Art Market

What’s Driving the Rise of the Aboriginal Art Market in the U.S.

Alina Cohen
Sep 11, 2019 5:20PM

Bill Whiskey Tjapaltjarri, Rockholes and Country Near the Olgas, 2008. © Bill Whiskey Tjapaltjarri. Courtesy of Gagosian

This has been a record year for Aboriginal art in New York City. In January, Salon 94 mounted the first solo exhibition of work by Yukultji Napangati in the U.S. The artist’s canvases feature close-set, autumn-hued lines that appear to pulse and ripple: They conjure the best of Op art, without that movement’s synthetic edge. In March, Olsen Gruin mounted a group show featuring indigenous women artists from the southern Australian collective, Tjala Arts. Then, in the biggest whammy of all, Gagosian Gallery launched a major, non-selling exhibition, “Desert Painters of Australia,” which included lush, virtuosic canvases by artists including Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Makinti Napanangka, and Bill Whiskey Tjapaltjarri. Filled with transfixing dots, labyrinthine lines, and masterful color, their abstractions evoked topographic maps and the night sky in brilliant color palettes—tangerines, marigolds, and crimsons. Actor Steve Martin, a major collector who loaned work to the show, is in talks with an as-yet-unnamed museum about mounting an exhibition of his Aboriginal art collection.


All this gallery visibility bodes well for Sotheby’s inaugural New York sale of Aboriginal art this December. The auction house has held such live, standalone events in Australia since 1997 and in London since 2015 (the last edition, in March 2018, brought in £1.6 million, or about $2.2 million). The move stateside signifies confidence in the U.S. market. It’s the latest evidence of a rising Aboriginal art market, made increasingly successful by the interplay of institutional and gallery exhibitions, enthusiastic private collectors, art fairs, and auction houses. Timothy Klingender, a Sotheby’s senior consultant who began overseeing the auction house’s contemporary art sales in Australia in the mid 1990s, says there’s been “a major paradigm shift” among collectors, who are now more open to contemporary artwork that falls “outside the Western canon.”

Sotheby’s has already announced that two Kngwarreye works will be on offer in December: Summer Celebration (1991, estimated to sell for between $300,000 and $500,000) and Untitled (1990, estimated to sell for between $250,000 and $350,000), both from Thomas Vroom, a leading European collector in the field. Other highlights include an unconventional self-portrait by Gordon Bennett—one of the most widely exhibited Aboriginal artworks—estimated to sell for between $350,000 and $450,000, and Dorothy Napangarti’s Kartakuurmangu Jukurrpa (2001, estimated to sell for between $30,000 and $50,000), also from Vroom’s collection.

Kngwarreye is a particularly safe bet for the auction house. The artist, who died in 1996, is perhaps the most famous indigenous artist to come out of Australia. She took up painting during the last eight years of her life, producing over 3,000 works—averaging one per day, according to the National Museum of Australia. In 2007, her painting Earth’s Creation I (1994) sold for A$1,056,000 (about $868,000), making it the most expensive piece of art by an Australian woman ever sold. In 2017, it doubled that price when it reappeared at auction in Sydney, achieving A$2.1 million ($1.6 million). The record for the most expensive Aboriginal artwork ever at auction, though, still belongs to Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, whose painting Warlugulong (1977), sold for A$2.4 million ($2.1 million) to the National Gallery of Australia in 2007.

Installation view of “Desert Painters of Australia Part II,” at Gagosian, Beverly Hills, 2019. Artworks © Artists and Estates. Photo by Fredrik Nilsen. Courtesy of Gagosian.

Such benchmark sales owe their success at least in part to museum shows and a steadily growing, enthusiastic collector base. Dennis and Debra Scholl, of Miami, have amassed over 400 works by Aboriginal artists over about a dozen years. They’ve shared their works with the public through three major exhibitions—“No Boundaries,” “Marking the Infinite,” and “The Inside World”—which have been touring North America since 2015.

“I was making the market for a while,” Scholl said, noting that few other U.S. art patrons were interested in the genre when he began collecting. The museum exhibitions and auctions, he added, promote more than additional collector interest—they also spur scholarly research and cultural exchange.

Australian Aboriginal painting, once seen, isn’t a tough sell. “It has everything that you want in great contemporary art,” says Margo Smith, director of the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection at the University of Virginia, the only U.S. museum exclusively devoted to indigenous Australian art. “In terms of the aesthetics, and also a great meaning, a great relationship to people and place and history.” Major worldwide institutions, including the Tate Modern, are now putting increased resources toward their Aboriginal art collections—moves that also spur global sales of such work.

Makinti Napanangka, Kungka Kutjarra (Two Women), 2000. Makinti Napanangka, © Copyright Agency. Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, 2019. Photo by Rob McKeever. Courtesy of Gagosian.

Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri, Untitled , 2013. © Copyright Agency. Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, 2019. Photo by Rob McKeever. Courtesy of Gagosian.

Australia’s domestic art market has also played a role. Last month’s Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair was expected to attract thousands of visitors and raise millions of dollars—the event brought in A$15 million ($10.9 million) for the local economy in 2018, up from A$10 million ($7.9 million) in 2017. It’s presented itself as a way to avoid unscrupulous dealers who have been selling fakes and taking advantage of Aboriginal art’s current popularity.

At the Sydney Contemporary Art Fair, which opens September 12th, 19 galleries will exhibit works by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists (the latter of whom hail from the region between Papua New Guinea and the northern tip of Queensland, Australia), according to fair director Barry Keldoulis. Last year, he noted, 12 galleries showed this type of art, and just 10 the year before. In other words, the number of galleries bringing indigenous work to the fair has nearly doubled since 2017.

Ronnie Tjampitjinpa, Tarkulnga , 1988. © Copyright Agency. Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, 2019. Photo by Rob McKeever. Courtesy of Gagosian.

Tim Leura Tjapaltjarri
Center circle of fire, 1974

Keldoulis traces the rise of the Aboriginal art market in Australia back to the early 1980s, when museums began including the work in contemporary art shows. He cites 1981 as a pivotal moment: That year, the Art Gallery of New South Wales included work by Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri and his brother Tim Leura Tjapaltjarri in the inaugural edition of “Australian Perspecta,” a biennial exhibition of contemporary Australian art that ran through 1999. Commercial galleries caught on. Such shows began to help integrate Aboriginal art into the mainstream.

All this attention certainly raises the worldwide visibility for Australian indigenous communities and their creative endeavors. D’Lan Davidson, a Melbourne-based Australian indigenous art advisor who works with Steve Martin, said the pair’s work has helped “Australian indigenous art become more internationally recognized and to thrive on this broader international stage.” Davidson said his own sales have doubled year-on-year for the past three years.

Yet the commercial attention has raised questions about inclusion and market sustainability. Australia is developing plans for two separate indigenous art centers: the Aboriginal Art and Cultures Gallery in Adelaide in South Australia, and the National Aboriginal Art Gallery in Alice Springs in the Northern Territory. Detractors fear that the institutions will have to compete for their collections, and they lament that the planning for both hasn’t done enough to involve indegenous groups. Meanwhile, the entire European continent only features one space devoted to Aboriginal art: the Fondation Opale in Lens, Switzerland, inaugurated in 2018.

All the hype over the past few decades, of course, belies the fact that Aborigines have been making art for millennia. While the market can certainly signal that these artists are as talented and important as anyone working in the West, the real benefits to Aboriginal artists remain to be seen. It’s also easy to overlook just how diverse their work—and this group of individuals—actually is.

Emily Kame Kngwarreye
Merne Akngerre, 1992

“The term ‘Aboriginal art’ is still often used as a catch all, but there are hundreds of language groups spanning the continent from the tropical north to the temperate south,” Keldoulis said. “It’s a truly dynamic field, with an extraordinarily broad variety of practices.”

Alina Cohen