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The department has prepared this discussion paper to provide an overview of the visual arts sector in Western Australia to understand what is required to ensure the ongoing sustainability of the sector. The paper presents an overview of issues and opportunities identified through consultation with artists and gallery owners in Western Australia and through analysis of available national and international data on the visual arts sector. This review of the visual arts sector will enable the department to understand the issues and concerns that need to be considered in developing strategies to address these issues into the future.

Executive summary

The department has undertaken research from available data sources to identify issues and current developments in the sector.

Over the past few years, opportunities for visual artists in Western Australia appear to have declined, prompting calls from the sector to create a more sustainable industry.

Since 2012, at least nine commercial art galleries in Perth have closed. This has led to fewer artists being represented and a reduced number of exhibitions that, it has been claimed, directly impacts interstate and international representation and importantly for Government, compromised the market to drive the quality of the great work the State wishes to develop.

With 30 per cent of Australia’s Aboriginal art centres located in Western Australia, a 33 per cent decline in sales nationally between 2004-05 and 2012-13 has had a significant effect on Western Australia’s centres and on the commercial galleries that distribute the work. The issue is made more acute as Western Australia receives just 19 per cent of Federal Government funding - the same as Queensland which has only 15 per cent of the nation’s art centres1.

There appears to be fewer exhibitions for audiences to attend and fewer opportunities to purchase work, which has the corollary of a negative impact on artist and gallery incomes and artist employment. Employment in the visual arts is in a period of transition, with lower than relative average annual growth2. This marks the beginning of a potential vicious circle for the sector.

This is despite the investment in the national sector of $94.3 million since 2003 as a result of the national Visual Arts and Crafts Strategy which had explicit objectives to address some of these issues, and a range of other state and federal government policy initiatives designed to stimulate market activity and income.

The life cycle of visual artists’ education and training is explored and reveal how WA school, TAFE and higher education systems are forecast to produce more visual artists into an uncertain employment environment in the coming decade at a time when formal training in specialist marketing skills is lacking.

An examination of the visual arts market demonstrates that there is no current quantitative data on performance of commercial art galleries. While there is some thought that galleries are being undermined by the growth of online opportunities, there is evidence that the online market in visual arts has high dependence on fixed infrastructure galleries.

An oversupply of artists, ‘affordable art’ of low quality, and lack of an international market in WA may lower prices and compromise long-term development of the sector. The various federal government policy interventions to date have had only mixed results in terms of market development and artist income generation. This is particularly so in Western Australian, with Australia Council funding for WA artists in 2012-13 representing just 2.5 per cent of its national funding rising to still only 6 per cent in 2014-15.

There are examples of initiatives that have been market stimulators, demonstrating that large sales and significant audience attendance are possible.

The significant number of commercial gallery closures since 2008 across Australia, and accelerated in Perth since 2012, has had a number of consequences for the market, artists and art audiences. Commercial galleries are shown to be a vital part of the visual arts ecology stimulating local markets, preparing international ones and introducing new buyers to the online sales environment. Sentiment amongst remaining galleries is cautiously positive and there is opportunity for some well-placed initiatives to address the decline and set the tone for a positive decade ahead.

Western Australia is home to some of the nation’s most significant public and private collections. These are shown to be an under-utilised resource in terms of stimulating interest in visual art and promoting Western Australia’s unique identity. Our identity is the sum of our individual and shared histories, landscapes, peoples, small population across vast distances, our languages and geography. Access to the vast collections in the public and private sector is limited and could be enhanced with leadership from the Art Gallery of Western Australia (AGWA) and a commitment to improving the visual arts touring infrastructure of the State.

The sustainability of the visual arts sector is dependent on artists and organisations having long-term access to robust infrastructure. It is difficult for visual artists to secure suitable spaces for their arts practice and there is a backlog of urgent capital requirements for many Aboriginal art centres which is impacting on their sustainability. There is also a shortage of physical gallery infrastructure throughout the State to house and exhibit the significant collections the State holds or to receive touring visual arts exhibitions. Significant proposed future developments at the Sunset Heritage precinct, the Perth Cultural Centre, Midland Railway Workshops and East Perth Power Station may offer opportunities for major public-private infrastructure partnerships.

Finally, we examine the status of public art in Western Australia. The State Government’s Percent for Art Scheme has expended $47million on 574 projects since it began in 1989 and has been the model for similar schemes across other Government agencies, local government authorities and the private sector. Trends in public art are moving to greater public engagement and short-term interventions which will open up greater funding opportunities. In 2016, the department will be undertaking a review of public art to map current expenditure, procurement methodologies, objectives, evaluation systems and outcomes by the State Government on public art with a view to establishing best practice guidelines in these areas based on national and international benchmarks.

  1. The Economy of Place. A Place in the Economy.
  2. DLGSC, Creative Industries Statistical Analysis for Western Australia.
  3. Throsby, D & Zednik, A: Do You Really Expect To Get Paid? An economic study of artists in Australia p.44

Page reviewed 16 March 2022