Page title


Executive summary


An overarching purpose of the present study is to investigate and analyse the extent to which art and cultural production that has market potential can provide a viable pathway towards economic empowerment for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living in remote towns, settlements and outstations across the Kimberley region of Western Australia. The present study is a part of a wider project – a National Survey of Remote Indigenous Artists. The objective of the National Survey is to produce a nationally representative database on how individual Indigenous artists in remote Australia establish, maintain and develop their professional art practice. The Kimberley region of northern Western Australia is the first region to be included in the database.


This study is motivated by two basic propositions:

  • Production of art and cultural services has the potential to make a substantial contribution to the economic sustainability of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in remote Australia.
  • To understand how to design policy strategies in this area, basic data are needed about individual art practice on the ground. We have this information for practising professional artists working in urban and regional Australia; the present project is the first opportunity to collect the same policy-relevant data for Indigenous artists working in remote and very remote areas.

The Kimberley survey

The survey was implemented in the Kimberley region in 2015-2016. Taking into account data from the 2011 Census and from the ABS’s National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey (NATSISS) of 2014-15, we calculate the minimum sample size needed for this study at n=93 at a confidence level of 95 percent and a margin of error of 10 percent. In fact in the survey a total sample size of 112 completed responses was achieved.

The survey investigated:

  • The range of cultural-economic activities that Kimberley artists undertake or have undertaken.
  • The pathways for acquiring the knowledge and skills (the cultural capital) to become an artist in remote areas of the Kimberley.
  • Respondents’ current economic engagement with arts and cultural production.
  • Aspects of professional creative art practice in the region.
  • The role of cultural production in sustainable community development.

For the purposes of this study, cultural-economic activities were classified into three groups, as follows:

  • Creative artistic cultural activities
    • Painting, printmaking, sculpting, carving, weaving, making textiles, ceramics, glass, jewellery, photography (visual artists making original visual art works in any medium or form)
    • Performing (actors, dancers, musicians and other performance artists)
    • Composing or choreographing (composers and choreographers)
    • Writing or storytelling (authors)
    • Making film, television, audio or multimedia work (filmmakers and multimedia artists)
  • Cultural maintenance activities
    • Participating in ceremonies
    • Caring for country
    • Interpreting, translating or cross-cultural consulting
    • Cultural archiving, record keeping
    • Serving on a cultural board, committee or council (cultural governance)
    • Teaching others in arts and culture (arts and cultural educators)
  • Applied cultural activities
    • Fishing, hunting, gathering or preparing bush food
    • Making Indigenous medicines or cosmetics or providing Indigenous health services
    • Arts management
    • Arts administration
    • Providing cultural tourism services.

Note that in tabulating the data from the survey in this Report we have combined the second and third of these categories into a single group (11 activities) under the heading “arts- and culture-related activities”.

Range of activities undertaken

Artists in the Kimberley have undertaken a wide range of cultural-economic activities during their lifetime. The visual arts is the most widespread creative artform in the region, with almost 90 percent of respondents having been involved in producing visual art at some point in their lives, and 70 percent currently earning income from this source. The performing arts are also important, with two-thirds of the Kimberley artists having performed music, dance or theatre and one-third currently being paid to do so.

Cultural maintenance activities, particularly caring for country, participating in ceremonies, and arts and cultural education, have featured prominently in the lives of artists. Other cultural activities such as fishing, hunting, making Indigenous medicines, and providing Indigenous health services are pursued by a majority of cultural practitioners in the Kimberley, but few earn income from these sources.

Pathways to knowledge and skill acquisition

In identifying the pathways by which artists have acquired their cultural capital, we make a distinction between cultural knowledge pathways and industry skills pathways. The survey results show clearly the critical role that family members, elders and other community members play in transmitting knowledge and inculcating creative skills.

Virtually every respondent nominated learning from family and other community members as one of the ways through which their cultural knowledge was acquired, with a majority identifying this as the most important pathway. Of particular interest is the importance of being on country as a source of cultural knowledge. After family transmission noted above, being on country is the second most important pathway for acquiring knowledge. In regard to skills acquisition, observing or participating with a family member, learning on the job, and learning from friends and other community members together comprise the “Big Three” as the most important pathways for acquiring skills in the arts industries in the region.

Formal education

Almost a quarter of artists in the Kimberley have had no schooling, a third completed between Year 10 and 12 or their equivalents, 27 percent completed a diploma or certificate, and only a handful earned bachelor or postgraduate degrees. Does an artist’s formal education lead to a higher income? Our results suggest that success in earning an income from creative artistic activity is likely to be determined more by the sorts of non-formal skill-acquisition pathways discussed earlier than by formal school and post-school education. On the other hand, being able to find employment of any sort in the labour market outside the arts is importantly dependent on possessing the necessary literacy and numeracy skills that formal education provides.

Current economic engagement with cultural production

In the creative arts, the largest proportion of artists in the Kimberley who are currently engaged in cultural production are producing visual art (almost 90 percent). Among the cultural maintenance activities, caring for country is the most widely practised. Importantly, our results show that there is a significant pool of unutilised skills in the region – these are those artists with experience in particular activities who are currently not engaged in these activities. This points to opportunities for the expansion of the arts and cultural sector in the region, as the cultural and human capital are already there.

How many of those currently engaged in the various activities are being paid for it? Within the creative arts, a majority of those working in the visual and performing arts are being paid, whereas more than half the authors are not being paid. In regard to cultural maintenance activities, a majority of the interpreting, translating or cultural governance work that Aboriginal artists in the Kimberley perform is volunteered, with fewer than half of these respondents being paid. Activities such as caring for country, fishing and gathering food, making medicines, and providing Indigenous health services are done mostly for the family, self-use and to provide wider community benefits, and are rarely paid.

For the majority of artists receiving income from one or more of the creative activities, this income is only incidental. Indeed creative activities provide the main income for only about 30 percent of artists and the remainder (about one-quarter of artists) receive it as extra income. A similar pattern is evident for arts- and culture-related activities, with about half of paid artists on average receiving only incidental income from these sources. Specific activities that supply the main income of a majority of artists engaged in them include those which offer the possibility of a full-time or part-time job, such as with a media company, an art centre or other organisation.

Turning to time allocations, we find that a majority of artists in the Kimberley spend between one full day per week and one full day per month on arts- and culture-related activities such as translation, cross-cultural consulting, caring for country, arts administration or cultural tourism. In terms of the creative artistic activities, the artists in the region choose a diversity of time allocation strategies, with about one-fifth working in the creative arts on a full-time basis, about one-third spending between one and three days per week, and almost a half spending between one full day per month to a few full days per year working in this area on average.

Specific aspects of creative arts practice

In the survey we asked respondents to identify the artistic occupation in which they are currently most engaged, in terms of time. We call this activity the artist’s principal artistic occupation (PAO). We then grouped respondents according to their PAO into visual artists and performers. For other PAOs, including authors, film-makers and multimedia artists, our sample sizes were too small to allow separate analysis.

Some of the results from the more detailed analysis of the data by PAO are discussed in the following paragraphs.

Population size: We estimate that there are between about 2.5 and 3.1 thousand creative artists in the Kimberley.
Length of experience: Just over half of respondents have been practising their art for more than 20 years; the data suggest that most artists have been practising their art for all or most of their adult lives.

Working space: For both visual and performing artists, working at home or at a family member’s home is common. The importance of community-based art centres in providing a place for visual artists to work is clear. About half of performing artists use a dedicated studio space. One-third of visual artists and almost a half of performers work on country from time to time.

Satisfaction with work time: About half of the visual artists in the survey indicated that they were happy to continue with the amount of work that they currently do; by contrast, the great majority of performers would like to be working more at their PAO, but cannot do so – an important obstacle for these artists is a lack of opportunities to perform.

Career management: Most artists in the Kimberley benefit from having their work managed by an art centre or similar non-commercial organisation, and regard this as having had a positive impact on their work; the small number managed on a commercial basis were less satisfied with their situation.

Capital cities and overseas exposure: Around one-third of artists have had their work exposed overseas, and two-thirds have experienced capital cities exposure – respondents ranked the effects of both as strongly positive on their artistic career.

Technology: About 80 percent of visual artists in our sample do not use any of the common forms of technology in their artistic work; performing artists such as musicians utilise technologies in their practice more often, mostly using equipment with sound capturing and reproducing capabilities.

Grants: The majority of artists in our sample did not apply for a grant last year. Of those who did apply, most did not do so themselves – someone else applied on their behalf (most common among performing artists) or an organisation applied on behalf of a group (most common among visual artists).

Copyright: The proportion of Aboriginal visual artists in remote areas of the Kimberley whose copyright has been known to have been infringed is 1 percent, a significantly lower number than the proportion of all visual artists working Australia-wide; organisations representing these have been very active in ensuring copyright protection of the artworks and educating their artists about copyright issues. On the other hand, almost 40 percent of performing artists believed that some unauthorised use of their creative work had occurred.

Financial results

Despite the difficulties of collecting financial information in surveys, we were able to collect reasonably accurate income data either through self-reporting or through an organisation such as an art centre which maintained individual sales records or an organisation acting as an employer. In summary, we found that on average visual artists and performers earned $8.1 thousand and $9.5 thousand respectively from their creative artistic activities, and $4.1 thousand and $13.4 thousand respectively from their engagement in arts- and culture-related activities. When all sources are combined, the average annual total incomes amounted to $23.2 thousand for visual artists, $32.7 thousand for performing artists and $27.8 thousand for all artists in the Kimberley. These incomes are significantly less than those for all artists Australia-wide – for example, the average total income of Australian professional artists in 2007-08 was $41.2 thousand.

Nevertheless it appears that artists in the Kimberley may be better off on average than the rest of the Indigenous population of the region; our estimate of the median annual income of artists in the Kimberley ($25 thousand) is significantly higher than the median personal income for all Indigenous people in the region ($15.7 thousand) as derived from 2011 ABS Census data. This is a significant difference; given the regional context and the realities of working remotely, it reinforces our proposition that working in the arts and cultural sector can provide an important means toward economic empowerment for Indigenous people in the Kimberley.

Role of culture in sustainable community development

In the survey we sought the opinions and attitudes of artists themselves as to the importance of the arts to sustainable community development, particularly in regard to:

  • engagement of young people in art and cultural production
  • infrastructure availability
  • role of cultural tourism
  • educational aspects

First, respondents agreed very strongly that artistic activities such as painting, music, dance and writing can provide jobs and incomes for young people in their community. For cultural maintenance activities, the employment and revenue-generating potential was seen as being almost as strong.

Second, in regard to infrastructure, there was virtually unanimous endorsement of the economic importance of art centres. There would appear to be scope for further infrastructure development in some remote communities.

Third, although cultural tourism exists in the Kimberley, the industry remains relatively underdeveloped. Artists in our survey expressed very strong agreement that cultural tourism can bring jobs and incomes to the community.

Finally in regard to education and training as avenues for economic and cultural development, respondents endorsed the importance of bilingual education in school. In a post-school context, the value of arts-practice workshops in providing people in the community with the skills to do more artistic activities was supported by almost all respondents.

When looking at the longer term, we can draw the inference from the views artists expressed that while the development of the art economy in the Kimberley has significant potential to contribute to community sustainability, the market on its own will be insufficient. The way is open for new targeted public- and private-sector programs specifically designed to support the production of cultural goods and services by Indigenous artists across all art forms in the Kimberley.

Policy issues arising from this study

This survey has provided data that can contribute to evidence-based policy making not only specifically for the Kimberley but also in a wider State and national context. Some relevant issues are the following:

Indigenous cultural capital – an unrealised resource: The survey data indicate the significant numbers of artists who are able and willing to work at cultural production but unable for various reasons to do so.

Integration of economic, social and cultural development: This study has clearly demonstrated the pervasive nature of cultural engagement among the population of cultural practitioners in the Kimberley; economic development through expansion of art and cultural production goes hand in hand with social development, flowing from the well-recognised benefits of the arts to community life and social cohesion. Development strategies need to comprehend the holistic nature of sustainability when applied to remote communities.

Opportunities for small-business development: Our data demonstrate that artists in the Kimberley have skills and experience in a variety of areas relevant to small business operations. Policy can facilitate small business establishment and development by providing support services, investment advice, assistance with finance, and so on.

Cultural maintenance: An essential aspect of sustainability of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture is to ensure that mechanisms for cultural maintenance are protected and encouraged; without cultural maintenance there is no creative arts. Moreover cultural maintenance activities offer substantial economic benefits to Indigenous people who engage in them.

Training for the arts and cultural sector: Training programs provided in the region need to acknowledge the “Big Three” educational pathways: observing/participating with a family member; learning on the job (self-learning); and learning from friends and other community members. Arts-practice workshops have also been successful.

Access to country: The survey data underline the importance of access to country for Indigenous people, as a source of cultural knowledge and art materials and as a place for creative inspiration and practice.

Role of art centres: Our data indicate clearly the important role that art centres play in providing facilities, supporting artists and supplying other services to their communities. Art centres have had a significant influence on the development of the visual art economy in the Kimberley, and artists in communities which currently do not have an art centre recognise the benefits that might accrue if such a centre were to be established in their community.

Need for further infrastructure and services: For art forms other than the visual arts, expansion of activity is constrained in many cases by the lack of infrastructure to support artistic work. In the case of music, for example, some communities could benefit from the establishment of studio space and other facilities, in particular to encourage the work of young and emerging musicians.

Remoteness issues: The arts and cultural sector has some advantages in supporting economic development in remote Indigenous communities: there is a large pool of people in these communities with relevant experience who do not need to be trained to do these jobs; the infrastructure required to support this sector is relatively small; and jobs in the arts and cultural sector allow for flexibility to address issues of seasonality, limited access and unstable markets that is a necessary condition of remote production.

Cultural tourism: The data in this Report point to possibilities for expansion of cultural tourism in the Kimberley, an area that offers considerable economic potential either independently or in association with environmental tourism.


The findings of this study provide some pointers for the formulation of regional arts and culture development strategies for the Kimberley. Three particular aspects can be highlighted.

Firstly, production, distribution and marketing of cultural product in any context need to be supported at all stages in the supply chain by adequate infrastructure. Visual artists who are fortunate enough to be based in communities where an art centre has been established are well supplied with support through the centres, which in most cases receive Government funding. Performing artists on the other hand do not have access to widely available facilities to assist in the development of their creative work. They need the sorts of infrastructure facilities that can make a difference, especially for young people who have the potential to develop their musical skills and perhaps embark on a musical career.

Secondly, the distribution and marketing components of the value chain need to be well established if work produced is to find an appropriate market. To a large extent market development takes place in response to commercial incentives, but there is a role for judicious policy intervention, for example through seed-funding for start-up creative businesses, provision of market intelligence and so on.

Thirdly, the role of cultural tourism as a potential revenue source to support art and cultural production in the Kimberley remains to be further explored. Our survey found a strong belief amongst artists that tourists could bring jobs and incomes to their communities. They also acknowledged unanimously that tourists should visit their communities in order to experience their culture at first hand.

Overall, the prospect for expanding the role of art and cultural production as a means for generating incomes and jobs in remote communities, especially for young people, appears to be viewed favourably by artists in the Kimberley region. The results of our work support moves to integrate the arts and culture more effectively into regional development strategies, as a source of both economic and cultural empowerment for Indigenous communities.

Page reviewed 11 September 2023