NSW Strategy champions Aboriginal arts and cultural leaders

Arts NSW Strategy bolsters career opportunities and better aligns the profile of NSW Aboriginal arts and culture, and the outcomes
NSW Strategy champions Aboriginal arts and cultural leaders

Cassie Willis. Photo by Cade Buchanan at Better Read Than Dead, Newtown, featuring artwork by Sandy Brumby, Victory Downs, 2015.

Support for cultural industries is often focused on maintaining a bedrock of cultural and creative activity through annual or multi-year funding.

Support for individual artists and their projects is often realised through one off or project funding.

While these ways of funding the arts remain fundamental it is also important to look at other aspects of the arts industry ecology. This is particularly true for the Aboriginal arts and cultural sector in NSW.


The NSW Aboriginal Arts and Culture Strategy: Connection, Culture, Pathways (2015-2018) has rolled into its second stage of implementation with a clear focus on skills growth, establishing career pathways and developing markets. The Strategy includes a broad suite of mentorships and Aboriginal arts leadership opportunities with key arts organisations and cultural institutions.

Download NSW Aboriginal Arts and Culture Strategy: Connection, Culture, Pathways (2015-2018).

Sharni Jones, Senior Aboriginal Cultural Development Officer, Arts NSW, explained: ‘Aboriginal art and culture is diverse and expressed through a broad range of artistic platforms. It is not necessarily based in perceived history or politics, but personal insight and exploration of identity. This Strategy focuses on individual responses and developing knowledge around Aboriginal arts and culture.’

She continued: ‘When we are engaging Aboriginal art practice, we want it to be Aboriginal owned and Aboriginal led – we want that experience to be authentic, that means told by Aboriginal arts practitioners in their voices.’

The new Strategy is not just about funding artists for projects; it takes a more holistic approach that builds visibility, networks and audiences.

With the core priority areas being market development, career pathways, and government and industry partnerships, this is a plan that has been written to sustain and grow demand, and to build employment capacity across a contemporary sector.

A conduit for change

Altering perceptions starts with altering the available pathways for artists, curating and the narration of stories that are Aboriginal practice - led and owned.

‘My role as an Aboriginal arts administrator is about advocacy and direct engagement with the Aboriginal arts and cultural sector, with the ability to act as a conduit between government, partner organisations and community,’ Jones told ArtsHub.

‘We’ve identified strategic opportunities to work with key arts organisations and cultural institutions, particularly in Western Sydney and Regional NSW to build capacity around mentorships, partnerships and market development across all stages of an artist’s career.’

The Mentorship Model

As the old adage goes, ‘you learn best on the job’.

Nurturing career pathways has been pivotal in rolling out this new future for the Aboriginal arts and cultural sector, building upon both skills and networks.

Aboriginal designer Cassie Willis is a good example of the program’s success, having been mentored by the award-winning firm Boccalatte to design the Strategy booklet.

She said of the experience: ‘I realised I didn’t just want to make pretty packaging or cool posters or book covers if they were only being used to maintain the status quo and value western culture over other cultures. I enjoy working on projects especially when they value and express Aboriginal art and culture.’

Willis added: ‘They encouraged me to get over myself and keep going. I think that’s the major lesson I took from it about showing up, being brave, trying hard even when it feels overwhelming.’

Jones said that the constant changes in technology have meant that Aboriginal artists are working in very different ways today, Practice is more immersive, and engaged in multi-disciplinary exchanges.

Designers Lucy Simpson and Nicole Monks have also benefited from mentorships under the Strategy. They worked with Australian Design Centre (ADC) and select community and industry mentors throughout the year, each developing a new body of work for exhibition at ADC (29 September – 23 November).

Monks has designed a furniture collection Marlu (‘Kangaroo’), which is eclectic and across art forms, while Simpson has created a mixed media sensory installation: Dhuwi (meaning ‘spirit/soul/central life/essence’) developed with her family, industry mentors and emerging curator Emily McDaniel.

Funded by Arts NSW, the $20,000 Indigenous Design Mentorships addressed a lack of opportunities for designers.

Jones said: ‘Because we work in a strategic way for the sector, we looked at working with our partner ADC to broker opportunities for young designers.’

It is important that Arts NSW and its Aboriginal Arts and Cultural Strategy are engaged across all art forms, Jones noted, ‘so that we can continue to ensure that intellectual rigour and connectedness with other Aboriginal arts practitioners.’

She concluded: ‘Being a First Nations practitioner is what brings artists, performers, designers together – it is about telling our unique stories that empower us individually and collectively as Aboriginal people and communities. For me personally, it’s the strategic ability to champion the sector, so that it is embedded in all aspects of arts and cultural practice in NSW, nationally and globally.’

Career pathways supported under the NSW Strategy in 2015 include:

1. Career development opportunities for Aboriginal Producers, Curators, Programmers and Managers through direct employment placements within NSW arts organisations, key events and festivals, and Aboriginal-run arts organisations at all career levels: established, mid-career, emerging and entry-level.

2. To develop and mentor emerging Aboriginal playwrights, through Playwriting Australia and the NSW Writers’ Centre with workshops, mentoring and professional development.

3. In partnership with Sydney TAFE, facilitated and customised placements within leading cultural institutions, performing arts organisations and commercial galleries for Aboriginal students undertaking the new ‘Diploma of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Visual Arts Industry Work’.

4. Western Sydney Art Centres Blacktown and Bankstown Artsready Program, a tailored program for Aboriginal trainees to undertaking a certificate in arts business administration.

5. Talent identification camps through NAISDA (National Aboriginal Islander Skills Development Association), ATYP (Australian Theatre for Young People) and GIS (Gadigal Information Service).

6. Facilitate opportunities for Aboriginal visual artists and arts workers to develop professional works in response to the reclamation and maintenance of Aboriginal Languages.

For the full list of NSW Aboriginal Arts and Cultural Strategy funding recipients in 2015/16 (year two) please click here.

No image supplied

Gina Fairley

Thursday 6 October, 2016

About the author

Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years, including the regional gallery, biennale and commercial sectors. She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW.

Twitter: @ginafairley
Instagram: fairleygina