Art centres supporting our Elders - 'old people, that's where our strength comes from' - results from a national survey of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community controlled art centres

Paulene Mackell, Kathryn Squires, Scott Fraser, Jessica Cecil, Maree Meredith, Roslyn Malay, Melissa A. Lindeman, Chrischona Schmidt, Frances Batchelor, Briony Dow

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Introduction: There are approximately 90 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community controlled art centres across Australia, the majority in geographically remote locations. This survey explored how these centres are supporting older people, including people living with dementia, if and how they are collaborating with aged care services and what challenges and opportunities they identify in these arrangements. 

Methods: An online survey was developed by a team of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal researchers, art centre staff and art centre consultants. The survey was distributed in 2018 to art centres across Australia via their four art centre peak bodies: Desart; the Association of Northern, Kimberley and Arnhem Aboriginal Artists; the Indigenous Art Centre Alliance – Far North Queensland and Torres Strait Islands; and the Aboriginal Art Centre Hub – Western Australia. The survey was also conducted face-toface with participants at art centre annual events; and on field trips to North Western and Central Australia, conducted as part of an overarching study. 

Results: There were 53 completed surveys, with the highest proportion of responses (43%) from art centre managers. The survey generated 330 qualitative responses to the 13 questions that provided this option. The results showed that art centres play a wide ranging and vital role in supporting the health and wellbeing of older artists, many of whom are considered Elders within their communities, and that this reaches far beyond the production of art. The results showed that art centres are a safe place providing older people with the purpose and means to generate income, to enact governance, and to share cultural knowledge through intergenerational connection. Additionally, the results indicate that art centres provide a significant amount of direct care for older people, and that relationships are fundamental to delivering this social, emotional, spiritual and physical care. Furthermore, they showed a great deal of collaboration between art centres and aged care services, although little of this is formally documented or resourced. 

Conclusion: The survey results demonstrate that art centres play a significant and previously unexplored role in supporting the wellbeing of older people and people living with dementia in remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities across Australia. Respondents shared diverse examples of providing physical, social, emotional, spiritual and cultural care, assistance with navigating health and aged care systems, as well as examples of collaborations with aged care and health providers. The results demonstrate opportunities to recognise and resource this vital work. These findings are particularly important in the context of Australia’s recent Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety, which found that systemic change is urgently required. Additionally, Indigenous scholars have called for a swell of system reform to address inequities in health and aged care systems. They advocate for a fundamental shift from biomedical and siloed models of care to integrated models that centralise culture, intergenerational connection and the cultural determinants of health. The results show that art centres could bring their expertise to this conversation

Original languageEnglish
Article number6850
Number of pages12
JournalRural and Remote Health
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 30 May 2022


  • Aboriginal and torres strait islander peoples
  • Aged care
  • Art centres
  • Australia
  • Dementia
  • Elders
  • First nations
  • Indigenous
  • Remote communities
  • Wellbeing


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