Indigenous Artists

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This article refers to data derived from an Australian Bureau of Statistics publication, relating to the 2001 Census, a large-scale survey of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders conducted in 2002, and other relatively recent sources.[1] The referenced publication supplements the statistical analysis shown below.

General Demographic Characteristics (Table 1)

The resident adult Indigenous population (aged 15+) numbered about 280,000 in the 2001 Census, 1.8% of total Australian adults. The gender distribution was similar among Indigenous and non-indigenous people with men slightly outnumbering women.

The age distributions are, however, very different due to a combination of higher birth and death rates among Indigenous people. There were 156,000 persons aged 15-34 years, 92,000 aged 35-54, and only 31,300 aged 55 and over. The non-indigenous population was much more evenly distributed among the three age groups; indeed the 35-54 group slightly outnumbered the 15-34-year-olds and the number in the older age group was only about 22% less than the two other groups - signs of an aging population.

The discrepancy is clear from the Indigenous share of the total population in each age group: 2.8% of total 15-34-year-olds, 1.6% of 35-54-year olds but only 0.7% of older people. If we consider the total Indigenous population including children (458,500 in 2001), we find it represented 2.4% of the total resident population in Australia. There were about 179,000 Indigenous children aged under 15, as much as 4.4% of all Australian children.

The third demographic characteristic in Table 1 was the distribution between remote and non-remote locations. Only 2% of the non-indigenous population lived in remote areas in 2001, compared with 27.5% of Indigenous people. Nevertheless, non-indigenous people outnumbered Indigenous people in all remote areas taken together by almost four to one. (However, the proportion of Indigenous people varied widely, with very little non-indigenous representation in the most remote areas.)

The other side of the story is that 72.5% of Indigenous people lived in non-remote areas including capital cities and country towns. Full regional detail is available for the 2001 Census in the Australian Bureau of Statistics Cat 4713.0.[2]

Participation in Creative Arts

Table 2 shows Indigenous participation in creative arts activities according to the major Indigenous social survey the ABS conducted in 2002, which inquired about activities over the previous twelve months. According to this, 16.2% made Indigenous arts or crafts, 8.3% (about 23,000 people) had performed Indigenous music, dance or theatre, and 12.6% wrote or told Indigenous stories. Over one-quarter of adult Indigenous people (some 77,000 persons) had been involved in at least one of these creative arts activities.

The participation rate was highest in remote areas in all three activities. For instance, 10.4% of people in remote areas had performed Indigenous music, dance or theatre compared with 7.5% elsewhere. But in absolute numbers non-remote areas outnumbered remote areas, because most Indigenous people live in non-remote areas. The total estimated number of music, dance or drama performers in remote areas was 8,000, compared with more than 15,000 in non-remote areas. It is also important to mention that the survey concentrated on Indigenous creative arts and presumably therefore omits all those Indigenous people engaged in mainstream music. These may be relatively more numerous in non-remote areas.

Only about 28% of Indigenous people engaged in Indigenous creative arts activities received any payment for these (second panel of Table 2). The proportion varied from 33% of performing artists and 31% of visual artists to only 21% of storytellers and authors. The proportion of performing artists receiving payment was less in remote areas (27%) than elsewhere (35%).

More males than females were performing artists, while females were in a majority among visual artists, storytellers and writers. The same pattern emerged for paid activities (Table 3).

There were slightly more musicians, dancers and actors in the younger age group than among older people, while the latter were predominant among storytellers and actors. Participant rates didn’t vary much among age groups for visual artists.

Income (Table 4)

Before going into this subject, the difference between the Census, which is the source of the income data, and the information gleaned from the 2002 social survey in the previous section, must be borne in mind. The Census counts only main occupations reported for the week before the Census date (a mere 63 musicians and related workers in 2001 as shown in Table 4). The social survey asked for all creative arts activities taking place during the previous twelve months. We have already found that 23,000 persons had done so, though most were unpaid. Nevertheless, it is clear that counting only paid performers, part-time performers at about 7,500 outnumbered the Census count of what we may assume are reasonably full-time workers by more than 100 to 1.

The Census is important because it shows how few Indigenous people had made it to full-time professional artistic status by 2001. In fact, the numbers were extremely low except possibly for visual artists (see right-hand column of Table 4).

Compounding this, incomes were uniformly lower among full-time Indigenous arts professionals than among their non-indigenous colleagues. For six of the eight occupational groups shown in Table 4, the ratio of median incomes of Indigenous to non-indigenous people varied between 91% for authors and 76% for film, TV, radio and stage directors. The ratio was lower for dancers and actors (66%) and especially so for professional musicians, for whom the median income of Indigenous people was only half that of non-indigenous people.

The median income of Indigenous musicians and related workers according to the 2001 Census was the lowest (by far) of any of the eight occupational groups in Table 4. That of visual artists was the second-lowest.

The impression is reinforced by the statistics of ‘high’ incomes in the right-hand part of the table, ‘high’ between defined as $700 or more per week ($36,400 on an annual basis in 2001, equivalent to about $42,200 at 2006 prices). Differences in the income distributions blur the comparison, including a relatively long ‘tail’ of high incomes for Indigenous musicians compared to, say, journalists who tend to be paid in the middle ranges rather than either extremely poorly or getting into the ‘high’ range as defined here.





Hans Hoegh-Guldberg. Last revised 29 October 2007.

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