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he arts in Indonesia are thriving, artistically as well as commercially. And in recent years, artists from Indonesia have

entered the limelight of the global art arena and enjoy a regular participation at events in Singapore, Hong Kong and far beyond. They participate in international exhibitions, biennales and auctions, and their works are collected by museums abroad (for example, by the Singapore Art Museum and the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo) and private collectors. However, these vibrant developments are not supported by a solid infrastructure for the arts in Indonesia. Can the recent artistic and commercial boom of art from Indonesia be sustained without such an infrastructure? Thinking about an art infrastructure requires a starting point, for which I use an art museum in this essay, as it could be considered as one element of such an art infrastructure. The arts in Indonesia are not strongly institutionalized due to, among other reasons, a state with minimal interest in the arts and a fragmented arts community. As a consequence, art journals and magazines, libraries and archives are struggling (in Jakarta, six libraries, though, decided to collaborate;; there are no government-sponsored contemporary art research grants; collection and conservation of art are privatized; etc. As a result, art practices – including curatorial practices – come with a fair amount of improvisation, learning on the job and

All images: courtesy of the Artists

resourcefulness. Another result is little specialization and multi-tasking (many curators have multiple jobs,


they can at the very same time also be artists, teachers, gallery

Yudi Yudoyoko Dreamy Head, 2011 Digital print on cotton paper 56 x 43 cm

owners, art critics, etc.).

Plea for an art museum in Indonesia Roy Voragen

Moreover, Indonesian universities do not have art history or curatorial practice study programs. None of the Indonesian curators has an educational background in art history, curatorial practice or art

Erika Ernawan Skelton, 2012 Instalation with Stainless Stell and Chemical Liquid, Neon and Video Documentation of Performance (10min 03sec) Variable dimension

criticism (except for the occasional workshop participated in abroad

“If art is again to play a more central role in our lives, it means that our lives will have to change...” Edgar Wind

– curator Alia Swastika, for example, took curatorial training at De Appel in Amsterdam ( – which more often than not will not be tailored to the Indonesian context and local needs). And still, the arts in Indonesia are doing extremely. In a laissez-faire style, we could leave it at that. Or should we?

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april - May 2012

developments in Indonesia. This argument focuses on the question what

argument after their experiences during Suharto's New Order regime

Art Space in Bandung earlier this year ( – and

artists and artworks should be included in the collective visual memory

(1966-1998), which only allowed for one way to tell and show the story

then the works are out of sight of the public (possibly to surface again

(art history and theory obviously play a role as well). Some curators

of the nation. In a democracy, on the other hand, a museum could be a

at an auction house).

claim that in Indonesia only the art market performs this role. And some

civic place where there is space for dissent and polyphony.

curators would go so far to claim that currently their main job is to put

Now, private museums, exhibition catalogs, magazines, websites,

artists and their works into the market, in this role the curator can be

Another argument is that such a museum could provide artists

libraries (for example the library of Ruang Depan/S.14 in Bandung;

considered a consultant to gallery owners and art collectors.

additional financial support outside the regular art market. The and the Indonesian Visual Art Archive

Singapore Art Museum (, for example,

in Yogyakarta ( fill parts of the void, but, again, more

To be clear, the (art) market is very complex; it is not clear, for example,

focuses on artworks, such as installations, that are often not

is needed. (It is, though, interesting to follow how private museum

how the art market and art practices intersect. And while huge sums

interesting for most private collectors. It is also in the interest of artists

are developing in the future. Could some of these – alone or in

of money are circulating in this market today, perhaps even for the

that their oeuvre and the oeuvres of their fellow artists remain visible

collaboration – come to play the role of a public art museum?)

purpose of spectacular speculation, we have to acknowledge that

and accessible (and not merely through personal websites).

individual collectors can speak passionately about art they collect and artists they support (Dr. Oei Hong Djien certainly comes to mind).

Some argue that a virtual art museum could be a feasible alternative And some other (instrumental) arguments have been put forward:

However, a virtual art museum is no alternative to the physical

it could improve Indonesia’s image abroad (Indonesia is, for

experience of art in an actual exhibition space. We should not forget

A much older argument is that such a museum could be one element

example, more than an abundant reservoir of cheap labor exported

that all art is physical, and, therefore, we relate to art in a physical

in the process of nation building and its visual culture (Benedict

to Singapore, Hong Kong, the Middle East and elsewhere); and by

way, which requires a spatial setting.

Anderson’s imagined community comes to mind). Many (art) museums

improving its image beyond the exotic clichés, Indonesia’s power

in Europe were established for this purpose during the nineteenth

could increase (this is Joseph Samuel Nye’s soft power argument);

An art museum might also improve the quality of art writing: perhaps

century; Indonesians, though, have good reasons to distrust this

and, in turn, it could bolster Indonesia’s GDP (this is Richard Florida’s

one reason why so many Indonesian art writers focus on art discourse

creative industry argument), for example through tourism. Yudi Yudoyoko La Suma De Esperanza, 2011 Digital print on cotton paper 56 x 43 cm

This latter argument is popular among politicians and policy makers, because art and its output can to a certain extend be quantified and thus predicted. However, we are more than homo economicus. We

Yudi Yudoyoko What I Miss the Most, 2011 Digital print on cotton paper 56 x 43 cm

pursuit more than utilitarian (self-)interests. We want to be inspired as well. Art has the intrinsic quality to broaden our horizons in unexpected ways at unanticipated times. However, utilitarianism does Yudi Yudoyoko Kekasih batu, 2011 Digital print on cotton paper 56 x 43 cm

not have the patience for the ethics of wonder (Lee Weng Choy) or surrender (Jeanette Winterson). From Greek to Javanese philosophy, there has been a notion of an art of living: for a virtuous life, ethics as well as aesthetics are essential.

Indonesia lacks an art museum that collects, preserves and exhibits artworks accessible for the general public, and by so doing can put

The above arguments have, in different degrees, validity; however,

the gamut of extraordinary artworks in a context (visual, art historical

above arguments focus on artists, curators, the art market and the

and discursive), so we can learn to experience and appreciate modern

nation. And this is problematic. Even when an exhibition can be

and contemporary art from Indonesia. Biennales, art fairs and other

considered an artistic (and/or commercial) success, most visitors

impermanent exhibitions offer now this context and serve as temporary

to these events are the usual suspects: fellow artists, curators, art

museums for contemporary art in Indonesia. However, more is needed.

critics and collectors, which is a relatively small (but very vibrant)

And an art museum could be one element for this purpose (I am, thus,

community. (Some would argue that most in Indonesia are too poor

not arguing that the establishment of an art museum would suffice).

to care about art.)

Indonesia does not have an art museum and different arguments can

An art museum should function as a collective visual memory and by

be offered why Indonesia needs one. I begin with the most common

showing its collection, we can return time after time to the collected

arguments heard why Indonesia needs a proper art museum (beyond the

and exhibited artworks. We can familiarize ourselves with artworks

question whether it is public or private funded, as long as it is open for the

and we can compare these with other artworks (also from different

public, which does not necessarily mean free admission). These arguments

periods and styles). And by being able to do so, we not only become

focus on artists, curators, the (art) market and the nation. However, there is

acquainted with artworks and developments in the arts, we become

another argument, this argument focuses on the audience.

able to experience art more fully. Moreover, we become able to appreciate art. And experiencing art requires time and effort.

The most common argument heard in Indonesian is the one made by some curators: such a museum could function as an institute that

In Indonesia, we can go to a gallery and see an exhibition – for

supports processes of validation of contemporary art practices and its

example Yudi Yudoyoko's superb solo exhibition at Selasar Sunaryo

april - May 2012

april - May 2012

particular are ephemeral and complex. During the 2011 Singapore

and publish; to design educational programs; etc. – but funding can only

Biennale (, the Singapore Art Museum

be attracted from the state and private partners (not only in cash, but

organized two parallel exhibitions: ‘It’s Now or never II, New

also tax exemptions, in kind such as a building and loans of artworks,

Contemporary Art Acquisitions from Southeast Asia’ and ‘Negotiating

etc.) if public interest in the arts increases substantially. And, in turn,

Home, History and Nation, Two Decades of Contemporary

public interest in the arts might probably only increase if Indonesia has

Art in Southeast Asia 1991-2011’. Many of the big names of the

established a well-functioning art museum.

contemporary art scene in Indonesia were present at these two parallel events with absolutely fantastic works: Agus Suwage, Eko

To convince state institutions and private parties (including sponsors

Nugroho, Heri Dono, Jompet, Mella Jaarsma, FX Harsono, Titarubi

and art collectors) that an art museum is feasible, existing art

and many others. And I hope that one day these artworks will be

organizations will have to cooperate. Art organizations like Cemeti

shown again in Indonesia to the general public.

Art House ( and LAF ( in Yogyakarta, Common Room Networks Foundation in Bandung

As in other parts of Indonesia’s socio-cultural life, the arts are in a

(, ruangrupa ( and Edwin’s Gallery

‘Catch-22’ situation: the ambition to found an art museum would require

( in Jakarta, to name just a few, have proven that

funding – to purchase or construct a building and make it suitable for

they do more than fill the gap left by the state without the need to

exhibitions; to purchase, catalog and preserve artworks; to hire and train

copy strategies that have proven to be successful outside Indonesia.

qualified staff; to install a security system and insurance; to do research

However, fragmentation needs to be overcome to be a partner to

Erika Ernawan 350, 2012 Instalation Elektroplate Resin with view of Neon ‘Selber’ Variable dimension

R. E. Hartanto 99 faces, 2011, Photography and video

instead of art history, is because theoretical texts are easier to come by compared to the actual artworks (it is also, of course, a global trend). And often, an artwork is still in the making when a curator has to submit her or his curatorial essay for the exhibition catalog publication. In a discussion with Tony Godfrey for Broadsheet, Agung Hujatnikajennong, head curator of Selasar Sunaryo Art Space and the successful 2009 Jakarta Biennale, said that “the notion of curatorial practice has always been like a free-floating job [in Indonesia].” Art writing and curatorial practice could improve with a publicly accessible visual memory in the form of an art museum (which is not located in Singapore or elsewhere outside Indonesia). My argument developed here could thus very well support the first argument concerning validation, and vice versa. Details: R. E. Hartanto, 99 faces, 2011, Photography and video

If we are able to return time after time to an art museum with a permanent collection (but with rotating exhibitions so the collection does not become static as is the case in Museum Seni Rupa dan Keramik, i.e. Fine Arts and Ceramics Mueum, in Jakarta, which seems to have stopped collecting new works some time ago), we could learn to experience and appreciate art firsthand, and we might also become able to express better why we love certain artworks by certain artists and not other artworks (or artworks from the very same artist). Such an art museum could provide the much-needed context to the temporary exhibitions organized at galleries and independent art spaces, because now contemporaneity (an awful tongue-twister) in general and contemporary art in 

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april - May 2012

There is an obvious counterargument available for the state: Indonesia has an abundance of more pressing problems to address, for example (urban) poverty. Moreover, to speak in terms of the absent state in regard to the arts is an overstatement: Approximately one third of the budget of the recent Yogyakarta Biennale came from the (local) government. The Jakarta Biennale is partly and indirectly state funded as well through the Jakarta Arts Council (DKJ). And all four venues at the two biennales are state-owned: the National Gallery and the Jakarta Art Center Taman Ismail Marzuki (TIM) for the Jakarta Biennale, and the National Museum of Yogyakarta and Taman Budaya for the Yogyakarta Biennale. It can also be argued, on the other hand, that it might be prudent for the art community in Indonesia not to rely too much on the state for building and maintaining an arts infrastructure as the Indonesian state is notorious for its inefficiency. Public projects never leave the drawing table, or come to a standstill, such as the monorail project in Jakarta (public transportation and a public art museum should be developed in tandem to make such a museum truly accessible), or, if they are finished, are not well maintained (TIM is an example). And in many public projects, parts of the budget are siphoned off. Recently, an artist supported the renovation of Soemardja Art Gallery, a gallery at the campus of the oldest state university in Indonesia of which this artist is an alumnus: ITB (his support is covered by the promise that the gallery will organize an exhibition with his work). Partnerships between artists and art spaces could be an interesting move. However, art spaces also need to collaborate more to tackle the fragmentation in the arts community in Indonesia. Such collaboration – between artists and art spaces (another example is Platform3 in Bandung, a collaborative space between artists and curators;, and between artist Erika Ernawan solo exhibition at Lawangwangi, Bandung, March 3-18, 2012 Exhibition title: Ruhe in Frieden (i.e. Rest in Peace)

initiative spaces, galleries and private museums – could be a way to

state institutions and private parties and to increase public interest in

from easy and perhaps even a bit dreamy, but even a hypothetical

the arts to make a more compelling argument that an art museum in

argument could open up new avenues). Founding an art museum

Indonesia is not merely needed but also feasible.

could then become the focal point for the further development of

organize an arts infrastructure from the bottom-up (I admit, this is far

an arts infrastructure. Hoping for the state to step in – and if it does, Still, the state is seen as the cause of as well as the solution for the

that it will do it properly – might very well turn out to be a very long

dire situation of the arts infrastructure in Indonesia. Curator Rizky

– Kafkaesque – wait.

Zaelani, for example, wrote: “When the state’s bureaucracy is not – or, perhaps, not yet – able to organize its wealth so that it can

Without question, art in Indonesia is thriving; there are many

support and develop infrastructures for the art, the ‘fate’ of the art

interesting artists, artist initiative spaces, galleries and private

development cannot be supported by strong and capable institutions.

museums doing wonderful things. However, if this success is

As a result, various artistic events are held with neither coordination

to be prolonged, discussions on the sustainability of ideas and

nor long-term plans (Rizky Zaelani, “Interpellation: Notes on a

practices, financial sustainability and infrastructure are vital. And a

common language of comparison in international art events,”

(hypothetical) art museum could function then as a starting point for

Interpellation, CP Biennale 2003 catalog (Jakarta: CP Foundation,

these discussions.

2003);” A good exhibition is indeed no guarantee for the future. The 2009 Jakarta Biennale was an artistic success, while the 2011 Jakarta Biennale was too disorganized to be able to appreciate the artworks. But is the state

Roy Voragen is a Bandung-based writer; he can be contacted at fatumbrutum. An earlier version of this essay was presented during a talk at Studio Bibliothèque, Singapore, 13 March 2012; the author thanks the organizer, Michael Lee, and discussion participants for valuable input

to blame for this? 

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april - May 2012

A right to art, Plea for an art museum  

A right to art, Plea for an art museum - an essay by Roy Voragen in C-Arts Magazine