Art, Life and Jakarta

Aaron Seeto of Museum MACAN on exploring modern and contemporary art as a medium of education

By Karmila Bain and Nushara Gunawardene
Friday, May 18, 2018

Earlier this year, over 100,000 people from all ages and walks of life took in a major new museum in Jakarta. Art Changes, World Changes. Exploring the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Nusantara’s Collection ran over a period of four months and introduced the public to Museum MACAN in Kebun Jeruk, West Jakarta, a sparkling showcase for modern and contemporary art.

Museum MACAN is Indonesia’s first museum dedicated to modern and contemporary art. It offers a platform for viewing and discussing world-class artworks, artists and the importance of art in the Southeast Asian region, and a program of events and activities which further enhance, educate and encourage art appreciation in the community.

AmCham Indonesia grabbed the opportunity to visit the gallery and sit down with the Director of Museum MACAN, Aaron Seeto – an Australian and former Manager of Asia and Pacific Arts at the Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane. Aaron has been working in this field for almost all of his professional career. With a background in contemporary Asian art, and as a curator of contemporary Asian art, Aaron told us how the museum aims to generate greater awareness of art culture. 

AmCham Indonesia: Tell us how you connected with Museum MACAN? Why did you come to Indonesia?

Aaron Seeto: I've been in and out of Indonesia for a while, and the collection in Brisbane is one of the very important, very early collections of contemporary art in Asia. Indonesia has always been a focus, and because of the relationship, the geographic proximity between Australia and Indonesia, there's a much broader general awareness of Indonesia from within Australia; it's the closest neighbor of Australia.

So I've always had the interest, my professional background is such that I am invested in contemporary art not just for Indonesia but for the region. Coming here is a really great opportunity, I mean it's an opportunity not only to build a museum and build some cultural infrastructure in Jakarta from the ground up, but also, the vision of the founder really coincides with things that I am interested in, as education is core for the museum.

Museum MACAN is not just a place where you come to see art, but a place you come to discuss and learn about art as well. Also a place where we can hope to facilitate international dialogue, so it’s not only for Indonesia, it’s also about Southeast Asia and the rest of the world.

These are things that I’m very interested in as a curator, someone who works in the arts, how do you create conversations that are meaningful for where you live, that also have meaning extending beyond that? We are all connected via technology now, how we understand, not just culture, but the world is actually very different because we have those networks.

The other thing for me that is fascinating about Indonesia is its extraordinary population and the potential that you find in building something like the museum amongst this huge population, the fourth most populous country; it is diverse, it is also developing.

Indonesia has a very interesting situation where there is a social need for this type of public infrastructure to be built and then the capacity in order to build it. It also means that a museum like this has not existed in Indonesia. I think it is really interesting when it comes to building institutions and also very important to the mission of the museum.

Therefore, as I said, the education is really important. I truly believe that art is not just for certain types of people, art is something which cannot only be enjoyed, but also can be discussed and we can have critical conversations about things that emerge from our experience with art, with people from all types of backgrounds, whether or not they are rich or poor, educated or not educated. There is a transformative power in art and that’s one thing that we are very keen to tap into. 

Tell us more about the founder, and what were his concerns in choosing this area to open a museum, which is not really in the center of Jakarta?

The museum was founded by Haryanto Adikoesoemo and the museum is governed through a foundation. The chair of the Yayasan board is Fenessa Adikoesoemo and her parents have been collecting art for over 25 years.

Mr Adikoesoemo developed a collection of over 800 works. He is often regarded as one of the first of those collectors to have a very broad international outlook. He was collecting Indonesian art, Indonesian modern masters at the same time and looking at art from everywhere. The collection is very broad and it’s very interesting. It is a collection at the scale that is not only surprising for Indonesians to see here, but also surprising for the museum’s peers around the world to think that there is a [Mark] Rothko in the collection, and really amazing works of Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Robert Rauschenberg. So it's a very exciting collection.

The foundation of the collection is the collection of the founder, which is on long-term loan to the museum, so we look after the collection for him. 

In terms of location, there are a number of reasons. It is because the location suits the founder, this is part of a much bigger program of activities that he and his family are working on. But also I think that we can really interrupt these kinds of biases towards the center or the south, the population of Jakarta is not just in those places.

I hope that through the activities at the museum we can create art lovers in the west [of Jakarta], this is one of the opportunities that allows us to think differently about our programs, allows us to imagine our public in different ways because we are not necessarily located in the places people expected to be places. It’s a situation where the opportunity occurred. I think it is a great opportunity, great potential.

What are the other programs and activities at Museum MACAN?

In terms of public programs, talks and tours happen on the weekend. We have programming aimed specifically at kids, we have a very important education program. As I mentioned before education is core to the museum. One of the things that we are doing is supporting schools, often schools that don't have the budgets to go on field trips. Three times a month we bring a school group into the museum and they get looked after by our educators and they get given tours. There are activities, we keep in touch with their teachers, and we hope to generate that greater awareness of art culture. 

We also have a space in the museum which we've called the Children's Arts Space, and this is a space dedicated for children and their families, and of course I think that the activities mean that everyone goes in but it is aimed for kids and their families. What we do in this space, twice a year we commission an artist to work with us to make something in that space, and so it’s an installation for kids. 

The first one is with Entang Wiharso, who is a very important Indonesian artist. He's worked with our education team to not only make this space but also the activities that go with it, there's rubbings, later on in the day you'll see kids walk around with headbands and little hats. They are the things they are making in the space and they get to take it home.

The reason we are doing this is because it's a serious space, even though it's for kids, it’s not a playground. We want to introduce children and their families to art from a really early age. We also want to help to demystify what is going on inside the museum. There are things at the moment where kids can touch, so they can draw and play, our education team is in there so they can talk to them. I believe it is a very important part of the museum and I think it's really innovative within the landscape in Jakarta. 

For families, what do you do with your children? What do you find yourself doing that isn't either eating or going to a mall on the weekend? That's why we see ourselves as being part of that public infrastructure. We are the alternatives, where you can bring your friends and family and you can also learn at the same time. Hopefully every time you come back there's something new or something different. 

We have implemented a number of membership programs for the general public. For example, maybe you're a student who is starting to learn about and love art. You can join as a student member and come into the museum with free daily entry, get discounts for some of the other programs that we run. It also applied for our general visitors, mums and dads and for individuals. 

We're also running other membership programs for corporates. These are all new ideas in Indonesia. For a corporate member, it might be businesses who might want to find opportunities for their executives. We are very interested in corporate learning, the things we do in the museum, they might have an application to people’s personal development. This is true for the founder of the museum, he's often said that one of the reasons he opened the museum is because as a businessman he has learnt so much from looking at the processes and the works of artists, and he wanted to share it more widely with the community. 

We have two levels, one that is for executives, and the other for a company that wants to give opportunities for all of their staff. So we've got a benefit where everyone of your staff has free access to the museum for 12 months. As well as a whole bunch of other stuff. It's really about not only finding ways in which we can create a sustainable infrastructure for art as the museum organizers, but also for within Jakarta.

Furthermore, trying to work out ways in which we can help other people who might be interested in art culture as well. It's really about communities, that's how I see it. There are different types of communities, you've got business communities, very general community families. We're very keen to look at ways in which we can support that greater appreciation of art culture.

How do you see the demographic of visitors? What comments have you received from them about the art?

Firstly, we've had a really amazing response. In terms of audience, social media is a very important way that people communicate. Media, we've had two articles in the New York Times, Al Jazeera and CNN have been in, The Guardian and also all the major Indonesian papers. So there's been a lot of anticipation for the opening of this museum around the world. 

We're really happy about that, we really want to build the bridge between Indonesia and the rest of the world. Our audience is young, that is a really great thing, they are millennials, they're young families, and then there are also people from all kinds of backgrounds. During the week, we see older retirees. I hope it’s a good cross section of the Indonesian community, but also an emphasis on young people. 

We've also had a lot of visitors from around the world, and one thing we hope the museum will achieve is to help drive some of that cultural tourism, that doesn't necessarily exist in Jakarta, maybe elsewhere, but not necessarily here. We've seen museum directors from around the world, curators come through, other artists that have come through, and also business people who are trying to find things for their clients. So we now have an international standard museum in Jakarta, and we are happy to share it with all types of people. 

How do you see contemporary artists in Indonesia?

Indonesia has a very interesting scene and it always has. When we look at this exhibition from modern times we see the roles and responsibilities that artists took upon themselves to articulate the ideals and the desire for independence. But contemporary artists are what we know and our peers around the world want to know about what’s going on Indonesia. They hear about its strong market, really interesting artists and that artists have strong political views. They are very curious about what’s going on and I would say that contemporary art in Indonesia is exciting, and the role of the museum is to continue to support and research as well as to help Indonesians and others to know about it. As I’ve said we've had museum directors and curators from all around the world coming in and wanting to support their research, we want to be able to look at those international networks and collaborate for the future. 

How do you see the government’s position in terms of contemporary artists? Do you think they get enough help from the government?

We are a private museum and we don't have government funding. What we really hope is that there are greater conversations across different parts of the sector, amongst other private enterprises, amongst us and the public, us and the government. The development of private museums is something we have not just here in Indonesia but all around the world. Sometimes it’s necessary for the private sector to take on some of those conversations that we would normally expect to happen in public, but for whatever reason they are not happening. 

We're quite enthusiastic about the future, we've already made a lot of change, a lot of impact. Also the awareness and understanding of Indonesia, these things will change in the future. But I think in terms of the impact of funding on contemporary artists, it’s fundamental and not just the responsibility of governments or the museum to do this. I think that if people enjoy art and culture, and if they contribute or want to have those critical conversations, then they also need to support it. Whether or not it’s turning up and listening to an artist or coming to see an exhibition or some way through their CSR programs; supporting artistic dialogue and artistic expression is a society wide responsibility. 

What about fixed art works?

At this point we won't have permanent galleries, the first exhibition was from the collection. People have been wanting to see Haryanto's collection for a long time and it was a way for them to see it. Our latest major exhibition is a project that we've been working with other museums around the world to bring to Indonesia, a major icon, Yayoi Kusama. 

The first exhibition like this in Indonesia was very much exciting. Now that we've built these facilities, we're able to collaborate with other museums. That's really important, what I mean by these facilities, we can control humidity, temperature and lighting which is important for a museum. If you've got an important artwork and I ask you to loan it and I don't have those facilities you are less likely to allow it. 

Other things that we will do in the future, things that we curate ourselves. We know there’s a bit of a gap within the display system here. We really want to support mid-career, we want to support artists throughout their entire career. We see that there's an opportunity for us to develop museum standard exhibitions for mid-career artists and senior artists. Maybe they might be included in shows overseas, but how much of those conversations re-enter the Indonesian discussion? We want to be able to support local programming, through important researched exhibitions, publications, commissions, in the future you'll see a mix. 

We also won't be doing permanent galleries for a while, of the 800 works you'll never have everything on display. We want the curators to be more playful. We might do smaller selections from the collection to look at the relationships across different types of aesthetic conversations. 

Will the exhibition themes change periodically?

Yes, our first exhibition, Art Changes, World Changes. Exploring the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Nusantara’s Collection was open to the public from November 4, 2017 to March 18, 2018. It displayed 90 out of the 800 in Haryanto’s collection, as a representative of Indonesia’s art history during the pre-Independence, post-independence, transition and globalization period.

Our current exhibition, from May 12 to September 9, 2018, is Yayoi Kusama: Life is the Heart of a Rainbow, a major survey exhibition of one of the world’s most recognizable artists. This is the first large-scale exhibition of Yayoi Kusama’s work presented in Indonesia and includes over 130 works that span almost 70 years of artistic practice.

Having recently been shown at the National Gallery Singapore (NGS) and the Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA), this will be the third and final stop for the exhibition. Thus, the exhibition at Museum MACAN will be the last chance for regional and global visitors to experience the essence of Kusama’s art forms.

The exhibition features paintings, sculptures and works on paper, and five installations, including Museum MACAN’s recent acquisition: I Want to Love on the Festival Night (2017), as well as pieces not seen in past shows, among them Flower (1953) and Untitled (Child Mannequin) (1966).

Since November 2017, MACAN also has presented the iconic Infinity Mirrored Room – Brilliance of the Souls (2014) in the Museum’s Sculpture Garden,which also is part of the exhibition.


How do you see the future of contemporary and modern art as millennials’ behavior and technologies advance rapidly?

You're totally right in terms of the intersection of technology and the traditional role museums have played in the past. For me I think it’s going to be a mix. I started off with the great opportunity when you have a huge population. We did market research in terms of the media consumption of Indonesians. The fact that most Indonesians have more than one phone, which illustrates something quite extraordinary about the relationship of how people communicate. 

From an education point of view the challenge for the museum is how you embrace the technology, that way you're actually also engaging in an education conversation and that is both the challenge and also really exciting. In a traditional museum, they don't want people to take photographs, there's a very strict etiquette, and how you take photographs. Some of those things are true here, we still think that there's something very amazing about standing in front of a painting that you can't necessarily photograph or is sometimes difficult to even explain to your friends. But at the same time we want to find ways in which we can deliver education programs on social media.

We need to transition people from taking selfies to also talking about why they took the selfie. I don't mind people taking selfies, but let's also have a conversation about the work we're standing in front of. But that will take time, I think that we have a long-term vision, we also have a holistic vision, all of the teams work together in order to do that. But having said that, we are running some campaigns over etiquette within the museum, as I said there's a big population. It's a new idea, a new concept having a museum like this. We are aware of that, hopefully we are presenting these ideas that we're observing in a respectful but also a fun way.

I think generally you know these millennials. They see the world in a different way. I find Indonesian people are so curious about what's going on and we want to encourage that curiosity. But at the same time we want to be doing serious projects. Maybe, my desire is to be able to help lead, make an international benchmark in terms of social media and museums, which would be amazing. 

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