A private art dealer in Alice Springs has said allegations that he had taken elderly Indigenous artists from their communities to paint for him and that one was being forced to paint away a $20,000 debt for her son were being “intentionally fabricated”.
The dealer, John Ioannou, contacted Guardian Australia through a friend to provide his defence to allegations made against him by the APY artist collective in a letter to the federal ministers for Indigenous Australians and the arts, and the South Australian premier.
Ioannou confirmed NT police had visited his residence to speak to the artists after receiving a complaint. He said he believed the allegations were being made against him because he was “the biggest threat [art centres] face”.
The letter that sparked the police visit is signed by 69 artists from APY Art Centre Collective. It alleges that the high-profile artist Yaritji Young was told she had to make paintings to service a $20,000 debt that her son owed Ioannou.
Ioannou categorically denied the claim.
He said he had nothing to hide and his “books are open for anyone who wants to see”.
When asked if Young had painted for him this week, and what she’d been paid, Ioannou responded: “Why do you want to know that?”
He said Young had started a couple of unfinished paintings, which he said were not of the quality he was looking for to display in his proposed gallery.
Asked to clarify if she’d been paid for that work, Ioannou replied “No.”
Ioannou said three artists had stayed, not at his house but at an Alice Springs hotel paid for by him, for the past 10 days and that they had all left or were about to leave for a funeral.
He claimed they were discussing a new gallery he was opening but he later suggested they had painted for him.
“I made a proposition to a certain artist here because I’m starting up a business again that will be run through a legal firm,” Ioannou told Guardian Australia. “A lot of the artists – I’m very well known here – approach me on a daily basis to do painting.”
He said the three artists came of their own volition so they could discuss “propositions for future work together” and he was seeking legal advice about working with the artists.
He claimed under his proposed gallery, which he said would open next year, artists would all be paid 50% of the sale price, transferred directly to their account by the buyer, with statements for transparency.
He said this was to “counter any claims that I’m somehow exploiting the artist”. He conceded this was not how he had operated in the past as a private dealer.
Earlier on Thursday, the curator of Aboriginal art at the Museum and Art Gallery of the NT, Luke Scholes, told ABC radio in Alice Springs that over many years working as a remote Aboriginal community art adviser he had seen unscrupulous conduct by private dealers, including behaviour that was “close to” kidnapping.
Scholes said when he was working at art centres in Kintore and Kiwirrkurra, “private dealers would come without the necessary permits and literally sit in their four-wheel-drives at the edge of the art centre fence and wait for one senior artist to finish the day’s work, to be bundled into a car and driven into Alice Springs or elsewhere.”
Scholes said the allegations made this week had brought up a feeling of “immediate distress” that carpetbagging might be returning.
“The rise of this 10 years ago I was very close to, and at the time it felt like a tsunami. It felt like every second shed in Elder St [Alice Springs] was a painting studio for someone,” he said.
“Things aren’t quite that bad [yet], but I really do think there is potential for an increase in private dealers and their activities.”
He said protecting artists against exploitation was a “complex area to legislate” but a parliamentary inquiry and media attention might help educate consumers about how to buy art ethically. He said it was good that art centres were educating their artists about unscrupulous practices.
“I see the APYACC as a very engaged group of artists … in their own art centres and with their own artists. They’re very interested in where their art ends up after it leaves the art centre,” he said.
“I have great confidence in the management of the APYACC … and that, if they do have contracts with their artists, that their artists are signing them with full disclosure.”
On Monday the South Australian premier, Steven Marshall, said he was “very concerned of the potential for artists on the [Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara] lands to be exploited” and directed Arts SA to convene a meeting to further explore potential solutions to unethical practices.
The minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, told Guardian Australia he was “deeply concerned about reports regarding ‘carpetbagging’ in Alice Springs and South Australia”, and had asked the National Indigenous Australians Agency “to look into this matter and provide me with an urgent update”.
Guardian Australia has attempted to reach Yaritji Young for comment.