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Old ways new tools – How the pandemic set DAAF’s digital future

Oct 06, 2022

Image: The Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair online platform, DAAFF

When Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair went online in 2020, it had no idea it would change their business model forever, driving record sales and sector-wide digital transformation.

In March 2020, the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair (DAAF), one of the country’s most anticipated art events, realised it had a problem. With Australia’s first COVID-19 lockdowns announced, not only was the physical art fair suddenly impossible, the economic sustainability of the entire First Nations art sector that it promotes and supports was under threat.

So the team from the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair Foundation (DAAFF) went straight to its 70 remote Aborignal and Torres Strait Islander art centre members to find out what immediate challenges they were facing and what support they were needing.

Some art centres were shutting down entirely, as artists returned to their communities and outstations hundreds of kilometres away. Others were only allowing one or two artists into their studios at a time to meet social distancing requirements. Meanwhile, many managers were trying to choose whether to lock down in community or head home to their families, potentially leaving artists without an income or on the ground support.

‘The first message was that safety comes first,’ said DAAFF Executive Director Claire Summers. ‘And the safest place for artists and arts workers from remote communities was out on their homelands. The other message that was overwhelmingly clear was: We need you to help us make sales.’

With some hesitation, the DAAFF team made one of the biggest decisions in their 15-year history. They’d take their complete program online – somehow. They began to build their own online platform.

‘There was great nervousness about cyber-security as well as the protection of intellectual property,’ Claire said. ‘We worked hard to ensure art centres were aware of the potential implications of uploading artwork online.’

Just ten weeks later, they hit the ‘go live button’ and launched the digital art fair and had the joy (and horror) of watching their site crash on its first day, temporarily a victim of its own immediate success. By the end of the fair, they’d turned over $2.6 million through the platform, with 100 per cent of all sales going back to art centres.

‘Almost 45,000 unique visitors, each averaged 11 minutes on the site with two million overall page views,’ says Claire.

‘It was just amazing getting all this key information in real time. It unleashed the data nerds in us.’

More significantly than the raw numbers, DAAFF noticed that 75 per cent of visitors had never visited the fair before, pointing to a surge in both international visitation and sales.

‘We were looking at completely new audiences that were able to access this industry for the very first time,’ Claire said. ‘We didn’t have the tyranny of distance to contend with, in expecting people to come to Darwin. And we could also work across all time zones world wide.’

‘They were saying, ‘Thank God you’ve gone online – I’ve been able to actually come to the fair this year’.

The excitement went both ways: artists at home in remote communities were getting up in the middle of the night to go online and check if their artworks had sold.

The 2020 digital experience changed the DAAF sales model forever. Returning in 2021, its online platform generated record sales of $3.1 million. Even with the return of an in-person fair again in 2022, DAAFF decided to retain still offer its online platform to audiences, a hybrid approach that once again saw sales records topple.

How authenticity and control brought the buzz

DAAFF puts its digital success down to centering the unique needs of their members in the design of its online platform, and doing everything they can to translate the famously infectious buzz of the physical art fair into the online space.

This means giving art centres power over how their work and story is represented online. Each of the 69 participating art centres individually manage their images, video content, artwork and sales in their own password-protected section of the platform, mirroring the control art centres normally have over their booths at the physical fair.

‘They have full control,’ Claire said. ‘They could upload or remove works throughout the whole eleven days of the online fair. They also had a choice to use our payment gateway or manage payments directly via email, and opt in or out at any time.’

But the different levels of digital uptake and readiness among art centres is also apparent. Some have full-scale media centres at their fingertips and were already creating virtual experiences, while others don’t even have a website.

This gap is being bridged through countless hours of technical support as well as numerous training programs and skills development workshops provided by the peak bodies. Furthermore, the fair also hosted its public program online, offering everything from digital weaving workshops (with materials posted weeks in advance), to pre-recorded video dance performances. First Nations artists embraced digital platforms in bold new ways.

‘For many artists, 2020 was the first time they’d ever used Zoom,’ Artistic Director Shilo McNamee said. ‘And it allowed them to come from a position of strength. They were presenting from their home, on Country and in their studios where they’re used to working. They’d be weaving and say ‘We’re up to this bit now, where are your mob up to?’ or mute someone that was being too loud. They overcame that physical separation and created the kind of intimate spaces that everyone loves about the fair. They loved it.’

This changed format achieves a kind of authenticity and intimacy between artists and buyers. ‘This intimate contact has always been key to making sales,’ Claire agrees.

‘You can’t sell Indigenous art without talking about cultural knowledge and understanding, and by acknowledging history, people, place and Country. One doesn’t work without the other.’

Remote art centres are now building on these new digital skills, experiences and approaches into their regular business models through online sale, workshops and events. The pandemic has driven rapid and sector-wide innovation.

DAAF’s digital transformation has left a big impression on funders and supporters too. The Ian Potter Foundation is now supporting DAAFF to develop a year-round national online platform for art centres, including sales, exhibition and programming spaces, as well as international development and digital skills programs for art centres.