Earlier this week at the National Press Club, Ron Radford, the director of the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) made a bold announcement — if any of the graduates of the new Indigenous Arts Fellowship at the NGA wanted his job then they could have it.

Well sort of.

Radford was realistic about the possibility of that happening while he was in the job but his point was sound and alluded to the dearth of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander professionals at senior levels across the board in the Australian arts industry.

Radford was joined at the Press Club by Aden Ridgeway to launch the Wesfarmers Arts Indigenous Fellowship program, which will provide opportunities for greater participation for indigenous Australians at senior management and operational levels in the arts industry. The fellowship will be offered every two years to two arts workers to work on their own projects within the NGA’s major recent initiatives — the Second National Indigenous Art Triennial and the new NGA Indigenous Art galleries project.

For Wesfarmers, one of the country’s largest listed companies and employers, this is a good deal that links a refreshingly innovative approach to corporate responsibility with it’s long-standing support for indigenous art.

Richard Goyder, CEO of Wesfarmers said that for Wesfarmers:

“It is a privilege to be able to work with the National Gallery of Australia on a national venture that brings together what both of our institutions do in support of the arts, with our responsibilities for indigenous employment and development.”

And for the NGA the fellowship, and more particularly the related indigenous leadership program, will provide useful links to indigenous arts workers and communities across the country.

Both initiatives come out of an extensive consultative process by Cox Inall Ridgeway, a  PR and consulting firm specialising in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues. In mid-2009 Wesfarmers and the NGA commissioned them to undertake consultations with the indigenous arts sectors across Australia in order to put flesh on the bones of the proposal to establish a fellowship and professional development program for the sector.

Cox Inall Ridgeway’s consultation report recommended a two-stage program, with a two-year fellowship model for higher level applicants and a shorter-term associate fellowship/scholarship model that would act as a skills development “stepping stone” to the longer-term and more professionally rigorous fellowship.

In their final form, the fellowships program has slightly modified those recommendations, with the two-year higher-level fellowship remaining substantially as proposed supported by an “arts leadership” program that will involve 10 indigenous arts workers spending 10 days at the NGA and undertaking a Certificate II in indigenous leadership delivered by the Australian Indigenous Leadership Centre in partnership with the NGA.

Crikey reckons that the Wesfarmers/NGA Fellowship partnership represents a bold lead that should be followed by arts institutions and regionally-based corporates elsewhere in the country and that could make a modest start on closing the yawning employment gaps for local people in the burgeoning indigenous arts industry.

But there are real dangers that the limited scope of the leadership program as it is presently structured could see it become just another short-term training program with a bit of paper at the end that winds up lying in the dust once its participants get back to their remote communities.

Crikey asked Radford and Ridgeway how they would avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.

Ridgeway told Crikey that he was aware of the potential for this to happen and that he expected the fellowship’s advisory committee to pay careful attention to ensuring that there was real and effective follow-up and continuing contact and support for participants through the NGA’s alumni program and other measures to be overseen by the Australian Indigenous Leadership Centre. Ron Radford noted the need for other institutions and corporate to start to pull their weight in this area and follow the lead set by the NGA and Wesfarmers.

Applications for the fellowship and the indigenous leadership program open today and close on August 31.

Declaration: the NGA assisted Bob Gosford with his travel between Sydney and Canberra. Denise Officer let him sleep in the backyard of her house in Mugga way.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey