Australia Council revises protocols around use of Indigenous art and culture

Emilee Geist

While lacking legal enforcement, all applicants applying for federal funding through the Australia Council are contractually bound to adhere to the guidelines.

Dr Janke said it was hoped that the revised standards of best practice would become tools for reconciliation, create deeper, more meaningful work, and build trust between cultures.

The updated guide consolidates five separate booklets into a single document and provides a checklist for writers, producers, directors, designers, musicians, singers, songwriters, choreographers and arts organisations. It also details extensive case studies that model collaboration.

The protocols apply to the use and adaptation of Indigenous art styles including images in rock art, stories, cultural objects including crafts, weapons, and tools, human remains, the documentation of Indigenous heritage including photographs and books and sounds recordings, and secret and sacred material.

They require acknowledgment of the Indigenous custodians at the site of each exhibition, performance, installation, or event launch.


Because Indigenous culture is ever-evolving, those working in the creative arts must consult widely to identify who has the authority to speak for a work. Written agreement is recommended.

Even with the protocols in place, Dr Janke said she would like to see laws tightened to protect the copyright of Aboriginal and Torres Islanders.

As it stood, copyright laws did not protect the cultural ownership and integrity of oral stories adapted into a novel or new artwork based on rock art. Nor did they make consultation with Indigenous custodians compulsory.

“Indigenous Australians are concerned that there seems to be no respect for their cultural knowledge, stories and other expressions on the wider Australian landscape,” the guide states.

An important revenue stream for Indigenous visual artists was the Resale Royalty Scheme managed by the Copyright Agency. Between 2010 and 2018 1600 artists earned a total of $6.3 million, with most royalty payments being between $50 and $500.

But not many artists knew about the scheme, and there had been criticism that the administrative requirements are complex. Some galleries skated around the scheme by consigning artworks rather than buying them outright. No changes have been made to the law since a 2013 review pointed out these failings.


Laws governing the removal of cultural objects also fell short, the guide said. Objects created recently or with a market value of less than $100,000 did not need permission for export or import.

The guide focuses on Indigenous arts being seen as living and thriving cultural practices where connecting with Indigenous people and building trust and relationships is a key part of Indigenous arts practice.

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