10 September
Robyn Ayres © Jay La

Arts Law 30th Birthday speeches

Read the speeches of Executive Director Robyn Ayres and Director of Boomalli Bronwyn Bancroft at Arts Law's 30th Birthday.

Robyn Ayres

"Tonight we celebrate the work of the Arts Law Centre of Australia, as well as our Indigenous service, Artists in the Black and of course the artists and arts organisations who are at the heart of everything we do.

Respecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture is integral to our work so I would like to start by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land – the Gadigal people of the Eora nation and pay my respects to their elders past and present and I thank Aunty Fay for her welcome to country.

So many who have been part of our journey are here tonight, but there are manynew friends and I welcome and thank you for being here to celebrate our 30th anniversary.

Some of you know what Arts Law was like ten, twenty or even 30 years ago. Sadly neither our first Executive Director Shane Simpson nor our first President the Hon Michael Kirby could be with us tonight but both wished us the very best for the evening and we will hear a little more from Michael in a minute.

Successive Executive Directors and Presidents of Arts Law as well as former staff and board members also deserve recognition. Today Arts Law is staffed by a small but exceptionally dedicated team of 12 paid staff. In particular I recognise our Deputy Director Delwyn Everard as well as our Administration Manager Mary Egan who has worked so hard to make tonight possible. And behind the scenes is Arts Law’s dedicated board of directors, led by Her Honour Justice Beazley. I also acknowledge our funders, especially the Australia Council, which has been there right from the start.

Arts Law is dedicated to the empowerment of the arts community – the sculptors, musicians, filmmakers, painters, dancers, writers and their organisations. We are the only community legal centre in Australia that assists artists and arts organisations to understand their rights, to avoid exploitation, and we provide advice on copyright, contracts, debt, defamation, business structures, and many other issues.

To give you an idea of how we’ve helped Australia’s artists, throughout the past 30 years, we have

·        Advised 70,000 clients, covering about 40 different areas of law

·        In the last 20 years, we have advocated for better rights for artists in the areas of copyright, moral rights, freedom of expression, privacy, resale royalties, & Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual property;

·        we have run nearly 2000 education workshops; and currently publish more than 250 different resources to help artists get a better deal, including information sheets ,sample agreements, books, videos and audio recordings.

I want to tell you a couple of stories about some of the Aboriginal clients we have assisted through Artists in the Black in recent years.

Arts Law’s “Artists in the Black Program” has been running now for 10 years, and it’s something we are very proud to have initiated, because the people we help through this program are some of Australia’s most disadvantaged artists and whilst their art is integral to Indigenous cultures, stories and communities it also a very important part of broader Australia’s story too.

Elcho Island Art Centre supports and represents Aboriginal artists from the local Yolngu communities on Elcho Island in the Northern Territory.  The Yolngu artists of Elcho Island traditionally incorporate plant fibres and feathers into their art and Yolngu women, who are renowned for their weaving skills, create works of art from the fibres of the pandanus plants which grow on Elcho Island.

In 2011, a commercial Gallery in London planned an exhibition of sixty five woven pandanus works from Elcho Island which was to be opened by the Australian High Commissioner. This exhibition provided an excellent opportunity to generate income for the Yolngu artists and to further promote their culture and artistic creativity. With only weeks to go before the exhibition was due to open, and days before the works were to be shipped, the Department of Sustainability & Environment, informed the Art Centre that the pandanus fibre, as a native plant specimen, fell under Australia’s wildlife protection legislation, the works could not be shipped overseas and could be not be exhibited for commercial sale – the penalty for non-compliance was up to 10 years imprisonment as well as substantial fines!

The art centre manager observed: “This essentially defeats the whole purpose of the exhibition and the centre’s efforts to promote the artwork of Yolgnu women to the fine art market outside Australia.”

Elcho Island Artists sought help from Arts Law and we approached DLA Piper, who provided urgent assistance with an “exceptional circumstances permit”. To the relief of the artists, the permit was granted by the Minister and their artworks were exhibited at the London Gallery a few weeks later. Arts Law has taken this further, resulting in pandanus now being added to the list of species which can be exported without a permit. We’re continuing work on adding other plant and animal specimens to the list for other Aboriginal arts communities.

Lastly, in 2007, Arts Law began drafting wills for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists in response to laws in Western Australia that said that if Aboriginal people died without a will, their estates automatically went to Public Trustee for administration. This treated Aboriginal people differently to the rest of the community and caused manifold problems including delays and expense, with some families waiting many years for quite small amounts of money.

So we not only focussed on doing wills for WA artists (with the support of WA Dept of Aboriginal Affairs and the Copyright Agency) but we also campaigned to change WA’s intestacy laws. It took nearly 7 years, but we were finally successful. The WA laws were repealed last year, significantly benefiting all Aboriginal people in WA. We could not have succeeded without the significant pro bono support of Herbert Smith Freehills as well as support from media, particularly the ABC and The Australian as well as the local Aboriginal communities.

About the same time we achieved this victory we received the shocking news that Artists in the Black’s funding had been cut without any real explanation other than “You’ve had your turn” and “there’s not enough money to go round”.

In another blow, this July Screen Australia, after 20 years of support, cut funding to our services for screen creators. Cutting Arts Law’s funding will have significant flow-on effects including widespread harm to the emerging and mid-career screen creators and significantly impact on pro bono services to film makers.

 Thankfully, the federal Attorney General finally restored funding for Artists in the Black but Arts Law recognises that in this uncertain funding environment it is vital that we develop independent sources of income and support, including pro bono assistance.

Arts Law has 270 lawyers currently on our national pro bono panel. Whilst many of you are in Sydney we have lawyers around Australia, some who have travelled to celebrate with us this evening. A special thanks to you. Pro bono assistance is so very important. We estimate its value to Arts Law is around $2 million each year, with about $1 million going to Artists in the Black.

I’ve told some stories about Indigenous artists, but Arts Law assists and empowers all of Australia’s artists and arts communities to continue to challenge and delight us. To tell age-old tales and to create new stories.Tonight we celebrate those stories, those artists, those lawyers and all the supporters who have brought us where we are and who will continue to aid Arts Law in its journey.

Next, we’ll hear from a man who doesn’t really need any introductions, his considerable achievements speak for themselves, not only as the first president of Arts Law, a former President of the NSW Court of Appeal, a former High Court judge, the Hon Michael Kirby is currently the chairperson of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry into the violation of Human Rights in North Korea. And whilst his UN commitments mean Michael couldn’t be with us tonight, he still wanted to say a few words – "

Bronwyn Bancroft

"I will take the opportunity to Acknowledge the land of the Gadigal people, of the EORA Nation, whose land this event is being held tonight.

My name is Bronwyn Bancroft and I am a Bundjalung Nation woman, Northern New South Wales. I am also an Artist and Community Grass Roots campaigner.

When Robyn Ayres asked me to speak tonight about Pro Bono Assistance by any Law Firm in support of Aboriginal people, business and communities I was excited. There is nothing better than a positive vibe about equitable assistance.

The Background to this story is: In May 2009, I was asked by the chairperson of Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Cooperative, to help him with a Governance and financial crisis. The Co-operative had a huge remit! Of course at the time I had no idea the debt was so large, that unfolded pretty quickly. We got together a team and we started with the basics. Many volunteers contributed in these initial stages and are still volunteering at the Co-operative.

The battle to retrieve the honour of the history of the Co-operative and the inherent right for Aboriginal people here in NSW, to have a space to exhibit their work in a large city, had begun. Over 27 years we have encouraged regional Aboriginal Artists to engage in the space and overcome small town mentalities. I wrote to Robyn about a constitutional change that would assist us with Moving forward as a Co-operative.

Robyn recommended 'Allens' as a possibility for this minimal ask, on a pro bono basis. I met with Vijay Cugati and Cynthia Anandajayasekerm and they reported to their Pro Bono Board for approval and we moved ahead with this initial request. Friendships were formed, understandings established and Enormous contributions to the fight for survival for Boomalli were created.

Allens have been assisting us now for the last 5 years. Some of the landmark achievements we have been able to achieve with this amazing expertise are;

– Boomalli had a land tax Bill of $ 12,713.73 and Allens were able to petition the office of Hardship to waiver these fees as the Co-operative was in Dire Straits and had no money. This afforded the Co-operative relief from the Mountain of Debt.

– We fought to have our Rates Bill waivered on the grounds that we had inherited another Consortium's debt, we were an original component of this collective of Aboriginal entities. We had a good response initially, but did not get our request through Council. Allens went back again with a request to waiver Interest accrued ($7,444.20). We were informed on July 22nd that this application had been successful.

The penultimate moment was when we successfully obtained transfer of the building to Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Co-operative.

The vein of this conversation evolves from being potentially evicted by the Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts. We were informed by a Senior Bureaucrat that we had a month to get out.

The memory of sitting in this huge space, with art on the walls, people volunteering to take out the cash component (because we had none) and having no money still gives me shivers down my backbone. We were being evicted by the government.

We have a fighting spirit. The flame cannot go out! We asserted our right to be and we embarked on an incredible journey.

Allens conducted searches on our behalf and discovered that the Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts did not own the building and had no foundation to be instructing us to vacate the building. It was discovered that another entity, the Indigenous Land Corporation held the caveat on the building, which was transferred from purchases made for Aboriginal groups/organisations by the now defunct Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (abolished 2005 by the Howard government).

I have to tell you, this was an epiphany. How could we have come so close to being decimated – If we had been intimidated by the messenger of doom from DEWHA, Boomalli would not be here. On 28th June 2011 the property at 55-59 Flood St, Leichhardt was transferred from Tullagulla to Boomalli.

A snapshot of the Co-operative's current operational and governance structure is this

– A successful grant from ILC for building/removal of Asbestos

– Roof/upgradingBuilding compliance codes 300k – almost complete and under budget.

– Full schedule of Exhibitions in 3 dedicated spaces for more Artists (12 months in advance).

– 1500 visitors this year.

– Money in the bank (support from NSW Government, Copyright Agency, Office of the Arts – Federal, Leichhardt Council).

– 2 Administration Staff

– 60 members

– Strong board governance

– Loyal volunteers

None of these outstanding achievements can be created in isolation.

2 weeks ago we had Arts Law at Boomalli for Will making sessions with the Euraba Paper Company from Boggabilla, NSW for the installation of the show, The River Tells Many Stories. 12 Aboriginal Artists made their wills at the Co-operative that week.

Relief was the overall description after the wills had been made, with the assistance of a team of lawyers. Provenance and Directions in the will created a sense of security for the Artists. Euraba Paper Company Coordinator, Kate Ford provided the following testimonial:

“On the 11th of August fourteen of our Euraba Artists travelled to Sydney for a week of professional development with their base for the week at Boomalli in Leichhardt as a part of a Arts NSW funded regional partnership between the two organisations to help build capacity at Euraba. Euraba is an Aboriginal Arts Centre which is based in Boggabilla in inland Northern NSW. Over the time we were there Arts Law staff, in addition to delivering a presentation on copyright and licensing agreement, assisted the artists in the writing of wills.

Robyn and her team were fantastic! They really cut down to what was important and were able to set everyone at ease. After discussing with the group the benefits of having a will and the things that needed to be considered in the document, Robyn Ayres, Jenny Arnup and Morris Averill worked individually with the artists to draft the documents. Whilst the idea of the process was initially daunting to everyone, it was something that they all saw immense benefit in and the artists all expressed the sense of relief that having a will drafted brought once they were finished.

Robyn's professionalism and commitment has to be commended and we especially appreciated the effort that went into having the drafts completed and returned for checking directly with the artists during the time we were still in Sydney. This ensured clarity and also allowed everyone to double check everything had been covered. The sense of genuine caring did not go unnoticed. We would like to thank them again for allowing us this opportunity.”

This is another example of an Exemplary contribution directly to the well being of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Co-operative established in 1987 would not be in existence as we know it, if we had not had the support of Allens Law Firm and Arts Law in relation to legal assistance by pro bono support. A multitude of volunteers, Artists, Aboriginal and Non-Aboriginal and Artist members, who with a vision and an appetite to secure trust and create solidarity ploughed enormous efforts into this almost irredeemable Aboriginal Co-operative. I am delighted to be standing here tonight, spreading the good news, that working together is fun and a brilliant opportunity to create change, in a Real Way for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and Boomalli extends its gratitude for all the support that we have received."