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Culture Counts - Cairns Indigenous Art Fair

Vanessa Gillian, General Manager, Cairns Indigenous Art Fair talks about her organisation's involvement in the 2016 Culture Counts pilot and what they learned about audience diversity and how peer and public views compare . . .

The Cairns Indigenous Art Fair (CIAF), now in its seventh year, was keen to undertake the opportunity to pilot Culture Counts when it was offered in late 2015 through Arts Queensland (AQ).  Since CIAF’s move out of AQ in 2014, to become a company limited by guarantee, the new CIAF management discovered they needed more statistical information for marketing and programming decisions.

CIAF brings the diversity and richness of Queensland Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art and culture together with the world’s leading collectors and curators. Queensland Indigenous art has its own distinct aesthetic, influenced by the vast and varied landscapes of this state. Bright colours, parochial genres like ghost net artwork, as well as pottery, painting and many other art forms feature at CIAF.

The annual CIAF program centres on an art fair, which offers a unique mix of Indigenous visual art, dance, song, theatre, film, fashion and food at the Cairns Cruise Liner Terminal and at six other venues across the Cairns cityscape.

We chose to participate in the Culture Counts pilot to capture data about our event to help understand what CIAF means to the public and their response to the specific event experiences. It was important to CIAF management to identify and understand audiences more deeply, how to reach them, the specific value they gain from attending and what will attract a return visit. 

CIAF was able to use Culture Counts for two events – the first at our inaugural CIAF Fashion Performance as part of the Virgin Australia Melbourne Fashion Festival in March 2016. This was an exciting opportunity to profile CIAF outside of Cairns. We also used Culture Counts during CIAF 2016 (12-17 July) with attendees approached by our team of volunteers to complete surveys. 

Demographically CIAF draws a very diverse crowd – from remote community Indigenous artists to international art collectors, to visiting tourists and local families. It was important for us to understand the drivers for attendance, the desire for learning about Indigenous culture and what other experiences audiences have so we can respond specifically to that. 

What was fascinating was the ability to see how our marketing and advertising had cut through to a new audience with 44 per cent of our audience never having attended an Indigenous Art Fair/CIAF before and 90 per cent of visitors finding the Art Fair important for its positive local impact.

Artists on opening night at CIAF

Interestingly the peer and self-assessment feature of the surveying platform resulted in some thought-provoking findings.

Being able to see how we perceive ourselves versus how our peers see us, was intriguing and exciting with the chance to see that what CIAF delivers was above and beyond most expectations of peers. Distinctiveness, a core element for CIAF, was questioned on a number of levels with varying results – again providing a healthy review during our debrief process.

Participating in the Culture Counts 2016 pilot also helped us to develop evaluation skills in looking at gender and other demographic factors, which will achieve efficiencies in targeting and growing our audiences more effectively and provide information for future marketing strategies.

Surveying the audience’s artistic experience and their feedback will potentially strengthen arts networks in Queensland and nationally.



Vanessa GillenVanessa Gillen earned a bachelor degree in Fine Arts from Sydney University, before creating a marketing career in the media and entertainment industries.  Her vocational calling lead her from Sydney’s television/ film production world to London, and the glamour of the movie industry, where she worked for United International Pictures as Marketing and Promotions manager. Returning to Sydney after 6 years, Vanessa joined the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) and distributed the organisation’s only film acquisition, Her Majesty Mrs Brown.  She went on to initiate ABC Events, as part of the corporation’s commercial interests, which remains today as a successful part of the national broadcaster’s revenue stream. 

After ten years at ABC, Vanessa moved to the wilds of Cooktown in 2009, with her husband and two young children, and has since decided to make Cairns home. 

Most recently Vanessa spent three years developing and managing the Yarrabah Arts and Cultural Precinct. Now armed with specific experience in working with Indigenous artists, she is once again able to apply her event skills and marketing and management experience to creative purpose as General Manager of CIAF Ltd.