Art shows paint a positive portrait
Art shows paint a positive portrait

The resources boom has done more than increase coffee prices, the number of flash 4WDs and Perth Airport taxi queues. It's also led to an outbreak of Aboriginal art exhibitions in the foyers of CBD towers, sponsored and promoted by mining and other resource companies.

At first flush, these events seem an easy way to tick the corporate social responsibility box and attain some feel-good PR. That may well be the case but the extent of the involvement is often more complex than that.

Resource giants BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto and Woodside Petroleum are among the companies where Aboriginal art is a key plank in their community development programs.

Another is Oakajee Port and Rail, chief sponsor and organiser of the Good He _art _ Mid-West Aboriginal Art Exhibition, which is now in its fifth year. To be opened by Governor Malcolm McCusker at the QV1 Building on Monday, Good Heart features 150 artworks from nearly 40 artists from Wiluna, Mullewa, Meekatharra, Mt Magnet, Cue, Morawa and other communities in OPR's catchment area for its planned deepwater port and rail network.

OPR chief executive John Langoulant said by the time the show closed next Friday, about $150,000 in art sales would be returned fully to artists and their communities, a total of $500,000 since 2008.

Observers might argue that OPR's $100,000 annual investment in Good Heart is a drop in the ocean compared to the millions spent by BHP, which has won national plaudits for its seven-year involvement with nine indigenous arts groups in the $4.5 million Yiwarra Kuju (One Road) Canning Stock Route Project.

"It's not bad for a company still in the study phases of that project," Mr Langoulant said.

Regional and remote community art workers agree with Mr Langoulant that most companies had learnt big lessons about community engagement since the days when mining executives would rustle up a group of artists to put on a couple of exhibitions that would peter out after a year or two.

OPR was being guided by the Mid-West Development Commission's Aboriginal art strategy, with marketing, scholarships and other initiatives aimed at long-term sustainability for regional art centres and other creative enterprises.

University of WA academic and _The West Australian's _art critic Darren Jorgensen said many companies had learnt that they had to develop better relationships than they had in the 1980s and the art dollar was one of the few income sources for remote indigenous communities.

"It is the Faustian pact, really," Dr Jorgensen said. "A lot of indigenous communities don't really have an alternative when people are going hungry or need healthcare and things like that. Aboriginal art has just about been the only viable industry coming out of those places."

Ron Bradfield, the regional and indigenous development manager for the State's peak artists' body Artsource, helps broker partnerships between artists and companies like BHP and Rio Tinto. He warned that foyer shows in isolation, with their enthusiastic buyers defying an otherwise depressed indigenous art market, could skew artists' expectations about pricing, their position within the wider national art scene and their long-term career prospects. The biggest challenge was to manage expectations and ensure long- term viability for artists and their communities after the mining companies moved on, as they eventually would do, Mr Bradfield said.

"We sit down with the companies and say, 'It's a great idea, have you thought about these things: longevity, continuity, good artist development and in partnership with the art centre that support them?' Some of the bigger companies are certainly getting better at doing this."

OPR based its model on Rio's annual Colours of Our Country exhibition at its Perth offices, which had started in 2006 as a one-off to mark the 40th anniversary of its iron ore business in the Pilbara. Rio iron ore boss Sam Walsh said the company's involvement in indigenous art enabled it to better understand the traditional owners of the lands on which it operated.

A BHP spokesperson said the Canning Stock Route Project, in partnership with the arts body FORM, was a prime example of arts capacity building, marketing, business skills development and supporting infrastructure in WA.

Included in the $1.5 million being invested by BHP this year is an exhibition at the Fremantle Arts Centre, We Don't Need a Map, by the Martumili Artists group in the East Pilbara.

The West Australian

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