Doing things differently: Arts institutions in Australia and Indonesia, exchanges, and new possibilities

Arts institutions in Australia and Indonesia adopt different ways of working, serve different communities with different expectations of their roles and missions, and are thus perceived by the public in different ways, writes Caitlin Hughes. How, then, can we move past these obstacles, to foster more inclusive and dynamic ways of working in the arts?

From the organised, orderly ‘white cube’ aesthetic of Australian arts institutions to the independent galleries and artist-led initiatives common in Indonesia, there are clear contrasts in the structures and systems that dominate the arts landscapes of both countries.

Although there may be differences in the ways we work, the approaches we take to art-making and advocacy, and the methods we use for curating and organising collections, there are opportunities too for collaboration, and for rethinking the ways we navigate institutional frameworks in the visual arts. What are the factors that contribute to these differences, and how can we move past them to find new ways of working together?

In the first session of Santy Saptari Art Consulting and Asialink Arts’ conversation series, Dekat Dekat Jauh (So Close Yet So Far), artist Tintin Wulia noted that the levels of voter trust in governments to deliver on key infrastructure is different in both countries. This has had significant effects on outcomes for the arts sectors, as well as an impact on how artists and arts workers operate, and how the general public perceive the role of arts institutions.

‘In Indonesia, art making – or working in the arts, or doing art, it’s embedded in society,’ curator Farah Wardani noted in the second session of Dekat Dekat Jauh, ‘it’s just that it’s never really structured – it’s never given a priority [or considered] one of the essential sectors in society … but no matter what, we always thrive’; taking on additional roles and ‘[doing] everything’ – including archiving and events management – to ensure that the arts landscape can prosper.

The point that Tintin Wulia made may, in part, explain why the Indonesian arts ecosystem is dominated by artist-run and private galleries, when compared to the public arts infrastructure that leads in Australia. That same argument may also explain why the organisational structures in Indonesia are predominantly organic, independent and collaborative, when compared with the organised ways of working adopted by Australian galleries.

Farah Wardani noted that ‘here [in Indonesia], it is less about the idea that institutions should lead, [it is] more that institutions should cooperate or collaborate, they should be a facilitator’. This contrast is crystallised further, when, as Australian artist Sally Smart noted, the larger Australian institutions understand their duty as being to set benchmarks and take risks; and to occupy a position too as thought leaders and ‘public intellectuals’. In order to promote opportunities for institutional exchange, it is important to take these different perspectives and systems into account, but also to create meaningful dialogues and connections to ensure that relationships are truly two-way.

How, then, can we break down barriers and roadblocks, and facilitate meaningful conversations? Director of the Museum and Gallery of the Northern Territory, Marcus Schutenko, described how MAGNT have shifted their curatorial strategies to embrace new ways of thinking about Darwin’s place in the world, and the relationship that Northern Australia has with Asia. He noted that the ways Australian institutions engage with First Nations and Asian communities today will seem unrecognisable in one, two, or three decades from now, as galleries continue to foster deeper connections and explore new ways of collaborating.

From a similar curatorial standpoint, Kate Ryan noted that, as both Curator of Children’s Programs at the National Gallery of Victoria, and in a previous role at the Queensland Art Gallery / Gallery of Modern Art, her teams have worked to incorporate collaborative elements — observed first-hand on field trips to Indonesia — into the galleries’ curatorial practices. In her experience, bringing participatory, immersive and audience-focused art and programming into these spaces has led to the showcasing of ‘more adventurous’ works with a significant effect on engagement.

Considering this same point from her own perspective as an artist, Sally Smart noted that ‘often the artist is more agile; they are able to travel, [to be] in [communities], but also to feed that “ground perspective” back to the institution in a way that is provocative … that’s when it’s all working well’. Although, as Marcus Schutenko noted, smaller institutions have more flexibility and capability to shift strategies and focuses to respond to current events, larger institutions have the opportunities to integrate new ways of curating and programming, that contribute to new ways of meaning-making. This perspective then has the ability to translate into ways of — as Kate described — ‘connecting through art beyond the stuffy white gallery space’.

The outcomes and possibilities considered by the panellists highlight one of the great impacts of not only shifting the visions of institutions, but also opening up boundaries and frameworks; finding new ways of working and storytelling that cover new ground. Embracing new, cross-cultural ways of curating and showcasing, and finding ways of working together that draw on differences across countries as well as similarities, is critical for establishing new visions and exchanges.

Read more on the Dekat-Dekat Jauh series here.