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Joint government probe to protect integrity of First Nations art industry

David Prestipino -

A joint government investigation into allegations of concerning practices within the First Nations art industry will be held in a bid to protect the integrity of the industry.

The Commonwealth, South Australian and Northern Territory governments will probe the issue, which has thrown the sector into chaos, five weeks after allegations surfaced in The Australian newspaper that white hands were interfering with First Nations artists at the APY Art Centre Collective in South Australia.

While the terms of reference and powers of the joint investigation, as well as who will head the probe are yet to be finalised, the probe comes after a meeting on Monday between federal arts minister Tony Burke, South Australian arts minister Andrea Michaels and Chansey Paech, her Northern Territory counterpart who wrote to the pair last week urging cooperation to address the scandal engulfing the sector, as some art centres report a major drop in sales since the allegations.

A spokesperson for Mr Burke said more details of the investigation would be forthcoming this week.

"We had a constructive meeting today and we've agreed to make a joint response," they told The Australian.

In April, general manager Skye O'Meara and white assistants at the APY ACC, which represents more than 500 Anangu artists over the APY Lands region of Central Australia, were accused by the newspaper of interfering in the works of First Nations arts workers at the South Australian studio.

The allegations were made by some non-Indigenous staff and First Nations artists, before secret footage was then released that allegedly showed a white assistant making creative decisions and painting on the canvas of renowned First Nations artist Yaritji Young's depiction of the Tjukurpa - the spiritual and sacred law that governs culture.

The footage at the Tjala Art Centre, in the state's far north and part of the APY ACC, prompted the studio to alter its denial of the allegations.

The impending joint government probe is likely to be led by the SA government, as it is the major funder of the collective and could compel it to cooperate and relinquish records and documents.

In his letter last week urging a joint investigation, Mr Paech - the member for Gwoja - said national art institutions must take the allegations seriously as the controversy was causing "reputational damage" to the First Nations "art movement, [which] enriches our nation, culturally and economically".

"It showcases the longest-surviving culture to the rest of the world and preserves important stories and practices," he wrote.

"The integrity of the works, art centres and artists is paramount."

Mr Paech also called on the country's national art institutions to postpone exhibitions and award ceremonies involving First Nations artists until the issue was thoroughly probed.

Since the allegations against the APY ACC were raised, the National Gallery of Australia announced its own review of 28 First Nations paintings that were set to be featured in a highly-publicised exhibition of APY Lands artists in June.

The Ngura Pulka - Epic Country exhibition has since been postponed while the review is ongoing, while the Australia Council's director of First Nations arts and culture also expressed concern for artists in light of the allegations against the APY Art Centre.

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