Indigenizing Practice: Patronage and Peril

This article by TF.A Principal, Andrew Broffman, was first published in the Jan/Feb 2021 edition of Architecture Australia and is the second in a series of discussions on Indigenizing architectural practice in Australia. Sarah Lynn Rees invited Andrew to respond to the 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.

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 creates its 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’s 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 buildabilty 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, this 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 state-based 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 organisations.” (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 2006or 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)


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).
Image: Andrew Broffman
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).

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.


  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, (accessed 2 November 2020).

  1. 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), (accessed 2 November 2020).

  1. Anne Davies, “More than 95% of $252m NSW grant scheme went to councils in Coalition seats, Greens say,” The Guardian, 23 October 2020. (accessed 2 November 2020).

  1. 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, (accessed 2 November 2020).
  2. For a chronology of events and analysis, see “National Indigenous art gallery,” Alice Springs News, (accessed 2 November 2020).


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