving the vision of the art centre. Management is offered ongoing professional training and development, and there is compulsory governance training for governing body members. Clear performance management systems are in place, to monitor and support staff, so they have the skills to action decisions and access training.

The Aboriginal Art Centre model
Aboriginal art centres provide the regulatory framework and regulatory guidelines for Aboriginal artists and communities, to realise their goals through various kinds of legal/incorporated bodies. There are strengths and weaknesses to the Aboriginal art centre model. This includes the following:


  • Aboriginal owned, and governed enterprises that have the potential to build genuine Aboriginal management and knowledge, with maximum emphasis on devolution of power to the artists and local community.
  • Provide artists and their communities opportunities for engagement with the market, and in some cases, the global art trade through a small business structure.
  • Contribute to remote area livelihoods, through opening up enterprise options in remote communities, in a way that balances economic development, governance principles and social well being.
  • Provide a hub for the community, a safe, comfortable space where artists can work with their families and friends, and people can gather.
  • Professional staff with marketing and business experience who ensure availability of high quality materials and pre-production, conservation and transport of artworks, as well as feedback and support on development of paintings and artwork.
  • Financial management and the transparency of finances, through auditing process, provides a structure of accountability by the board to the members they serve.
  • Empowerment of Aboriginal culture and Aboriginal artists.
  • Incorporates Aboriginal tradition and principles of social and political organization.
  • Provides training on issues such as sale, price, length of exhibition, payment, and protection of intellectual, community, moral and copy rights.
  • The governing board can create a solid and positive working environment, in which staff, feel empowered and community members feel engaged.
  • The art centre is mandated actively recruits and trains local staff, and people to be employed at the art centre.


  • Aboriginal communities are highly factionalized, and characterized by complex and cross cutting allegiances which people have to groupings based on families. The representative structure often represents particular families or sub groups, rather than a divers and broad section of the community.
  • Rights to representation on the board are based on belonging to a particular family or descent line, land ownership, seniority, knowledge, ritual authority, and so forth.
  • Operating in ambiguous and fraught zone between different cultural systems and political ones; Aboriginal one and the broader society.
  • Tension between bureaucratic view of fiscal accountability, efficiency, coordination and the effective representation of local needs, with equity, respresentativeness & responsiveness to community and artist needs.
  • Incorporating Aboriginal cultural norms and customs into the structure of executives, meeting procedures, decision making processes, reporting, and other accountability mechanisms is challenging.
  • High turnover of staff. Difficult to obtain, and retain staff with professional skills and business acumen, as the effective management of the art centres is dependent upon skilled and knowledgeable management.

Aboriginal art centres, as community controlled organizations, and or businesses provide a possible model of governance for other enterprises, which, operate to enrich, and empower local communities, by providing a structure in which they can control and manage their enterprise.


  • Felicity Wright, The Art and Craft Centre Story, 2000.
  • Professor Stephen Cornell, The Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development



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