Indonesia’s biggest fair moves out of the hotel, its home for 10 years. Will ours ever move out of the parking lot?


By Sam L. Marcelo
Associate Editor

ART JAKARTA moved to new digs for its 11th edition, the first one under fair director Tom Tandio, who quit Art Stage Singapore in January 2018. Mr. Tandio moved the Indonesian fair out of the plush ballroom of the Ritz-Carlton Jakarta, Pacific Place — which the event called home for a decade, with its chandeliers and conspicuous red-and-yellow carpet — and into the Jakarta Convention Center (JCC), a concrete-floored high-ceilinged venue possessing the look preferred by art fairs everywhere.

Taking place from Aug. 30 to Sept. 1, Art Jakarta featured 70 galleries, 40 of which were international — with The Drawing Room Manila being the lone gallery from the Philippines. The event attracted 39,066 visitors from all over the world.

Exhibitors welcomed Mr. Tandio’s decision to relocate the fair. Said Stella Chang, director of Singapore-based Yavuz Gallery: “JCC beats any hotel. The convention center is a blank slate — there’s so much more you can do.” She made an example of Yavuz’s installation of Ronald Ventura’s Bobro’s World Tour, a man-cave representing consumerism and excess. Entered via a giant golden dog’s gaping maw, it was furnished with couches, a mini KTV booth, and symbols of consumerism and excess.

Other works presented in special sections demonstrated the horizontal and vertical flexibility of the new space. Arario Gallery brought Eko Negruho’s Moving Landscape (2015), the largest manual embroidery thus far by the Indonesian artist, and hung it from JCC’s rafters. Meanwhile, motion graphics artist and VJ Isha Hening created Cursory Glance, a tall immersive work made of LED floor panels. Despite the more ambitious scale of the works and comparable foot traffic, the fair never felt as packed as it did when it was held in Pacific Place.

During the vernissage, Mr. Tandio had to field repeated questions as to whether the refreshed version of Art Jakarta was gunning for the spot vacated by Art Stage Singapore, which bills itself as the fair of Southeast Asia. This January, organizers of Art Stage Singapore canceled the 2019 edition just nine days before it was supposed to take place, leaving galleries in limbo. (The Singaporean fair, founded in 2011 by Swiss impresario Lorenzo Rudolf, also attempted to gain a foothold in Indonesia in 2016, when it launched Art Stage Jakarta. It folded after two years.)

Fueling further speculation: Mr. Tandio and Gil Schneider, who serves as Art Jakarta’s fair consultant, were previously connected with Art Stage Singapore. Mr. Tandio, however, squashed the narrative that Art Jakarta has ambitions to speak for the region: “For me, being an art hub is not very important,” he said. “The key thing is being different.”

By “being different,” Mr. Tandio clarified that he wasn’t referring to the practical details of the fair — because, if anything, Art Jakarta now more closely resembles its international counterparts in the way it is laid out and lit — but in the intangible. “The uniqueness we’re talking about is not in the hardware but the software: about how — as a fair — our energy, our spirit, is unique compared to others,” he said, adding that much of it is due to the new team behind Art Jakarta (aside from Messrs. Tandio and Schneider, there’s also independent curator Enin Supriyanto, who is the fair’s artistic director) and the Indonesian art scene itself.

During one of the talks held in conjunction with the fair, Gridthiya Gaweewong, artistic director of the Jim Thompson Art Center in Thailand, attributed the strength of the Indonesian art scene to its grassroots beginnings. “The Indonesian art scene was built from the bottom up, which is amazing. When you look at our friends here from Singapore, it was really top-down,” she said. Ms. Gaweewong also contrasted Indonesia with Thailand: “The sense of community here [in Indonesia] is super impressive. What we have in Thailand is very territorial: we have three biennales that do not talk to each other.”

Meanwhile, June Yap, curatorial director of the Singapore Art Museum, observed how convivial the atmosphere is in Indonesia. “Everyone comes together, everyone plays different roles,” she said.

Take, for example, Mr. Tandio. Aside from being fair director, he is also a collector of contemporary art (one of his more interesting purchases: a performance that came without a single shred of documentation) and a co-founder of IndoArtNow Foundation, an online archive of works by contemporary Indonesian artists.

A reinvigorated Art Jakarta is just one of the recent developments that prompted Aaron Seeto, director of Museum MACAN, to say that Indonesia’s confidence is on the upswing. “There is a maturation of the ecosystem,” he said in a separate interview that took place in the museum. “You have really great artists and you have really great collectors.”

Opened in 2017, Museum MACAN was included in Time magazine’s list of “World’s 100 Greatest Places.” Although young, the museum presented a major survey exhibition in 2018 by Yayoi Kusama — a big and complicated show by an equally big and complicated artist — and followed that up with a major retrospective for Chinese artist Xu Bing (now on view), which opened in time for Art Jakarta.

“One of the missions of the museum is really to support the ecosystem,” Mr. Seeto said. “This is not something we can do ourselves. It’s also not something we wish to do ourselves. I don’t want to take the burden of art education for everyone, or the burden of making exhibitions, or being the only one. We want to see more variety. We want to be able to work with more people from different places.”

The institution Mr. Seeto heads is yet another feather in the country’s cap, adding to respected biennales such as the Jakarta Biennale and Biennale Jogja; and artist collectives such as Ruangrupa, which was chosen as artistic director of the 15th edition of Documenta, the 100-day exhibition of contemporary art that will take place in 2022 in Kassel, Germany.

Alain Servais, a Belgian collector who is an outspoken fixture in the international art circuit, said that Mr. Tandio’s Art Jakarta — with its new brand identity, new venue, and new management team — was part of an organic whole.

“An art fair is not a flying saucer that arrives from one country and lands in another country. Absolutely not. An art fair is the result of the energy of the country. No art fair can be built on no energy. This country is full of energy,” he told BusinessWorld. “An art fair is only the result of the scene. It cannot go faster, it cannot be better… Of course, it’s not Art Basel but I would definitely recommend it to people to come here. Definitely.”

Art Jakarta, with its focus on Asian-centric galleries, didn’t suffer from the lack of mega-galleries like Gagosian and David Zwirner — what Mr. Tandio called “the big boys” — that usually gobble up the coveted first rows in art fairs. “I think if collectors want to collect those works [from those galleries], they can easily go to Singapore or Art Basel Hong Kong,” Mr. Tandio said. Neither did Art Jakarta venture into anything too academic. Other fairs, like Art Stage Singapore, experimented with platforms that were curatorially strong but commercially difficult. “We’re not like that,” said Mr. Tandio of Art Jakarta.

The next edition of Art Jakarta will have the same number of exhibitors — 70 — with about the same ratio of Indonesian to international galleries. “I want all my exhibitors to be satisfied. Having more galleries doesn’t mean that you can sell more. I think that 70 is a good size for three days,” he said. “We want to be friends with everyone,” he added, pointing out that Art Jakarta’s gallery mix includes regulars in Art Central and Art Basel (previously described as the David and Goliath of Hong Kong art fairs).

For Mr. Tandio, the opportunities that arise from an art fair are as important as dollar signs. “Hopefully, an artist meets Mami Kataoka from Mori Art Museum and maybe she sees an artist’s works here. And then, you know, there’s a chance for them to do a group show,” he said. “Networking — that’s a very key role for a fair. We are not here just to sell art. We are here to create a conversation between all these people.”

Mr. Servais’s sentiment that a fair cannot go faster or be better than the scene has a flip side: a fair cannot go slower or be worse than the scene. It’s interesting to think about considering the rumors swirling around the next edition of Art Fair Philippines (AFP), which describes itself as “the premier platform for exhibiting and selling the best in modern and contemporary Philippine visual art.”

This June, ANCX reported that 10 of Manila’s top galleries — dubbed the “Breakaway 10” — were leaving Art Fair Philippines to start their own.

If this all sounds familiar, it is because Art Fair Philippines was the original “breakaway” fair. Organized by Trickie Lopa, Lisa Periquet, and Dindin Araneta, AFP was born in 2013 after disgruntled exhibitors at ManilArt — which, before AFP, touted itself as “the first and only annual international art fair in the Philippines” — wanted an art fair that was more professional and reflective of the local art scene.

What began as a personal endeavor for the three organizers is now an event that pulls in numbers comparable to Art Jakarta (around 30,000 visitors over three days). The 2019 edition, held in February, featured 52 galleries, 16 of which were international.

It was and still is held in a parking lot in Makati City — a venue that Ms. Lopa described as “a little bit make-do, out-of-the-box, and out-of-the-ordinary” in 2013. This, despite the swelling number of visitors, which led to AFP taking up more floors of the parking lot and, in one edition, instituting timed entries to regulate foot traffic.

The parking lot may be unique but is it still of a standard? Is it still reflective of the scene? Although he wasn’t talking about AFP, one can go back to Mr. Tandio’s explanation of a unique fair versus a standardized fair and how the two are not mutually exclusive.

“When we talk about standards, we’re talking about hardware: the lighting, the walls, the flooring, the space. We have to have a standard,” he said. “The uniqueness we’re talking about is not about the hardware but the software: about how — as a fair — our energy, our spirit, is unique compared to others.”

Art Jakarta left the hotel, secure in its belief that the fair could still be unique despite moving into a cookie-cutter convention center. Will Art Fair Philippines be brave enough to make the same leap out of the parking lot in 2021? Or is the Philippine art scene now big enough to support several fairs?