Tommy Watson & the politics of the indigenous art market

January 1, 2010

Yannima Tommy Watson is said to have painted his first picture in 2001, in the community of Irrunytju, twelve kilometers south-west of the tri-border, where South Australia meets Western Australia and the Northern Territory. The white man’s borders don’t mean much to the inhabitants of this remote settlement, also known as Wingellina, but it is the spiritual heartland of a people who still remember the old nomadic lifestyle, and keep alive the stories and traditions to which they are heirs.

Watson was born in 1930, or perhaps 1932, but did not pick up a brush until he was almost seventy years old – following in the footsteps of artists such as Emily Kngwarreye, Rover Thomas and Paddy Bedford, who were all late starters. From the moment his picture, Walpa, was shown in the annual Desert Mob exhibition at the Araluen Art Centre, in 2002, he was identified as an exceptional painter, with a unique feel for colour.

In September last year Watson held a show at Agathon Galleries in Sydney titled Kutjara Wara – “The Last One”. This may not be the last ever exhibition of Watson’s work, but it is certainly the final occasion that he intends to travel to Sydney, Melbourne, or any other place. Watson has led an active life and is now feeling his age, being mostly confined to a wheelchair. He is coming to the end of a decade-long career in which his paintings attracted extraordinary acclaim and record prices. The show was a time for celebration, but many of the leading figures in the Aboriginal art establishment would never see the paintings, viewing Watson’s dealer, John Ioannou, as persona non grata.

This cold response to a farewell exhibition by a major Aboriginal artist was merely the most recent skirmish in a war of attrition between Ioannou and his peers in the industry. Since he opened Agathon Galleries in Sydney in 2004, Ioannou has been on a collision course with advocates of the government-funded art centres, which have long been the mainstay of the industry.

It is partly because he is an unfamiliar face in a field in which everybody seems to know everyone else’s business, but the major crime for which Ioannou has been vilified is that of allegedly poaching Tommy Watson from the art centre at Irrunytju by offering him exclusive representation with a return of sixty percent on all sales. This deal compares favourably with the usual practice of the art centres which send works to dealers on consignment. When the work is sold, the dealer keeps forty percent and remits sixty percent of the price back to the art centre, which will then decide how much goes to the artist and how much is retained.

With big concerns such as Papunya Tula, the revenue from sales is substantial, and constant decisions must be made about the amounts to be spent upgrading and maintaining facilities in the communities. There is also the problem of how much money should be handed over to an artist if there is a reasonable concern that he or she will simply give it away to grasping relatives. There is always the temptation to give a successful artist a smaller cut, perhaps no more than twenty-five percent of a purchase price.

Needless to say, the process is messy and inconsistent. There are dedicated and highly skilled art advisors, but many are completely out of their depth. Some artists will always be in demand while others find it hard to attract an audience. There have been instances when record keeping was virtually non-existent.

Ioannou says that when he first met Tommy Watson, the artist was living in a tent in a place called Warakurna, a hundred kilometers north of Irrunytju. Even though he was by then one of the most sought-after names in Aboriginal art, Watson was penniless and suffering from pneumonia. He had left Irrunytju following a dispute over money that he and his relatives felt was owed to him. To Ioannou this seemed to exemplify the problems of the art centre system. When he took on Watson, he did not simply enter into a financial arrangement. He advanced funds to the artist, set up bank accounts, helped him buy a house in Alice Springs, and found himself spending a large part of his time in the Northern Territory. He even learned to speak Pitjantjatjara so as to communicate directly with Watson and his peers. He contrasts this approach with the arm’s length attitudes of most dealers, who rarely travel to the communities.

Soon Ioannou was being inundated with calls from Aboriginal artists who wanted to show with him. As his stable of artists increased so too did the level of hostility directed against him from his competitors. Ioannou has been called a crook, a carpet-bagger, and accused of exploiting artists for personal profit. He has denied all these charges, saying on repeated occasions that his books are open to anyone who cares to inspect them.

Beyond the name-calling this was not merely a business dispute but a battle for the high moral ground. Experienced dealers such as Chris Hodges of Utopia have accused Ioannou of privileging individual artists at the expense of communities, putting private gains over the greater good.

As if in response to such charges in 2006 Ioannou signalled his commitment to the Irrunytju community by entering into a preferred client agreement, whereby he enjoyed exclusive rights to the works made by community artists in return for a greater level of remuneration. Ioannou also began to fund a range of new facilities, including air conditioners, separate rooms for men and women, and health care. He has even been initiated into the Ngaanyatjarra and Pitjantatjara tribes in a special ceremony.

Nicholas Rothwell, writing in The Australian, gave a dramatic description of the significance of this venture: “At a stroke, the carefully maintained dividing lines between different categories in the Aboriginal art bazaar have been drastically eroded: the distinction between privately commissioned paintings and art from co-operative, indigenous-run workshops is blurring, while simple questions about the propriety of desert art sales are becoming harder to pose. Who is now a private dealer, who a carpetbagger and who a broker of community interests? This latest coup is part of a broader instability in the desert art world, as old certainties vanish, making the chances of effective market regulation more remote with each day.”

To his detractors, Ioannou’s agreement with Irrunytju amounted to nothing less than the privatisation of an art centre, with the same associations that process has generated in the business world. Since the era of Margaret Thatcher nothing that a government owns has been exempt from being sold off to the highest bidder – not only public utilities, but banks, prisons, airports, and all forms of transport. The practice of removing expensive, under-performing assets from public hands and selling them to private operators who may run them more efficiently, has generated vast corporate profits and much heartache for those individuals whose jobs are restructured; and for consumers, who find themselves saddled with higher prices, new fees and charges.

Ioannou has argued in vain that he does not control the art centre, which is still community owned and operated. In his management role he has substantially increased the level of community services. Yet he is still being stigmatised as an exploiter and a profiteer by those who contend that only the art centre system guarantees the correct ethical values.

The dispute reached new levels of acrimony in 2008 when seven art centres withdrew 14 works from the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards in protest at the inclusion of Iaonnou’s artists. The following year, the reverse occurred, with all of Ioannou’s artists, including Tommy Watson and the highly rated Helen McCarthy, being excluded. When Ioannou protested, he was met with a deadpan statement from the Northern Territory government’s art department saying the selection had been made with “the utmost integrity and scrutiny.”

Last year Ioannou wrote a letter to Sotheby’s, complaining that their Head of Aboriginal Art, Tim Klingender, had refused to list works by Watson or other Irrunytju artists. There could be no question of their marketability, as Tommy Watson holds the auction record for a work by a living Aboriginal artist. Klingender’s reasons were “ethical”, and framed in support of the art centre system. Ioannou argued, for the umpteenth time, that he was doing nothing unethical and that the true victims of Sotheby’s blackban were the artists.

Ioannou has protested, time and again, that he is the victim of a rumour campaign for which there is “not one shred of evidence.” His background makes him especially vulnerable to rumours and insinuations. He is a former drug user, with two counts of assault filed by his ex-wife. After serving two and a half months on the last count, he was freed on appeal by a judge who said that he should never have been imprisoned in the first place. When challenged on his background by Quentin McDermott on Four Corners, he said that it “has nothing to do with integrity and honesty and who I am as a person, and the people who know me will vouch for that.”

To his detractors Ioannou will always be tainted by his criminal record. The media have also had their sport, the Sydney Morning Herald calling him “the Mr. Big of indigenous art”. When the Sun-Herald asked what he was going to do about his rivals, Ioannou replied: “I’m going to wipe them out. Just put that in a nice way.” This reappeared in a SMH headline: “Controversial art dealer vows to wipe his rivals out.” Some of those rivals – who had never met Ioannou or set foot in his gallery – chose to interpret this as a threat rather than a joke.

Along with Sothebys, Ioannou claims that he is also being boycotted by institutions such as the Australia Council, the Art Gallery of NSW and the National Gallery of Australia – all on the basis that he is undermining the art centre system. He is not, however, universally reviled. One leading dealer, Adrian Newstead, feels that Ioannou has been unfairly treated. Unlike most of his peers, Newstead is willing to accept that the art centres may be part of a transitional stage in the Aboriginal art industry. New models will eventually arise, and Ioannou may be a pioneer in this regard.

Towards the end of last year Ioannou posted an announcement on his website that suggests he is going to combat his enemies with actions rather than words. He is planning a state-of-the-art Aboriginal art Centre in Alice Springs, which he hails as “a major step in reducing the exploitation of Aboriginal artists which has been so much part of the arts industry in Alice Springs.”

The new centre will be situated on ten acres close to the airport, and will be jointly owned by Agathon Galleries, and Tommy Watson and his family. Ioannou promises new models of financial transparency, a Board made up of prominent indigenous leaders, and even a dialysis machine. The stated aim of this “revolutionary” initiative is to provide a safe haven for Aboriginal artists who have been accustomed to painting pictures for independent operators – the so-called ‘carpet-baggers’ – in return for small amounts of cash or second hand cars.

Ioannou concludes with a challenge to his critics: “I would like to know why no one up until now has put their hands in their pocket to make positive changes. All I have witnessed is idle lip service and no action.”

The centre is obviously intended to be seen as Tommy Watson’s legacy to his country and his people. If it succeeds in providing a base camp for Aboriginal artists in Alice Springs, it will go a long way towards cleaning up a highly unregulated industry – something that generations of government-funded initiatives have failed to address. It also has the capacity to embarrass the defenders of the art centres, who have never dealt with the ongoing problem of community artists going into Alice Springs where they exchange works for a quick dollar. The Centre may be Tommy Watson’s real Kutjara Wara, and prove considerably harder to ignore than last year’s show in Sydney.

Published for Australian Art Monthly, January, 2010

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