Arts Law: Wills for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Artists

We’ve been travelling to some of the communities and the Indigenous art centres and we’ve been doing Wills Workshops with the local artists. It might seem a somewhat strange thing for us to be doing at Arts Law, but the reason we got involved in the wills workshops was because when some Indigenous artists were passing away it became apparent that no one had thought about their copyright, no one had thought about the fact that there was this potential income stream, something that might be there to support and help their family after they’d gone and we were struggling to understand the intestacy laws and work out how to help those artists It became clear that a will was a solution to that problem. It’s very important for artists to have a will for a couple of reasons. The most obvious one is that their art survives them, so it’s out there long after they’ve passed away and it gives every artist the capacity to have an income stream that will be there when they’re gone that can benefit their family. It’s particularly important for artists, whether you’re a visual artist or a musician or a filmmaker because you have copyright, which can continue to be used for 70 years after the artist passes away. And now for visual artists there’s resale royalty, which means that when their body of work is moving around out there from buyer to buyer in the art world it’s going to generate a little bit of money that comes back to that artist or that artist’s estate. The will is the means by which the artist says ‘these are the people I want to look after and benefit from any money that comes back from my art after I’m gone’. If they don’t have a will there is legislation in every state which specifies who in the artist’s family will benefit from whatever the artist had when they passed away. It’s quite a confronting conversation for an artist to have with us about the scenario of when they’ve passed away. It’s something we’ve learnt to approach very carefully, because the last thing we want to do is cross any traditional boundary or upset people. So we try and inform ourselves before we go out there the best way to approach that, how to make the artists comfortable in talking about this. My own experience is that when artists realise that they have something special, that they have something that can look after their family when they’re not here, artists enjoy using their art to look after their family during their lifetime, so understanding that it can be used after they’re gone to look after their family is a very positive thing, so we try and approach it that way rather than focusing on death and dying and those concepts. The other difficulty is that I only speak English. So we need the help of translators and people in the community to work with us and to explain quite foreign concepts to the artists. Sometimes it’s something that they’ve never really thought about and they feel uncomfortable thinking about, and so it’s really important that we work really closely with an interpreter or a translator who understands the cultural sensitivities in that particular community, who understands what we’re trying to achieve and who is sympathetic to the artists too. Visual artists are very visual obviously, and given the language barrier I always tend to start with a family tree. I draw a little family tree and I say to each artist ‘so this is you tell me about your family’ and we draw a little map, and identify each child and each grandchild and adopted children and other children they may have brought up, brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews that are important in that family. And I find even the artists that don’t read or write English they remember perfectly where I did the little box with that granddaughter or this son, and when we’re talking about them later they’ll point to it and say, ‘Yes I want to look after that boy’ and ‘this daughter she’s got another child you need to write her name down there.’ And that’s a really, I find that a really bonding, intimate experience and I feel really honored actually, to be invited by the artist to share in their family story and they talk to me about who is important to them and who they look after. That makes it very easy then to have the conversation about, when you’re not here, when you’ve passed away there might be some money for you from your art, and how do you want to look after your family.

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