Recently I gave a talk on ‘Curatorial and Art Practices in Indonesia’ at Studio Bibliothèque at the invitation of the artist Michael Lee, Singapore, 13 March 2012. A short version of this talk was published in the Pocket Arts Guide (“Building a state of the arts in Indonesia,” the Pocket Arts Guide 30 (April 2012): 22-5). And a longer version was published in C-Arts Magazine (“A right to art: a plea for an art museum in Indonesia,” C-Arts Magazine (see here)). I will not reiterate the arguments I made in the talk and in the two essays. Instead, I focus on three (possible) arguments against my plea: no art museum is needed, all is well, so leave the Indonesian art world alone and it will develop even further; second, my plea is supposedly Eurocentric; and, third, no public art museum is needed, because Indonesia has already private museums.
First, no art museum is needed, all is well, so leave the Indonesian art world alone and it will develop and grow even further in qualitatively interesting directions. However, this amounts to the invisible hand theory favored by laissez-faire, antigovernment rhetoric of neoliberals (although, Adam Smith – and even Milton Friedman – stated that parameters should be set by society and its laws). Moreover, what is good for individual artists, curators, critics, collectors, gallery owners, etc., is not necessarily beneficial or constructive for the art world as a whole. For structural sustainability – financial sustainability, organizational sustainability, and sustainability of practices and ideas – an infrastructure for the arts is needed (of which a public art museum could be one, important, component).
Second, my plea for an art museum in Indonesia is supposedly Eurocentric as it relies on a model proven to be successful in the West (Eurocentrism is a normative approach: others should follow the models developed in Europe to attain the same level of assumed success). I certainly do not hope that I must be Eurocentric simply because I am from Europe. Certainly, I learned to appreciate art in the many art museums of Europe (I did not have the money to purchase catalogs and art magazines at that time). However, I never stated that Indonesia should copy the museum model from the West simply because there is no such one model (from the gigantic MoMA in New York to the more modest Van Abbe Museum in Eindhoven, Esche, the director of the latter, once wrote: a museum can be a “mix of community centre, club, academy and showroom”). Moreover, it could very well be the case that this form of criticism is Eurocentric as it could very well be influenced by institutional critique of the museum as developed since the 1960s by Broodthaers, Buren, Haacke, Fraser, et al. Institutional critique of the museum does not make sense in a country that does not have an art museum with the authority Broodthaers, Buren, Haacke, Fraser, et al, are critical of. And to be critical of institutions and their power, in the tradition of Foucault, is one thing (I don’t deny the importance of institutional critique), but if the focus is solely on critique it could very well take a turn for the anarcho-cynical by those with less talent than Broodthaers, Buren, Haacke and Fraser: institutions can never be good (as a consequence, it seems to imply that we should relate to art in an unmediated way). Therefore, it could very well blind us for the merits of an art museum and the possibilities to change such an institution for the better through criticism, i.e. that through criticism a museum can come closer to living up to the dream of becoming a genuine and active public space.
Third, no public art museum is needed, because Indonesia has already private museums (particularly OHM in Magelang). However, a private museum, which collection is based on that of one collector, is not a public museum. Even when their collection is substantial – qualitatively and quantitatively – it is based on the taste of one person (do private museums employ art historians or curators or at least have a curatorial board?). This could lead to lacuna and thus questions of legitimacy. If private collectors would collaborate to open a museum this could perhaps be avoided (which would also avoid the problem of succession in case the founder passes away). An art museum is public not because it is publicly (thus state) funded, but because it is responsible to the public (what a public constitutes is an important question and, I admit, a question I (and others) struggle with).
Without question, art in Indonesia is thriving; there are many interesting artists, artist initiative spaces, galleries and private museums doing wonderful things. However, if this success is to be prolonged, discussions on the sustainability of ideas and practices, financial sustainability and infrastructure are vital. And a (hypothetical) art museum could function then as a starting point for these discussions.