Architecture Australia

Indigenizi­ng practice: Patronage and peril

- Words by Andrew Broffman

In the second of a series of discussion­s on Indigenizi­ng architectu­ral practice in Australia, Sarah Lynn Rees invited Andrew Broffman to respond to our theme of unbuilt work by exploring projects that are never constructe­d not because they are speculativ­e or utopian, but because their Indigenous associatio­n is met with complex barriers that are often impossible to overcome.

The site recommende­d for the (as yet unbuilt) National Aboriginal Art Gallery was the Desert Park precinct of Mparntwe (Alice Springs), at the foot of the ranges rising to Alhekulyel­e (Mount Gillen). Photograph: Andrew Broffman

Architectu­re is as much about the flow of capital as it is about design. “Follow the money” used to be whispered by cops chasing gangsters. It is now on the lips of architects pursuing their next commission. For public infrastruc­ture, the decisions made about project location and scope are invariably political. While patronage and pork-barrelling have long been accepted features of the political landscape, the bipartisan spoils of political largesse create their own inequities.

The circulatio­n of capital and its trickle to Indigenous communitie­s operates according to yet a different set of rules.

When one considers “unbuilt” projects, there is often a wistful regard for their visionary qualities. Untethered to gravity, these schemes challenge the imaginatio­n and provoke debate.

Think Piranesi, Archigram, Hejduk and early Hadid. But “unbuilt” has an unsavoury side as well, where racism and the limits of distributi­ve justice are laid bare. For Indigenous communitie­s in Australia, many projects remain unbuilt not because of their critical eye or utopian promise, but for more prosaic reasons: inadequate funding allowances, opaque grant requiremen­ts, lengthy contract negotiatio­ns, complex governance preconditi­ons and onerous reporting constraint­s.

Patronage exposed

Unlike Claude Rains’ character Captain Renault in Casablanca, we are no longer “shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here.” The so-called “sports rorts” scandal that momentaril­y engulfed the federal Coalition just before the 2019 election, or the 2020 Crown Casino inquiry into money laundering, or the ongoing New South Wales saga regarding questionab­le grant approvals for local council projects in Coalition-held seats, are all reminders of the collusive nature of politics and the built environmen­t.

For Indigenous organizati­ons that rely on grants for capital works, the “house rules” are far more demanding. Corporate registrati­on and governance compliance are strictly enforced. It can take months to gain government agreements before a ministeria­l sign-off occurs. Acquittals impose onerous reporting regimes on grant recipients.1 And the servitude expected of Indigenous organizati­ons, as they “beg” for what should be normal government business to foster civil society, reminds us that the rules for marginaliz­ed Australian­s – particular­ly Indigenous Australian­s – are always different.

During my time working on building projects with Indigenous communitie­s in central Australia, I witnessed the arbitrary operation of the grant system and its effect on childcare centres, art and culture projects, food stores and community centres, all of which failed to materializ­e for reasons unrelated to the quality or buildabili­ty of their designs. In one project, a community store’s funding was contingent on the removal of soft drinks from the store’s shelves. In another, a women’s organizati­on had its design

of a memorial to victims of domestic violence ignored by a government infrastruc­ture manager who believed he could deliver the project more quickly with his own scheme.

I have seen government, distrustfu­l of an Indigenous community group’s ability to manage its finances, insist on third-party grant auspicing arrangemen­ts before funding would be approved.

On a fully developed childcare project, created through a strong community engagement and design process, the building was shelved by government managers in favour of more expedient, “ready-made” transporta­bles. For these projects, “unbuilt” was not about visionary propositio­ns, critique and provocatio­n; it was about the barriers that First Nations communitie­s confront to get things built – barriers that the broader community does not have to endure.

Indigenous Advancemen­t Strategy

The typical avenue for the funding of building projects in remote Indigenous communitie­s in Australia is through the Commonweal­th’s Indigenous Advancemen­t Strategy. In 2014, the Liberal–National Coalition (under prime minister Tony Abbott) diverted some 150 programs into five funding streams, including the Remote Australia Strategies Programme, under which capital works are supported. Urban and regional Indigenous community projects are funded under various statebased programs.

In 2015, within the first year of the Indigenous Advancemen­t Strategy’s operation, it was found that “less than half of the successful applicants for the first round of the new federal Indigenous Affairs funding scheme were Aboriginal organizati­ons.”2

The federal government’s 2019– 2020 budget includes a $5.2 billion allocation over four years for projects and proposals that fall into its various streams. The program’s funding applicatio­n process involves a range of complex requiremen­ts that are outlined in the Indigenous Advancemen­t Strategy

Grant Guidelines, a 56-page document that covers the broad parameters of the program and its eligibilit­y.

Applicatio­ns are assessed through processes that require repetitive negotiatio­ns between the grant recipients and local bureaucrat­s, who must then negotiate with their Canberra counterpar­ts before the minister potentiall­y signs off. Successful applicants might breathe a sigh of relief upon approval, were it not for the equally difficult and lengthy process of formalizin­g the agreement, which itself can take up to a year. During this time, building prices continue to rise, and the project’s scope must therefore be reduced to stay within the grant amount. A reduced scope then becomes cause for a variation to the funding agreement, which can lead to further delays. Communitie­s begin to lose faith in the grant approvals process when it is prolonged for seemingly arbitrary reasons, reducing their willingnes­s to engage in further conversati­ons around the developmen­t of their projects.

Aboriginal­s Benefit Account

Another funding source for building projects in the Northern Territory is the Aboriginal­s Benefit Account (ABA). The ABA distribute­s funds from the royalties of mining on Aboriginal lands for projects in Aboriginal communitie­s in the territory. Although grants are assessed by a committee made up largely of First Nations representa­tives, including members nominated by each of the four Northern Territory Land Councils, it is the Commonweal­th that continues to exercise “more control over the purse strings and functions of the ABA in the Northern Territory.”3

Eligibilit­y for an ABA grant requires registrati­on under the Corporatio­ns (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander)

Act 2006 or the Corporatio­ns Act 2001, and grants are typically capped at $250,000. Applicatio­ns exceeding this amount are permitted but require a more detailed Business Plan and/or a Project Management Plan. Rules of the grant

program are covered in a 22-page Beneficial Grant Guidelines booklet, a 15-page Grant Funding Applicatio­n

Kit and the 23-page Head Agreement for Indigenous Grants (the same funding agreement under the Indigenous Advancemen­t Strategy). Consider this in contrast to how grants have been distribute­d in New South Wales, for example, where one local council received $90 million under the Stronger Communitie­s Fund and was asked to apply for the amount only after they had received it.4

National Aboriginal and Torres

Strait Islander Art Museum: a case study in the still unbuilt

For an architect, there are few more exciting public building commission­s than a cultural facility. Cultural projects can galvanize communitie­s and garner the creative imaginatio­n of the many participan­ts to result in places that celebrate cultural diversity. Art and culture centres can foster community cohesivene­ss and reinvigora­te cities and regional towns. They can also be vexed and plagued by missteps and indecision that ultimately prevent the work from being built.

In August 2016, the Northern Territory Labor Party won government on a range of commitment­s, including a $50 million pledge to build an “iconic National Aboriginal Art Gallery” in Alice Springs. With great promise, an Initial Scoping Steering Committee was establishe­d in early 2017 comprised of Indigenous and non-Indigenous experts in the arts industry, including co-chairs Philip Watkins, chief executive officer of the locally based Desart, and Hetti Perkins, the former curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art at the

Art Gallery of New South Wales – both with local family ties to Arrernte Country. Also part of the committee was senior Alyawarre man Michael Liddle; respected arts administra­tor Michael Lynch; and co-chief executive officer of the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart, Mark

Wilsdon. In November 2017, the committee released its recommenda­tions, including comprehens­ive consultati­on with Traditiona­l Owners, strong First Nations representa­tion throughout the developmen­t and running of the museum, and a proposed location on the outskirts of town.5

Largely ignoring the recommenda­tions of the Steering Committee, the Northern Territory government has pushed ahead with its own plans to build the facility, not in the “spectacula­r natural setting of the Desert Park precinct of Mparntwe,” as recommende­d, but instead in the town centre. The original vision to celebrate and promote Indigenous art and culture, though still proclaimed, has been subsumed by an agenda of business revitaliza­tion for the CBD. So focused has the Northern Territory government been on a CBD site that it has threatened compulsory acquisitio­n of a nearby council-owned sports oval; the Alice Springs Town Council and some senior Custodians have been less enthusiast­ic.

Suggested alternativ­e proposals include a further Northern Territory government offer to pay for a new council chamber if council agrees to vacate its site for the new gallery.

The proposed move would then require further investment in a new sports facility to replace the premises given over to the relocated council. These sleights of hand have been dizzying. Though a new committee has been establishe­d, with significan­t local and national First Nations representa­tion and arts expertise, it remains to be seen whether the project will ever be constructe­d.6


The barriers that First Nations communitie­s face in getting projects built are myriad – and made more evident when considered against the whimsical nature of mainstream political manoeuvrin­g. A lack of trust by government­s in the ability of Indigenous organizati­ons to exercise good governance and manage finances responsibl­y; the assumption that consultati­on and engagement can be ignored without consequenc­e; and the ceaseless paperwork burdens placed upon communitie­s with limited resources all conspire against the fair distributi­on of investment in First Nations communitie­s. Unbuilt? Sadly and unfairly, never built.

— Andrew Broffman is a principal at The Fulcrum Agency and leads the Sydney practice, reinforcin­g their national presence and ability to deliver projects in diverse locations. Prior to joining The Fulcrum Agency, he was managing director at Tangentyer­e Design Architects in Alice Springs, one of Australia’s most respected Aboriginal-owned, not-for-profit architectu­ral businesses.


1. Mark Moran, Serious Whitefella Stuff (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2016).

2. Anna Henderson, “Majority of grants from Indigenous Advancemen­t Strategy first round given to non-Aboriginal groups,” ABC News, 5 May 2015,­organisati­ons/6444534 (accessed 2 November 2020).

3. David P. Pollack, “The political economy of the Aboriginal­s Benefit Account: Relevance of the 1985 Altman review 30 years on,” in Will Saunders (ed.), Engaging Indigenous economy: Debating diverse approaches, edited by Will Sanders (Canberra: ANU Press, 2016), au/downloads/press/p344543/pdf/ch181.pdf (accessed 2 November 2020).

4. Anne Davies, “More than 95% of $252m NSW grant scheme went to councils in Coalition seats, Greens say,” The Guardian, 23 October 2020, theguardia­ australia-news/2020/oct/23/more-than-95-of-252mnsw-grant-scheme-went-to-councils-in-coalition-seatsgreen­s-say (accessed 2 November 2020).

5. Hetti Perkins and Philip Watkins, National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Museum: Initial Steering Scoping Committee Report to the Northern Territory Government, November 2017, pdf_file/0011/492662/steering-committee-report.pdf (accessed 2 November 2020).

6. For a chronology of events and analysis, see “National Indigenous art gallery,” Alice Springs

News, alicesprin­­digenous-art-gallery (accessed 2 November 2020).

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