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US collectors aim to give Indigenous Australian curators 'a seat at the table' with fundraising sale of $1.5m Tommy Lowry Tjapaltjarri painting

L. John and Barbara Wilkerson are selling Two Men Dreaming at Kuluntjarranya via Melbourne gallery to fund new arts leadership education programme in the US

Two Men Dreaming at Kuluntjarranya (1984) by Tommy Lowry

The collectors L. John and Barbara Wilkerson are selling a desert painting with a controversial history in order to fund a new US university programme aimed at giving Indigenous Australian curators “a seat at the table” in the global museum world.

The Wilkersons, long-term Indigenous art collectors who live in New York, bought Two Men Dreaming at Kuluntjarranya (1984) by Tommy Lowry Tjapaltjarri through Sotheby’s Melbourne for AUS$576,000 (US$445,832) in 2007.

Unexpectedly denied an export permit after the auction, when three experts said it was “a pivotal work in the history of Western Desert art”, the Wilkersons had to settle for gaining a series of temporary export permits that allowed Two Men Dreaming at Kuluntjarranya to be shown as part of the Icons of the Desert: Early Aboriginal Paintings from Papunya touring exhibition mounted in association with the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University. As such, the painting was seen at various American universities. It was also hung for over a year in Beyond Dreamings: The Rise of Indigenous Australian Art, at the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection at the University of Virginia.

The painting is now for sale for AUS$2m (US$1.5m) through D’Lan Contemporary gallery in Melbourne. In lieu of being able to permanently export the work, the Wilkersons will commit the net proceeds to their vision for a “top-tier” educational programme to facilitate the careers of Indigenous Australian curators.

John Wilkerson says he is in discussion with several east coast US universities about how the programme would be set up and delivered. “There’s a lot of minds involved in crafting it and trying to optimise it,” he says. “I’m providing a vision and the wherewithal to get this programme going, but it has to be executed by like minded individuals who are qualified for the education side of it, and that’s not me.

Wilkerson adds: “The success would be measured by looking backwards and seeing how many [Indigenous Australians] are now sitting at the board table where goals, strategies and implementation structures are agreed upon and funded.”

He hopes the initiative will lead to Indigenous Australian museum professionals rising to become museum directors: “Individuals like this will become role models for others in their communities...You’ve got to have a seat at the governing table where goals, strategies and funding decisions are made if you want to have something beyond incremental change.”

Wilkerson has just finished his 10th year on the board of the Smithsonian Institution and is also on the board of the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington. The Hirshhorn’s director is the Australian Melissa Chiu.

According to an essay by the curator John Kean accompanying the sale of Two Men Dreaming at Kuluntjarranya, Tommy Lowry was shot and killed during a card game at Kiwirrkurra in the Gibson Desert in 1987.

Melbourne art consultant and dealer D’Lan Davidson of D’Lan Contemporary says Two Men Dreaming at Kuluntjarranya is for sale in the gallery’s Significant exhibition, 17 June to 31 July.