Remote Access: Maningrida Arts & Culture and the World Wide Web

Article excerpt

Maningrida Arts & Culture (MAC) is an art marketing and cultural research organisation, operating under the auspices of the Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation in Maningrida, north-central Arnhem Land. The art centre deals in bark painting, sculpture, fibre objects and cultural material items, conducting exhibitions and selling to commercial galleries, public and private collections and retail outlets. Through its cultural research office, MAC documents artworks as well as the region's rock-art, music and languages; it also operates the Djomi Museum, Maningrida's `cultural keeping place'.

The first web site

Maningrida Arts & Culture went on-line in 1995, establishing the first Web site for an Aboriginal art centre, and one of the first sites based in an Aboriginal community. At that stage, when the technology was still relatively new, the fact that the site existed was in itself an excellent promotional tool. Our use of technology has changed dramatically since then; Web sites have become almost ubiquitous, and art centres are now much more knowledgeable about the benefits--and the disadvantages--of being on-line.

The original site came about more as a happy accident than a planned promotional exercise. Margaret Carew arrived in the community in 1993 to do fieldwork on the Gun-nartpa language as part of her studies at the University of Melbourne. In 1995, she became involved in the activities of the cultural research office at the art centre and was able to see the potential for a Web site based at the centre. She had experience with Web sites from university and was inspired to take on the project.

As a result of Margaret's expertise and enthusiasm, MAC not only gained a presence on the World Wide Web but also began using email, which has since become an invaluable tool for communication with clients. Email is a relatively cheap and extremely fast way to communicate with buyers, regardless of where they are. For example, it is possible to send documents and images to a commercial gallery as part of the process of planning an exhibition, so they have an idea of exactly what is coming well in advance of the delivery of the stock.

Margaret worked closely with Peter Danaja, a local Martay Burarra man, who was then working in the art centre as the Aboriginal heritage officer. Peter was involved in decisions about the content of the site, and also took on the role of liaising with the community about the site, particularly with regard to permission for particular images or pieces of information to be included.

In terms of non-commercial promotion, the site was extremely successful. Congratulatory emails received after its launch reflected its positive reception both in the Aboriginal arts community and in the wider community. Data collected in the first two months of the site's life showed that it was accessed all over the world, from countries as diverse as the USA, Canada, Iceland, Finland, Indonesia, Mexico, Ireland, Portugal and Hong Kong.

Selling over the Internet

However, the Web site played only a limited role in actually selling artwork. This is mainly because buyers usually regard artworks as a significant investment and are understandably reluctant to buy a work they have not actually seen. Although they may use the site to find out about the art of this region, or to get more background information than is generally available from commercial galleries and retailers, buyers are still most likely to obtain artworks from a gallery or shop where they can look at them before purchase. This was certainly the case during the life of the original site. Quite a few didjeridus were sold--as Margaret Carew put it (Wright 2000), `MAC discovered that there is a huge worldwide demand for didjeridus and they could meet a niche market for them ... all these didjeridu freaks were emailing the art centre. We were forever packing up didjs and posting them to the USA. …