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APY Art Collective considers gallery shutdowns as downturn bites

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An art group which provides jobs, income and exposure to Indigenous artists from SA’s APY Lands is examining whether to permanently shut its Adelaide and Sydney gallery doors amid the economic downturn of COVID-19.

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APY Art Centre Collective general manager Skye O’Meara told InDaily the group had begun diversifying its income streams ahead of a potential permanent gallery closure.

“Our program in the APY Lands is of vital importance. That’s where we started and that’s where we existed for three years before we came out into the gallery domain, so we’ll go back there if that’s what needs to happen. We’ll close the Sydney gallery and the gallery in Adelaide,” O’Meara said.

“We’re going to make tough decisions in order to ensure the survival of our organisation.”

The Adelaide-based space is home to artists studios and an exhibition room, where Indigenous works are available for purchase.

O’Meara said the gallery usually provided support for between 15 and 20 Aboriginal artists who attend the studio daily to work.

But, like all non-essential services, the gallery had to shut its doors last month to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Together with a gallery in Sydney, the Adelaide Art Collective gallery allows emerging and established Indigenous artists to showcase their works to an inner-city market. They are part of 10 art programs in the Collective.

Leah Brady at the APY studio in Adelaide

The Collective started about seven years ago by a group of elders in the APY Lands as a vehicle for keeping culture strong, as well as a means of providing income and employment.

O’Meara said in the past two years, one of the projects had provided more than 100 jobs in the APY Lands.

“That’s between 10 and 20 jobs in each community, communities like Ernabella where there’s over 20 men involved – and these are men that wouldn’t otherwise have a job,” O’Meara said.

“Because of the environment of poverty and disadvantage, which is what people grow up in in the APY Lands and what the elders struggle against, the outcomes for job opportunities on the Lands will be prioritised. But we’ll be making tough decisions in the next couple of months, just like a lot of small to medium arts organisations will be doing.”

She said while elders believed it was “absolutely important to maintain the studio in Adelaide” the financial toll of running two galleries in capital cities amid the coronavirus pandemic was taking its toll on the organisation.

“We stood down three of our staff in Adelaide and … in Sydney we stood down two of the employees. It’s terrible having to end someone’s employment in a tough time and it’s terrible having to end someone’s employment when they are performing so well,” O’Meara said.

“We’ve diversified our income streams, we’re seeking philanthropic support and we’re receiving support from corporate benefactors.

“We’re also received wonderful support from the Westpac Foundation. They’ve given us a lot of mentoring in business support to make sure our business model is really sound. But how does any business really prepare for COVID-19?”

Marinka Burton outside the APY Gallery in Adelaide

O’Meara said in a bid to stay afloat, the social enterprise would begin offering online tours of the Adelaide and Sydney galleries as well as the wealth of works from seven of the APY Lands community art centres.

“There’s no way of avoiding a shift to sales, so we’re going to do all of the things we need to do. We’re very determined and driven to get through this,” she said.

“But I think there maybe a disconnect in the optics, where it looks like because we’re such a professional operation that doesn’t mean we’re not hurting. Over 80 per cent of our income is made of sales, which we started up ourselves.

“Also, it’s very hard to start up … in Adelaide because it’s a small community. In Sydney our experience was people wanted to partner with us. In Adelaide it’s very different.

“You have to show a serious dedication and drive that you don’t need to in other state. We did that and now there’s COVID-19.”

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