Selling Yarns


Follow us on Facebook

Raising the profile of Indigenous artists

Selling Yarns 1: Australian Indigenous textiles and good business in the 21st century

August 2006

Raising the profile of Indigenous artists by Lola Greeno was presented at the Selling Yarns conference in Darwin in 2006. Greeno's paper looked at the transitional stage from community to emerging artist, focusing on traditional Aboriginal women's craft and how it has made significant contributions to raising the profile of Tasmanian Aboriginal women.


Pricing your work with one foot on the arts ladder

This paper is an observation of my experience as a practising artist and arts worker, which enables me to understand the transitional stage from community to emerging artist recognised as a Tasmanian Aboriginal artist.

Emerging contemporary artists today need extra mentoring to access the art scene. Artists need to become multi-skilled just to follow the paper trail.

My training comes from a variety of experiences, including being trainee curator of Aboriginal Art at University of Tasmania Art Gallery; co-curatoring the Tasmanian section in Woven Forms exhibition ; participating in a group internship at National Gallery of Australia; co-managing Respecting Cultures-working with the Tasmanian Aboriginal Community and Aboriginal artists; a delegate of many of Indigenous committees; in recent years participating in several national exhibitions and conferences on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts; and currently the Program Officer for Aboriginal Arts at Arts Tasmania.

My perception of how Tasmanian Aboriginal artists' value their work in today's arts market is based on monitoring other peoples work but there are a number of process's that influences the sale of art and craft today. Do we follow the way in which the system functions or does one seek to identify the layers that can create barriers for an Indigenous artist's authentic, individual identity and learning quality standards?

Women's craft in Tasmania

In recent years, traditional Aboriginal women's crafts have made significant contributions to raising the profile of Tasmanian Aboriginal women.

The interest in Aboriginal women's contemporary craft has exposed practitioners on a state, national and international level, as increased interest in the Tasmanian Aboriginal traditional woven baskets and shell necklaces continued to gain recognition across the globe.

Genuine demand for new work places emphasis on new market value and historical context of these objects. However, attempting to price one's own work requires knowledge and understanding all the different layers that accumulate with years of experience and earned value that aims for quality standards at the highest level.

Tasmanian Aboriginal shell necklaces have created a great deal of interest towards public and private collections; but again, one would not make enough from sales to live off. Emerging contemporary Tasmanian Aboriginal shell necklace makers expect their work to be valued and priced the same as the highest as the Elder generation with between 20 to 40 years experience, so creating an across the board price standard. Emerging makers tend not to recognise the value of an experienced makers work.

Basic skills

There is an expectation that we all have basic knowledge of the art system and understand how it functions.

The arts system aims for quality standards. People with years of experience strive for higher quality results that develop great ideas into creating new work. These people are often very energetic, outgoing and involved in a number of projects at the same time. Many artists willing to work across the broader community receive ongoing invitations to become involved in local community projects and from this develop multi skills to reach higher level at a faster rate.

If we consider these factors, only a small number of Aboriginal artists producing work in Tasmania can cope with the process of the general arts paper trail. Starting out raises questions:

  1. Where and how do I start?
  2. Who will advise me on quality standards?
  3. Who do I approach?
  4. Is the business interested in what I am creating?
  5. How to get my work displayed to gain recognition?
  6. The right approach is just as important as the right place.

Culturally, Aboriginal people are linked to renowned family names, so often the first appearance is with a family or community group community.

Emerging artists initially gain recognition to the art world via group exhibitions. Many artists set up community group exhibitions for special events, NAIDOC week can be the initial introduction to the long process of gaining recognition within the broader arts world.

In general artists are not self-sufficient from the sale of their art. The average figures show artists earn less than the average income and most live below the poverty standard.


For artists to succeed in the arts industry today many are forced to develop basic knowledge and skills in administration just to survive within the arts industry.

In Tasmania the span of water between us and mainland creates an enormous cost to freighting artwork through a number of sub-contract companies. For example, there was an arrangement that I act as the collection point for a number of works to travel a renowned national institution in Sydney. When the carrier arrived, I helped to load the work as I was informed it would be packed and freighted by the company.

Well, the driver arrived in an open van with a dog in the back and tossed the artwork in with the dog. I could imagine the dog (a pit bull terrier) having a good munch on the baskets, plus the entire light weight cargo sliding from one side to the other in the back of this hollow van.

I immediately telephoned my colleague and said, "you better check your carrier because this is the situation." Luckily it all arrived safely.

Another example is one in which individual artists need assistance when invited to exhibit their artwork. The artist (especially an Elder) receives a kit with such items containing a request for a number of digital images at high resolution of recent artwork, be able to quote insurance cost and having the ability to understand the enclosed contract.

Pricing your craft

A number of new arts and craft makers in the Tasmanian Aboriginal community start out not knowing how to price their work. Few newcomers are keen to charge top prices based on other artists work who have had many years experience.

We have recently seen baskets in a national touring exhibition consisting of a range of prices. Large quality works with many different processes were priced low, some unique quality pieces were priced high, but others with less significant qualities or techniques were highly priced.

Art centre or not

Tasmanian Aboriginal artists not represented by Art Centres could be disadvantaged by a lack of human resources, working equipment, training and book-keeping skills. Many operate through family network or community agencies. Indigenous Artists not represented by an arts centre could be disadvantaged for a number of reasons including the lack of experienced mentors, coordinators to promote and show their work, support in financial and administrative areas and support to travel to exhibitions. They are also disadvantaged by not being able to work as a group that is clearly identified as being Indigenous. However there are advantages to not being part of an art centre. You have the freedom to operate as an individual business and the opportunity to gain support from state government grant programs. It also gives you the chance to design, promote and market your own studio.

A definition of the art system

The art system is made up of many layers that artists need to move through in order to gain recognition as an artist. However, there are exceptions where Elderly Indigenous artists are suddenly exposed to the big commercial art world with buyers purchasing new innovative Aboriginal artwork from national touring exhibition. Elder artists rely largely on family and local community organisations to interpret the paperwork. Ongoing requests for artwork can create great stress on their well being, cultural resources and transport. It also creates a communication barrier making it hard to cope with physical demands.

Knowing and understanding the arts industry

At the end of the day, the onus rests with the artist, whether you are an experienced creator or a new craft maker, it is your work, your name and your story you are selling and how you present that work is your responsibility.

Artwork considered to be of unacceptable quality or does not address the exhibition criteria is left with the silent treatment. Word spreads quickly within the arts industry of who is in and who is out of the arts system.

In general terms figures based on professional artist means you have studied art at University level and gained different skills through qualified training as an arts worker.

In my experience, I question whether artists are able to survive today just from responding to exhibition proposals unless you have had some professional background knowledge that provides an understanding of the arts world.

Artists need a major focus for the production of their artwork, however, they also need a second skill to back this up. For instance painting is your major skill, however you could work in the school with kids printing workshops as your support system.


We are often stereotyped with an expectation that we all create Aboriginal arts and craft and design as opposed to contemporary stories and forms.

What we create is Aboriginal artwork, it is authentic. Many commercial galleries selling Aboriginal arts successfully today request a signed certificate of authenticity from the artist. Dealing with such requests requires a basic level of understanding why you need to sign another piece of paper and what that piece of paper represents. If it is your original design, story, language or cultural property; it is authentic.

Many larger museums and commercial art galleries require artists to submit an artist statement or artistic profile that tells about themselves and what the work represents. People trained in arts studies have no problems responding to such a request as it is part of their gallery and professional development studies. Many visual artists tend not to be great writers.

A sale of artwork for community based Indigenous artists' means a great deal as many rely on their artistic skills to survive and support the family on a daily basis.

Finally women's craft in Tasmania has come to the fore on a global level via the internet. For many being asked to tell their story at times seems irrelevant but Aboriginal cultural knowledge and skills are part of the layered system valued by collectors.


Lola Greeno is a well respected Tasmanian Aboriginal shell worker, sculptor, installation artist and fibre artist who also works as a curator and is currently the Program Officer, Aboriginal Arts at Arts Tasmania.