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Joint Standing Committee on Northern Australia
Opportunities and methods for stimulating the tourism industry in Northern Australia

CREES, Dr Mark, Director, Araluen Cultural Precinct


CHAIR: These hearings are formal proceedings of the parliament. The giving of false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as a contempt of the parliament. As I indicated, the proceedings are being recorded by Hansard and as such attract parliamentary privilege. What I would like to do now is offer you the opportunity of making a brief opening statement and then we can fire off with some questions.

Dr Crees : Thank you for the opportunity to give evidence today at this inquiry into the opportunities, methods and challenges to stimulate the tourism industry in northern Australia. In relation to the terms of reference, my evidence relates to cultural tourism in particular, the role of the Araluen Cultural Precinct, the challenges in relation to the disparity between the significance of the cultural tourism product and lack of marketing exposure, both national and internationally, the opportunity to provide investment into this space to address this disparity, and the challenge in relation to destination affordability due to air travel and the impediment to incoming visitor growth that this represents with its knock-on impact to the economic viability of remote towns such as Alice Springs.

The Northern Territory government's submission to this standing committee notes that ensuring northern Australia achieves its full potential is critical to the economic prosperity of the whole nation, but there are significant challenges for the Northern Territory, in particular, becoming the economic powerhouse and provider of unique, unforgettable tourism experiences that it can be an integral part of the national cultural tourism ecology. There are opportunities in maximising visitation, and firmly positioning the Northern Territory as the premier destination for Australian Indigenous art and culture, especially when considering the uptake in worldwide cultural tourists and the territory's unique tourism product in relation to cultural tourism.

The Araluen Cultural Precinct is one such unique tourist destination. A significant arts and cultural keeping place and tourist attraction for Alice Springs set on a nine-hectare parcel of government land, providing an integrated visitor experience encompassing the region's key cultural institutions and collections, including the Araluen Arts Centre, Galleries and Theatre, the Museum of Central Australia, the Strehlow Research Centre, the Central Aviation Museum and Central Craft. The nine-hectare precinct also encompasses several significant public works of art, seven registered Aboriginal sacred sites and trees of significance, a range of heritage properties and a cafe.

The Araluen Art Centre, in particular, is a premier asset of the Northern Territory government in relation to arts and culture in Central Australia, welcoming 35,000 visitors per annum through the galleries, an additional 30,000 through the theatre program, an additional 10,000 through major events such as the Beanie Festival and the nationally significant Desert Mob. Araluen is the focal point to the visual and performing arts scene in Alice Springs, with four visual art galleries, a 500-seat proscenium arch theatre, a multipurpose hall—Witchetty's Artspace, and the Circus Lawns outdoor performance space.

The annual theatre program includes performances by national touring companies and many high-quality local productions, while the galleries feature a program of exhibitions with a focus on Aboriginal art from Central Australia and contemporary art by local artists, as well as artists from across Australia through national touring exhibitions and from cultural institutions, such as the National Gallery of Australia.

The Araluen Art Collection showcases the beginning and continuing development of the contemporary Aboriginal art movement, particularly of the central and western desert region, as well as significant local contemporary artists. It includes original artworks by renowned water colourist Albert Namatjira, and his artistic response to the Central Australian landscape, and key works of desert art from the Northern Territory, South Australia and Western Australia acquired through Desert Mob since 1991.

The annual program includes a signature Central Australian event, Desert Mob, an Araluen Art Centre initiative now in its 26th year which, with our partner for the past 12 years, Desart, presents an annual suite of events that brings around 5,000 people on site for the opening weekend, drawing together up to 300 new significant artworks, representing the continuing evolution of contemporary Aboriginal desert art and hundreds of artists from up to 35 remote Aboriginal art centres to present their work as part of the Desert Mob exhibition, share their stories as part of the Desert Mob symposium, and engage in trade as part of the Desert Mob marketplace, which last year had $400,000 worth of sales in four hours, all of which went directly back to those remote communities.

Although we have these extraordinary experiences and cultural infrastructure, we come up against unique challenges, of which I will mention two. The first one, marketing exposure on the national or international level, is extremely difficult as we are unable to compete with the sheer size and sophistication of marketing budgets of other jurisdictions. Our branch, Tourism NT, does a phenomenal job of getting the word out of the territory throughout this country and internationally, but the amount that is required and the amount that other jurisdictions have far outweighs this. Though the Northern Territory has the highest reliance on tourism of any other jurisdiction apart perhaps from Tasmania, our ability to attract visitors is compromised by the economics of available resources. An opportunity, therefore, exists for the Australian government, when formulating national or international marketing campaigns, to give consideration to investment in the exposure of the Northern Territory arts and cultural institutions and events and the importance of attracting visitors from other jurisdictions, as well as dispersing tourists to regional Australia beyond the major gateways of the eastern seaboard.

A dedicated research and marketing strategy, focusing on identifying target markets and growing both domestic and international visitation to establish festivals and cultural precincts could help identify opportunities and attract visitors. Desert Mob would particularly benefit from such a strategy and investment in its marketing exposure.

Given that 77 per cent of interstate and international visitors enter by air, the importance of airfare affordability cannot be overstated, especially with Alice Springs bearing the highest per passenger costs in the country. The NT submission outlines several points for consideration on page 2. I note here, as a final note in relation to an opportunity to address the serious challenge in regards to Alice Springs, that the Australian government consider as a practical mechanism a way of stimulating the industry, a method of reducing airfares in order to make travel to Alice Springs affordable and thereby increase visitors to Central Australia, whether via subsidies until throughput increases to a level that would then allow the economics of travel to Alice Springs to work commercially or better strategic research into ways of reducing per passenger cost in partnership with domestic airlines, given the direct benefit to the industry and in turn the economy more throughput would effect. Thank you.

Ms O'TOOLE: Thank you very much for your presentation. I am interested to know, and wondering if you could share with the committee, how you work with the local Aboriginal people in terms of managing the precinct. I am very interested in how you do that with the Two Women Dreaming track as well.

Dr Crees : For some time the Araluen Cultural Precinct has had a local Arrernte reference group. That group does not function at the moment. We function instead in an ad hoc manner with many conversations that will take place with local Arrernte custodians. Specifically, Doris Stuart is the primary individual who we speak with quite often. For example, we have a lot of buffel grass on the sacred site the Big Sister Hill. That particular dreaming story is Big Sister Hill, a 300-year-old corkwood tree, and Little Sister Hill. The 300-year-old corkwood tree sits in the middle of the art galleries. The art galleries are actually built around it rather than across it. That is one of the sacred sites. The actual galleries themselves were built with reference to that particular tree. In times gone past, a lot of activity happened around the tree, different sorts of events. That particular custodial reference group expressed concern that there was too much activity happening and the tree was not in good health. So, that was all removed from there. No events happen in that space anymore, and the tree is absolutely blossoming.

In terms of Big Sister Hill, as we call it, we needed to remove buffel grass, because that became a WH&S hazard. It is very high temperature when it burns. It is encroaching onto different areas of the precinct. That area no-one goes into because it is a sacred site. We had Doris there onsite to look after that particular project and to ensure that everyone that went into that space in order to cut the buffel grass was appropriate in her consideration. She is often at our events of major importance. When we opened Yaye's Café both herself and her sister opened for us. In terms of the acknowledgement of Arrernte people, afterwards she then spoke of the importance of that particular story and she shared with all the people present what that story meant to her, calling it Yaye's Café, which of course is the name of that particular site just behind it, which was quite significant for her.

We have a very good relationship. It is relational rather than a transactional relationship. I have had several conversations, coffees and meals across various issues over the past two years since I have been in the role.

Ms O'TOOLE: How would you describe the benefits to the local people, including employment opportunities, for men, women and some of the youth as well?

Dr Crees : We have across the time that I have been in the role had a blanket special measures provision, which has meant that anytime any role goes up at all, whether it is in information offices or whether it is for our administration managers, whatever it would be, that it must run through that particular mechanism first. Off the back of that, two persons have been appointed in the past couple of years specifically that met that criteria. Our current administration assistant and also not the current horticulturalist but the horticulturalist before both identify as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander persons and, therefore, were awarded those roles through that particular mechanism.

Ms O'TOOLE: Thank you.

Senator McCARTHY: I just wanted to go to employment at the Araluen Cultural Precinct. I know you made some references there. Can we just drill down a little bit into figures? What is your overall staffing there?

Dr Crees : Overall staffing including all casuals would be something up around 75.

Senator McCARTHY: What percentage would be Indigenous?

Dr Crees : I believe we run at a percentage of about six per cent.

Senator McCARTHY: What positions do your Indigenous staff hold?

Dr Crees : Our admin assistant at the moment is one. We have a couple in the information officer space as well. They are the engagement officers that will greet people at the door or that are looking after the art galleries for us, for example.

Senator McCARTHY: So, the role that the information officers have is more the face to face?

Dr Crees : Yes.

Senator McCARTHY: Are they Arrernte speaking people or a combination of languages?

Dr Crees : A combination.

Senator McCARTHY: We just want to understand those staff. Are they long-term staff that you have there or are they people who have come and gone?

Dr Crees : The admin assistant is quite new, less than a year. There are a few information officers that are new to the role, but there a couple that have been there for quite some time.

Senator McCARTHY: How does that interaction work, having the staff interface on a daily basis?

Dr Crees : There is no real issue that we see in terms of that interaction. Is there something specific in that interaction that you are drawing?

Senator McCARTHY: One of the things that keeps coming back to us as a committee is the importance of visitors to Central Australia or to Australia generally having an interaction with Indigenous people. We are wanting to get to the deep understanding of, firstly, there is obviously a desire to have an Indigenous experience when visitors come but, secondly, we are hearing issues around the maintenance of Indigenous employment. We are trying to understand who is having success here, what that success is and how that is monitored. That is why I am asking the questions.

Dr Crees : I see.

Senator McCARTHY: Are you having success?

Dr Crees : We are, but we do not have a whole lot of employees at the frontline that would be offering cultural experiences. Ours is much more the standard art gallery model. People come in. They experience the art and various information officers will talk to them about the art that they are experiencing, but that is not specific. We are not specifically targeting anyone of a particular Arrernte background, for example, to do those kinds of roles. It is much broader than that. We do not have cultural experiences that run out of the art centre, for example, through the various sacred sites. There are sacred site tours that happen in Alice Springs, but they do not run out of Araluen.

I know that Aunty Doris Stuart, for example, has various cultural tours that she does, but they do not run out of Araluen. They come through Araluen. They often come through where we are and engage with the precinct in that respect. It is not a front facing sort of thing. If someone just came off a plane, for example, came to Araluen, experienced the art and the art galleries, they may not have an experience with an Aboriginal person from this particular region in that experience.

Senator McCARTHY: You gave an example there of Aunty Doris. What other examples do you have of those kinds of partnerships?

Dr Crees : Desart would be the biggest with Desert Mob each year. By far Desert Mob is our biggest event that engages across those lines. In 1991, it was envisaged but it was envisaged across three particular broad aims: to promote Aboriginal artists and centres from Central Australia to broad audiences; to stimulate the art market for Central Australian Aboriginal art; and, thirdly, to place artists and art centres in the spotlight. That is what happens each year with this. There is a lot of engagement. We engage with the art centres, up to 30 at a time. There are 45 art centre members of Desart and there is usually about 30-odd that would be part of Desert Mob each year.

Senator McCARTHY: Can you explain for the committee's purposes just what Desart is and how far the reach is when you talk about those organisations?

Dr Crees : Yes, certainly. So, those 45 art centres will run all the way into Western Australia. They run into South Australia, APY Lands, for example. It runs north, about halfway up the Stuart Highway. So, South Australia, Western Australia and Northern Territory is where they are comprised from. That is what we call Central Australia, I guess. We have the states and territories now on the map, but when we talk about it we talk about that entire region. It is quite a large geographical range of communities and art centres that feed into Desert Mob each year.

The important element of it is its agency. They choose what artworks go into the exhibition. The artists themselves choose. The art centres choose. We do not curate it. We curate it in the sense of when they come in we decide where it goes in the galleries, but it is really key that it is their agency and their decision what works of art turn up in Desert Mob each year.

Senator McCARTHY: Is that once a year?

Dr Crees : Yes.

Senator McCARTHY: And that is a significant event?

Dr Crees : Yes. It is 26 years now that that has been going. That is in the second week of September. It has always been around that time of year. But in the lead up to it, for example, we have, at the moment, a catalogue that is being put together. We have been highly engaged with various art centres to gain stories in language, which are then translated into English, of various artists and what the artists feel about the work that they are creating. Again, it is up to them the sorts of stories they want to tell. The catalogue this year will have several—around five at this stage—stories from Aboriginal artists from these very remote communities. They all come together for Desert Mob itself. We have hundreds of artists coming from all of those places for the opening for Desert Mob, and then we allow them through the art galleries before anyone else to see the work hanging. That is the first time they usually get to see it together.

Last year we had Marlene Rubuntja speak, who won the Vincent Lingiari award last year. One of the things she stated was how good it is, how strong they are, stronger together by being able to exhibit together. That is one of the things that we are able to do. But the economics, too, and the way of stimulating that art market has been really important. Araluen has had a part in that for all these years, to ensure that people come from all over the world, which they do, to Desert Mob, to the exhibition, to buy this work.

Last year we had three works go to the National Museum, for example. Artlink picked up another five. We had people from France and a couple from Hong Kong, China and a few different places coming to buy artwork to take back to museums there. We provide that access portal for the exhibition, but then in the back of our catalogue we have all the details of the art centres. They can go out to the art centres and start to create those direct relationships, which are really critical for those particular businesses and communities going forward.

Then with the marketplace it is purposely capped at $500 an artwork. So, around 1,000 artworks go in four hours. Last year it was $400,000 that was sold in that time. It was actually the first art market. Before Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair or Cairns or any of these others that are around, this is where it sort of began, here in Central Australia. Then it has blossomed and we have seen this burgeoning art industry that has happened since then.

Senator McCARTHY: Like most things have started here. Thank you.

Senator DODSON: Just on that positive note, what are the plans for further expansion?

Dr Crees : In terms of Desert Mob itself?

Senator DODSON: Yes. Have you got capacity within your precinct to do that?

Dr Crees : It will partly depend on what happens with the National Indigenous Art Gallery and the National Indigenous Art and Cultural Centre, and the tie-ins with that and how we work together with that particular institution once it is created. That is where part of that will happen. We would not expand in terms of the number, because the 45 is part of the genius of what Desert Mob is. It is not about drawing together various art centres from the whole country. It is very particular desert art, broadly speaking, that people come to because they get to see the evolution of that in the last year, an innovation in the last year you do not see anywhere else. It is here, one time a year, but now that is going everywhere else as well. There was recently, at Barangaroo, for example, black markets, spelled BLAK markets, sprung up just recently specifically drawing some of those art centres together.

APY Lands at the moment are being seen everywhere. The War Memorial has a piece that has just been commissioned, for example. There are lots of things going on. We are not trying to expand in any of that sense. We are focusing more on what we do best, which is around this desert art space in those particular art centres and getting people in to see it. What we would love to see is more people and more interaction/engagement with international museums of art to bring people into Central Australia for this point every year to experience this art in the place that it is born and the place to which it responds. That is one of our key points. You can see the artworks hanging on walls all over the world. When you come here, you get to see the range. You get to see the various spaces that the art responds to. You get to see country, place and the importance of land is integral to all of that. That is why it is so important that this area has that focal point for drawing people from all over the world to experience that art in the place and the land that it actually responds to.

Senator DODSON: Are you involved in these discussions with the National Indigenous Art Gallery?

Dr Crees : I am a member of the department that is involved in that taking place, yes. At the moment, there is a steering committee two Aboriginal people are running, which is Philip Watkins and Hetti Perkins. I provided a bit of a cultural snapshot of what happens in Alice Springs, specifically with Araluen, and the things that I have been mentioning today have been provided to them. They are in the mid stages of looking through a range of questions in terms of what that National Indigenous Art Gallery will be. Obviously, we will be part of that conversation going forward, but that is still a bit beyond now, because it is in the early stages.

Also, agency will be there. It is the steering committee that will offer up where they want to go with this. It is not a top-down model saying, 'You've got to do this.' It is, 'What do you want to do with this? Here is an amount of money that we are investing in this. Where do you see this going? What do you see this would do? What is the best model? What is the best practice?' A lot has been invested in that process at the moment, which is currently taking place, and we expect to be part of that conversation going forward at a more detailed level once a few more decisions are made in terms of where they feel they will be going.

Senator DODSON: Have you done a risk analysis of what may impact your current successes?

Dr Crees : No, no risk analysis. Nothing in that formal space. It is still quite informal at this stage.

Senator DODSON: Thank you.

Mr SNOWDON: The Beanie Festival?

Dr Crees : The Beanie Festival is another great success story. It started off with a couple of women who were out teaching literacy skills and various women watching what they were doing said, 'We would prefer to see those beanies. How can we make them?' Years later we now have 6½ thousand beanies that descended upon Alice Springs. This was only a month ago. Thousands of people flock to the precinct for that each time, again, around the 5,000 mark across that opening weekend. This year, again, they broke another record. They sold more beanies than they ever have before and have a lot of engagement with remote communities. There is a lot of engagement with remote communities. Again, it could almost only happen at Alice Springs that we have a beanie festival every year. But it is something that has a high uptake by the community and certainly something that we love as part of the precinct each year.

Mr SNOWDON: Is it now seen as an important event on the calendar?

Dr Crees : Yes, absolutely.

CHAIR: You have two other models here. You should have seen the pair of them last night in respective beanies. It was not a pretty sight.

Mr SNOWDON: As a resident of Alice Springs, and having seen the development of Araluen and the precinct over many years, what other opportunities do you see? I have a personal interest in Araluen because of family being involved, but it is not only Aboriginal people who are involved in Araluen. There is a broader cultural dimension to Araluen. Can you expand on what that broader cultural dimension looks like.

Dr Crees : Absolutely. It was created in the mid-eighties, 1984-85, but in the late seventies, because of the community here wanting a place for arts and culture. At that time, there was no art gallery that could house the various art awards that were being put through each year from the seventies, which includes Papunya boards from the seventies, the winners of some of those original art awards. Even though I have been talking a little bit more today about the Aboriginal cultural sort of space, we are very much both. We are very much artists that would not identify as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander but have incredibly significant careers here and elsewhere, both in visual art and performing art.

We are about to get back, after some time, a sprung dance floor, for example. Many years ago the Museum of Central Australia, Strehlow Research Centre, which is part of the Araluen Cultural Precinct, had a whole lot of dinosaur bones, needed somewhere to store them and so they have been stored on our sprung dance floor. As of next year, those bones will be taken into the CBD and a brand new megafauna museum will be established. We will be renovating that space in order to gain back that particular dance floor. That is really important for local dance groups, for example. We have been working with several groups in terms of development, especially, so that Central Australian performing art groups could have a development opportunity at Araluen that they could then take elsewhere through the country or wherever that might be. We have done a couple of these so far using new models, working with local people, so that there is no risk for them. That is often an issue. They cannot afford to rent the place, but also there is huge risk for them if they were to do it. We have been entering some new arrangements with some local dance practitioners and filmmakers. That is the other one that we have been working with of recent times. Basically, they come into the space. I will assess, as the director of the precinct, the particular work. Once they break even, in their favour a percentage will be given of box office by 70-30 or 60-40 depending on the work. That way they get to develop work that otherwise they would not get to. If they tried to hire the space it would be prohibitive, because it is quite expensive. We have Opera Australia coming through, the Australian Ballet, the Sydney Dance Company and all sorts of very large organisations that will come through. We do various things to ensure those local companies can get off the ground and can blossom and do the work that they do.

The precinct is built around that kind of model. There are many places around the precinct. We have just built a new artist studio, for example, at the back of the precinct. We have a local artist in that artist studio at the moment creating work, responding to particular artworks in the art collection. Out of that will come an exhibition next year. We are happy about the way that we are engaging with various local artists across various art forms at the moment. Those are just some of the initiatives that we have going.

CHAIR: Thank you very much. That is very comprehensive.

Ms O'TOOLE: Can I just ask one question?


Ms O'TOOLE: Why did you cap the price of the paintings?

Dr Crees : The decision to cap it was to ensure that, as people are coming from all over the place to pick up a bargain, they know the capped price. It is actually a marketing strategy in a sense, because anyone knows that it is going to be a work of art under $500. What happens is that people buy multiple works and sort of stock up. You will see people lined up for over an hour before we open, right around the precinct up to the main road. They are just waiting to get in there, because there is so much there. More communities than we have in the exhibition are usually involved there. Desart is the one that facilitates all of this to happen, and they all come in with the artwork. The $500 is a strategy to ensure that people out there know when they are coming that it really is a bargain, 'They're all under $500. Let's go.' That has been really successful.

It is a different model than DAAF, the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair, for example, or any of the others, but it's a model that works really well, because the exhibition has works up to $30,000. There was $800,000 worth last year, for example, and the top ones that were around the $30,000 all sold very quickly to institutions. If you want those kinds of works—there are 300 of them—that is in the exhibition. You can pick up a bargain, still remarkable works by the same artists, phenomenal works, and there is direct back to those arts centres. That is why we cap it at the $500 mark.

Ms O'TOOLE: Thank you.

CHAIR: Thank you very much indeed.