Cultural Authority and Consultation

When seeking to engage with First Nations cultural heritage on any project, it should be expected that you consult with the appropriate cultural authority at each stage of research, development and production.

Image: Esme Timbery and Jonathan Jones, Shell wall, 2015. Aluminium, two-pack polyurethane paint, fittings, fabricated by DCG Design; 2236 x 350 cm; installation view Alexander R9, Barangaroo, Sydney. Commissioned by Lendlease. Photo by Brett Boardman.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations in our nation’s major cities, are often drawn together from peoples, families and communities with connections to many different nation groups from across the country. The colonial project continues to foster diverse metropolises, which at times can fracture localised cultural heritage within these spaces and pose a risk for artists, collectives and organisations seeking to create a First Nations presence in the urban landscape. These reflections on cultural authority and consultation may assist in ensuring local knowledge is respected and championed when developing your next project.

Cultural Authority

When seeking to engage with First Nations cultural heritage on any project, it should be expected that you consult with the appropriate cultural authority at each stage of research, development and production. All too often, it is assumed that this cultural authority is the Local Aboriginal Land Council (LALC). While LALC’s have legislative responsibilities under western law; Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1983; 2001, when their constituents, representatives and staff are from off Country, the notion of cultural authority become problematic. Although they may be knowledgeable, it is likely that a local community member is more appropriate to advise on the cultural heritage connected to that Country. This will never be a one stop shop. If you are uncertain of where to start, seek out local Indigenous owned and run businesses, galleries and organisations, attend community events and reach out to colleagues who have collaborated in the past. This requires due diligence and you may need to engage with a variety of cultural custodians, language and song holders, cultural practitioners and artists, storytellers and custodians of cultural sites, plants and medicines. This process is vital in empowering First Nations communities and ensuring local knowledges are disseminated from generation to generation, Indigenous and non-Indigenous.


It is critical to understand the communal nature of knowledge when engaging First Nations communities in a process of consultation. Although you may be consulting with a small number of community representatives, intergenerational transfer of knowledge means it is likely these representatives will need to consult with the broader community on various aspects of your project. Recommendation is made that you provide unhurried time and all relevant information, material and questions in the lead up to consultation meetings. This prevents instances of representatives feeling pressured to approve the use of cultural heritage without community permission. It also provides a platform for community consensus and creates a culturally safe space for representatives to feel comfortable in speaking with one voice.

Despite numerous publications and documents that explain this in detail, it is apparent that many people working in the arts are unaware or dismissive of the protocols when engaging First Nations communities. In the same way we advocate for the fair pay of early-career, mid-career and established artists relative to years of experience, so too can a similar methodology be applied when consulting with community representatives. Often respected elders bring with them countless decades of knowledge, experiences and relationships, and must be paid accordingly and acknowledged where appropriate. In valuing First Nations cultural heritage and perspectives we can foster positive cross–cultural exchange that will benefit the broader social, cultural and political landscapes.

This article is supported by the NSW Government through Create NSW.