August 16, 2019

It’s 24 days before show time. The storm before the calm at the end of July has largely subsided. Everyone has arrived at the final stage of fine tuning the little details and concluding the arrangements. I’ve landed at the Soekarno-Hatta International Airport, which is playfully peppered with tiny murals painted around fire extinguishers—a sight that I, a first-time visitor to Jakarta, didn’t expect to see. A 40-minute ride takes me to Artotel, a funky boutique hotel that celebrates graffiti culture with its painted facade and artfully doodled interior walls. Here, I meet the team behind the 11th edition of Art Jakarta.

The largest annual art fair in Indonesia owned by media conglomerate MRA Group, Art Jakarta began as Bazaar Art Jakarta, originally organised by the editors of Harper’s Bazaar Indonesia. “It started because the owner of Harper’s Bazaar Indonesia loves art, so he decided to create this fair for the magazine brand,” recalls Tom Tandio, who joined the fair this year as a director. For a decade, it served socialites and collectors, and was held in a hotel ballroom. When Art Stage came to Jakarta in 2016, it followed suit and set up shop in a hotel.

Art-Jakarta-Fair-Director-TomTom Tandio

“In Southeast Asia, Indonesia is actually the biggest market because we have the biggest collectors and biggest artists,” Tom says. Yet, the industry hasn’t quite caught up with the burgeoning scene. Art Jakarta, for one, was nowhere near international standards of art fairs. In a hotel ballroom, with carpeted floors and chandeliers, there are countless spatial restrictions. Its warm mood lighting doesn’t do the artworks, and their varied colour palettes, justice either, in turn distorting their appearance. Sculptures and installations can’t be too tall, and you could only house so many gallerists and accommodate so many visitors. In all respects, the old art fair seemed to echo the idea that art is for the elite.

It’s all about to change with the ushering of a new decade for Art Jakarta, starting with its brand image. Clean, light-hearted and young are the operative words. Beyond a mere logo change, this makeover tackles the perception of art itself, presenting it as something that is universal, omnipresent and accessible, rather than some hoity-toity entity that alienates itself from the proletarians. Enin Supriyanto, a stalwart in the Indonesian art arena who is now Art Jakarta’s new artistic director, elaborates, “We’re trying to help people perceive art as something relatable and approachable. We’re not saying that you all have to become collectors. You can enjoy art. You can be enriched by the experience of looking at art, and we are providing that platform and opportunity to do that.”

The new Art Jakarta is also moving out of the hotel, and into the Jakarta Convention Center. A more neutral space that welcomes all, it aligns perfectly with the values of the art fair. Tom observes, “This is the first time an art fair in Jakarta is held in a convention hall. Because of this new location, we’ll have the chance to do a lot of fun things that we can’t do in a hotel ballroom. We also wanted more white light, which looks more professional… Most of the more established galleries won’t do hotel art fairs because they feel it’s not the setting of a proper fair.”

Behind the rebranding is the mission to shift ingrained perspectives. This demands a 180° internal shift as well, such as the formation of a completely new team (save for the show manager) that comes from the art world, not that of media and publishing. “This team is very interesting,” raves Tom. “We have a photography director, who is quite famous in the Indonesian scene. Our design director, who created the new logo, is another famous guy in the local graphic design scene. To be frank, we’re all in this team not because of money, but because we want to do something for the Indonesian scene. From the start, we focused on the team. We are people-oriented. We work hard and we party together. Because the dynamics of the team is strong, it affects the galleries and artists that support us. They don’t see us as a group of people who are looking for profit. We’re a different animal. We’re fun and young and colourful.”

Art-Jakarta-Art-Director-EninEnin Supriyanto

Instead of being confined to an office space, the Art Jakarta employees prefer to venture out and work at cafes and restaurants such as Artotel’s Double Chin, which offers a bright and bustling setting for the meeting of minds. It’s where you’ll find the duo, Enin and Tom (the head honchos of the art fair), clacking away on their laptops, thinking of new, out-of-the-box ideas.

One such idea was to introduce a board of young art collectors that they can tap into and collaborate with to produce a home run of a show. Besides the array of children’s painting workshops, semi-professional photography seminars, and educational talks with museum directors, Art Jakarta 2019 will also include an intimate Musical Chairs-like experience, where 10 collectors sit and converse in a circle. Anyone is free to join the conversation, breaking down the barrier between the masses and the seemingly stand-offish art veterans.

A significant portion of the fair will also spotlight local artist collectives, an intrinsic aspect of the Indonesian art culture and identity, that will offer more affordable art pieces and merchandise for younger patrons. Tom and Enin are also the first to organise pre-event, industry-only gatherings among artists, art collectors and gallerists, meant to strengthen the ties between the folks in the creative sphere. “It’s not for the public. Just the art people. They’ve organised two or three gatherings over the past six months to raise awareness of the upcoming fair and introduce the new faces of Art Jakarta,” says Inge Santoso, the woman behind the well-established Can’s Gallery that’s been around since 2001, predating the art fair.

Ultimately, the directors believe in the importance of engaging the community because people matter. “One of the first things we talked about was how to engage with the art scene. We don’t want to be an alien ship that just abducts a few important artworks before leaving without a trace. This platform should have the capability to connect with the local art scene,” Enin opines. Tom agrees, “An art fair is not all about money and selling. It’s more about relationships. Enin has a relationship with the artists, so he can do certain things. I have a relationship with the galleries, so I can do certain things. The music in our campaign video was created by a friend of our team. You can have a very nice convention hall, but if you’re not the right person to run it, it’s tough.”

This rebranding comes at a time when Jakarta is seeing an unprecedented onslaught of mass interest in art, aided in part by government initiatives. “Ten years ago, there was no such thing as government support for art, but four years ago, the government established this Indonesian agency for the creative economy, BEKRAF, which is now our strategic partner. This institution has been very actively engaged in the various sectors of the creative industry in Indonesia, including visual art,” says Enin.

“They believe the creative economy is one of the main pillars to pursue and can spur economic growth in Indonesia. The opportunities and potential that we have in this country, as well as the possibility of having a huge workforce involved in this industry, if it’s developed well, can be very profound. Our current government understands that this is one of the most important fields that they need to invest in.”

Since the Indonesian president decided to showcase the presidential art collection—“a huge and very important collection, one of the best in the world”, Enin acclaims—at the National Gallery a few years ago, throngs of people have turned up with their curiosity piqued. “There were thousands of people per day. Families and school children came by bus and rental cars to Jakarta to queue to see this collection,” recalls the lionised curator and author.

Art-Jakarta-JUN-PPJun Tirtadji

On my way to the train station, I encounter a tunnel-like walkway, its walls covered in electrifying imagery, the kind that demands to be seen and heard. Doubtlessly, Jakarta’s beautifully chaotic artistic personality screams loud and clear, and people are listening now more than ever. Jun Tirtadji, the founding director of ROH Projects, a young contemporary art gallery that’s participating in Art Jakarta for the 7th time, concurs, “There are so many things happening that are unprecedented. Things are literally changing as we’re going. A big example of that is the new MACAN Museum, how they’ve recently emerged as a really strong global player in terms of presenting art in an institutional format.”

Not only is it the first museum in Indonesia that’s dedicated to contemporary art, MACAN was also among the first to charge an entrance fee. Since then, it’s triggered a chain reaction. “Last year, for the first time, Art Jakarta charged visitors about S$5 to enter the fair. We had an audience of about 40,000. It was a record. It’s proof that people have changed, and they’re willing to pay to see art,” declares Tom.

Jun continues, “Another example is that the artist collective from Jakarta called ruangrupa has been chosen to curate the next Documenta (as its first Asian artistic directors), which is literally the most highly regarded exhibition in the world. Thirdly, there are new voices and new people that are coming on board and becoming interested in art, in all facets.”

Inge, the veteran gallerist, has also witnessed the growth in the art arena, especially among younger, Instagram-obsessed folks. Yet, she’s also noticed a decline in the activity of local art galleries. Fewer of them are producing regular programmes. “In the past, when we wanted to do an exhibition, we had to call up three or four other major galleries to ask if they’re holding any programmes on the same weekend, so we don’t collide. We once had three opening nights in one day. Now, when I choose a date, I’m more confident that we won’t clash with anyone else,” says the owner of one of the first galleries in Jakarta to curate exhibitions in the early 2000s when it was still uncommon. As a result, with no reason to visit, fewer people are spending their leisure time at art galleries.

Though the entire process of organising the second coming of Art Jakarta has been smooth-sailing, with no major crises or pull-outs so far, the hustle has been challenging and unceasing. As any event planner would admit, the coordination is the toughest. It is a wild beast, seemingly impossible to tame. For Enin and Tom, they had 70 galleries (40 overseas and 30 in Indonesia) to manage, on top of various sponsors and media partners. Not to mention, the sensitivities of the artists, and the delicate, migraine-inducing logistical task of transporting artworks from across the pond.

“On our side, we always have to think about how the audience would feel. For example, if there are some artworks with nudity or racial and religion issues, should we show that? We also have a budget to run. Should we spend more on print ads or digital ads? Should we choose this artist or that artist? There’s that kind of push and pull,” Tom confesses. “We have a responsibility to help the galleries and artist collectives do well too, and meet new collectors and people. That responsibility is heavy, and it gives you a lot of stress.”

Even the location change, sensible as it seems, feels like a gamble. While held in a hotel, it’s what people have grown used to. Besides, the establishment is also linked to a mall, the epicentre of Asian cities like Jakarta. “You’d have about 30% of accidental visitors in the mall that stumble upon the art fair,” Enin reasons. “Now, you’re not going to have that. You’ll have to promote it well with the hope that people will dedicatedly come to the convention centre for the art fair.”

Perhaps this is the perfect time to take the biggest risks. On the heels of major milestones in the industry that’s garnered countrywide coverage, the revamped Art Jakarta is the ultimate test of the community’s growth. If it passes, it could become a harbinger of a much bigger cultural movement in the city. Enin chimes in, “A lot of people complain about the fact that we have the biggest players, the biggest collectors and the biggest artists, but the money seems to be lingering somewhere else, never really in Indonesia. This is where we’re trying to pull out all the resources and make it happen here. Even thinking about it now, it’s scary. If we don’t leave a meaningful impact, then what’s the point? At the end of the day, the show must go on. There’s no turning point now.”

Image credits: The Leonardi