carpetbagger - noun: a person who exploits an Indigenous artist for profit.
In an article addressing the issue of the ‘enslavement and exploitation’ of Aboriginal artists, Indigenous art centre directors from central Australia warned of the difficulty of stamping out carpetbaggers:
Measures are taken to protect vulnerable artists against one carpetbagger and it is only a matter of time before another one pops up demonstrating the very same unscrupulous and dangerous behaviour.’ (Guardian Australia, 13 December, 2019)
The term came to national attention more than a decade ago in a defamation case initiated by an Alice Springs art gallery:
Red Sand had sued the magazine for defamation over a series of articles in which it looked at the term ‘carpetbagger’. The gallery alleged that the 2005–06 articles imputed that one of its employees was a carpetbagger and that it acted unethically in coming between Watson and his community, the Irrunytju, for private gain. (Australian Financial Review, 8 May 2008)
In the context of Indigenous art, carpetbagger has a specifically Australian meaning. But where does the term comes from, and what does a carpet bag have to do with art and artists?
The original carpetbaggers were American opportunists. They were Northerners who travelled to the South following the American Civil War, looking to profit from the rebuilding of the South during Reconstruction. They often carried little more than a carpet bag, a cheaper and more portable form of luggage than trunks or cases. Carpetbagger was originally a derogatory epithet; the term implies that they came with very little but expected to gain a lot.
An extended sense emerged later in the 19th century, referring to a political candidate who sought election in an area outside their own, where they had no local connection. This sense of an unwelcome outsider candidate is still current today in the US and elsewhere. Another more general sense of carpetbagger, with the meaning of an opportunistic outsider seeking personal gain, but without the political reference, has also developed. Both of these senses are current in Australia.
The modern carpetbagger no longer carries a carpet bag, but the original spirit of opportunism is firmly embedded in the term. And the notion of opportunism informs the latest, Australian, sense.
Unsurprisingly, evidence suggests it was first used within the arts community. A contemporary art magazine has an early reference:
He told me about the weekly arrival of enthusiastic and ever-hopeful carpetbaggers with rolls of mediocre and rarely authenticated Central Australian dot paintings under their arms who expected to be welcomed with open arms and wallets. (Artlink, December 1998)
The term gained wider currency after a 2007 Senate inquiry into issues affecting the Indigenous art industry. The report, published in June of that year, provides a good description of the unscrupulous opportunist:
The term carpetbagger can be applied to particular individuals, backyard dealers, commercial gallery owners, private agents, or persons operating other legitimate businesses such as car yards or motels. Such a person is usually not Indigenous and seeks to obtain art from an artist at a price well below what that person knows or ought to know is a reasonable market price, with the intention of selling it on at a substantial profit. (Indigenous Art – Securing the Future, 2007)
While the report made a number of recommendations to overcome the exploitation of Indigenous artists by carpetbaggers, it also noted that the issue would not go away while dodgy dealers could still make large profits. In early 2020 the federal Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, supported the idea of legislative change to stamp out the practice of carpetbagging.
Carpetbagger will be considered for inclusion in the next edition of the Australian National Dictionary.