The Productivity Commission has called for a crackdown on bogus Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts and crafts, including mandatory labelling and protections for Indigenous artists.
In a new report, the Commission says two in three Indigenous-style souvenirs are inauthentic, with no connection to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts and crafts are big business, generating sales of about $250 million in 2019-20, including $30-47 million in artwork sales through art centres and at least $83 million in sales of merchandise and consumer products (mostly souvenirs) bearing Indigenous art and designs.
But few artists are reaping the financial rewards of such commercial popularity.
The Commission says a small number of artists command high prices, but the average income for the 5800 to 7700 artists who sold art through an art centre in 2019-20 was just over $2700. For independent artists, the average income was about $6000.
It says inauthentic products accounted for well over half of spending on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander souvenirs in 2019-20 and remain a pervasive and longstanding problem.
“Inauthentic products can mislead consumers, deprive Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists of income and disrespect cultures,” Productivity Commissioner Romlie Mokak said.
“Mandatory labelling would steer consumers toward authentic products and put the compliance burden on those producing fake products, not Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists.
“On balance, we consider it is a more practical response than trying to ban inauthentic products.”
The Commission says some visual arts and crafts make use of Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property (ICIP), such as sacred symbols, without the authorisation of traditional custodians.
This undermines customary laws and limits the economic benefits flowing back to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, it says.
But the report found that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities face longstanding challenges in protecting their cultures from being misappropriated in visual arts and crafts.
“Communities have limited legal avenues to protect their sacred stories and symbols from being used without permission and out of context,” Commissioner Lisa Gropp said.
The Commission proposes a new law that strengthens protection for aspects of ICIP used in visual arts and crafts.
It would also formally recognise the interests of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in their cultural assets, promote respectful collaborations and allow for legal action where protected cultural assets are used in visual arts and crafts without the authorisation of traditional owners.
The report says that many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists engage successfully with art dealers, galleries and consumers – often through community-controlled art centres – but there are still instances of unscrupulous behaviour towards artists.
The Commission also recommends strengthening the supports available to artists through the Indigenous Art Code, and reviewing the adequacy and effectiveness of government funding, to ensure it aligns with community priorities and supports capacity for future growth.
It recommends an independent evaluation of Australian Government funding to the sector in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to inform future funding needs, objectives and strategic priorities.