THE group of female indigenous artists - at least one of them renowned - was offered the chance to go on a shopping trip to Alice Springs,
about 450 kilometres away, with all accommodation and travel paid for.
But after a few days there the women were given a bill by the motel at which they had been staying. When they couldn't pay, they were given painting materials and told they
could work off their debt by producing art works. They were released only after a representative of the organisation Desart paid the "accommodation bill" of $700.
The allegation by Desart executive officer John Oster was just one of the shocking claims of exploitation and illegal activity in the indigenous art world heard by a federal parliamentary inquiry,
sparked by media reports of exploitation last year.
Just days before the inquiry's hearings formally wound up - it will report next month - two Melbourne galleries selling indigenous art were burgled. The fact that only Aboriginal galleries
were hit - and that it was just the latest in a series of strikes - highlighted just how lucrative, and vulnerable, indigenous art can be to unscrupulous people.
The inquiry has received claims from former employees of Alice Springs motels that indigenous artists, kept in overcrowded and dirty conditions, were being shown famous paintings and told to
reproduce them, and of artists paid in cars or drugs or a fraction of what their work would earn the eventual buyer.
The inquiry's chairman, Liberal senator Alan Eggleston, said that during the hearings "the word sweatshop kept cropping up again and again".
Several suggestions were made about measures the Government can take to clean up the sector and to ensure indigenous artists are not exploited. These include: educating artists about
their rights and the value of their work, better payments through resale royalties; increasing funding for community and not-for-profit art centres that represent artists; authentication measures for art works;
and licensing good art dealers. The indigenous art world is keenly awaiting the inquiry's recommendations.
And while indigenous issues aren't traditionally a vote-winner, some believe the timing of the report means action on the indigenous art sector could differentiate the parties at this year's election.
"Policy on this issue could swing seat changes in two electorates," Mr Oster said, citing the marginal seat of Solomon in the Northern Territory and Kalgoorlie in Western Australia.
Hetti Perkins, senior curator of Aboriginal art at the Art Gallery of NSW, said the Howard Government's push to end welfare dependency and get more Aborigines into work means it must act. Given the indigenous
art industry is one of the main employers of Aborigines, the Government must ensure it is a good one, she said. Simply expecting Aborigines to go into mainstream jobs when they could support themselves in a culturally
appropriate way "is a covert form of assimilation", she said.
Mr Oster said the key to ending exploitation of indigenous artists lay in better education and representation.
"Aboriginal people are . . . uninformed about their rights and they do not have the power to negotiate deals and don't have the same recourse to legal representation as we have."
But Claude Ullin, owner of High on Art, one of the Melbourne galleries burgled, argues that it is not just a clear-cut matter of artists being exploited. "There are artists who come into Melbourne and say 'I
need money, I've got this picture can I have $100 for it?'
"Or you see them sitting at the Todd Mall in Alice saying 'will you buy my painting?' Well, tourists in particular aren't going to say no. And that's no different from a white artist. People will say
'I'm desperate for money, so I'll sell this to you for $1000 rather than $2000'."
Mr Ullin said while he was unlikely to accept such an offer, sometimes dealers would buy a piece out of a sense of charity.
Senator Eggleston said there was a fine balance between protecting artists and taking away their rights. "They are essentially independent contractors and if they choose to sell their
art for a carton of cans or food in a hotel to an extent that's their business," he said. "One of the issues we have to be careful about when it comes to regulation is that (the artists retain) freedom of choice,
but they certainly need more education."
The Western Desert Dialysis Project, largely funded from the proceeds of Western Desert art, showed the importance of proper payment. The project began in 2000 after the communities of Kintore -
550 kilometres from Alice Springs - and Kiwirrkurra in Western Australia produced four collaborative works that were auctioned by Sotheby's and helped raise $1 million. One painting alone was sold to media
mogul Kerry Stokes for about $300,000, according to the project's manager Sarah Brown.
There have been more auctions, including one last year of a painting by Ningura Napurrula - who, according to Ms Brown, has children on dialysis - at the opening of the Aboriginal art gallery in Paris
with proceeds going to the project.
At the same time, "we have artists who are living down in the creek bed selling their paintings to taxi drivers or pub owners and we know those people are then selling them on for thousands," Ms Brown said.