Ethics in the Sale of Indigenous Art

For many decades now indigenous Australian artwork has adorned boardroom and salon partitions from double bay to New York City and from Berlin to London.

Notwithstanding the commitment of dedicated arts centres, curators and collectors who have been determined to forge better prices for frequently impoverished native founders, too many aboriginal artists remain disadvantaged by poor access to mainstream markets, website designers, insufficient rates for their work and unethical acquisition practices.

Input Bluethumb, a transparent online sales and promotional area for Australian visual artists, that has shown considerable early capability to link painters and artists from remote indigenous community exhibition display services to vast, untapped national and worldwide buyers’ markets.

Bluethumb is the production of Brothers Edward and George Hartley, a former accountant and a program designer for a web agency respectively, who were motivated by an early contact with artwork and their entrepreneurial dad.

Edward Hartley describes: we watched two industry-wide issues that were not being solved — where could people like us purchase artwork? Back in 2011 it seemed like you can buy anything online, except original artwork. And, how did emerging artists build a profession when less than 1 % ever watched gallery representation? And we wondered if a single online platform could address these issues by connecting art fans with Australia’s best emerging artists.

About 90 art centres operate in regional northern territory, South Australia, Western Australia and Queensland, representing some 13,000 native artists. As a result of modest sales and public financing, the centres have uncovered bold new abilities, brought modest earnings to communities and introduced more non-indigenous Australians into aboriginal and Torrs Strait Islander art.

But the centres will also be captive to the vagaries of distant community life: not least an inability to attract skilled artists and poor weather — especially in the rainy season — which isolates some communities for months leaving tourism impossible and makes it impossible to bring art supplies in and get paintings into prospective buyers quickly despite the impecible packing and crating services, the weather just makes it impossible.

Lots of the arts centres get little if any tourist traffic. So it’s very important that the centres are connected in different ways to prospective buyers that will neither personally go to the arts communities nor see the work of the artists in urban galleries.

Edward Hartley spent annually in Darwin. He travelled extensively throughout the top end and to the Kimberleys where he discovered something of indigenous art and culture which is, he believes, massively underappreciated. Today we’re building this incredibly strong network of collectors online, I believe we can build the world’s largest and most important group of native artwork, in one accessible location he said.

So far, eight community arts centres have determined to have their artists’ works showcased on the Bluethumb website. Most signed up following the business’s Freddy grant attended the 2016 revealed festival in Fremantle, an annual exhibition of top western Australian indigenous art.

Hartley states: the results were phenomenal. Despite not having yet assembled a dedicated platform [for indigenous art centres], they all made sales in the first fortnight, we’re determined to continue to enhance the technologies and on-ground service for art centres. It will have a substantial investment to build it up to where it ought to be, but I strongly believe in its own long-term price.

Bluethumb is launching a particular indigenous art center on its website. Now about 3 percent of the artwork on the Bluethumb site is indigenous (consistent with the first nation’s representation from the Australian market).

Several respected curators of indigenous art in the top end are independently praising the dedication of Bluethumb for promoting and assisting sell the job of remote artists.

One of them told the guardian: there is a huge possibility market here as well as the arts centres themselves may only do so much. They [Bluethumb] are rapidly building a good reputation for ethical and possibly lucrative bridge-building between remote aboriginal artists and the marketplace.

Bluethumb’s Freddy grant states: before we began this indigenous arts center project, the indigenous representation on Bluethumb was considerably lower. We are happy that it is now consistent with the Australian population statistics and will keep working hard for more and more indigenous artists on board.

Concerning linking distant artists with buyers, the business model is notable for its simplicity. Buyers choose and buy the art on line, the appropriate art center packages and dispatches the piece on the weekly mail plane and it’s delivered to the purchaser. Bluethumb takes sales commission in the pieces (smaller for arts centres than mainstream artists and galleries) and contains a seven-day return policy for unsatisfied buyers.

Mel Henderson, the interim art center manager of Papulankutja artists in Blackstone community (800km from Alice Springs in the Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara lands), states Bluethumb is creating significant new opportunities for the arts center.

Papulankutja artists have had continuous sales since signing on with Bluethumb in 2016 and are anticipating the launch of the indigenous art center pages on their site, Henderson says. Bluethumb is fast becoming a powerful advocate promoting not just the work of artists yet also the work distant arts centres do.