The Sustainability of Ideas

Ade Darmawan reflects on Indonesia’s art infrastructure and the challenges faced by local arts organisations.


Image: Cemeti Art House (Yogyakarta).


Completing the Cycle of Position/ Interest/ Necessity

“On November 10, 1968, Jakarta’s Governor Ali Sadikin inaugurated the establishment of an arts center that is now known as Taman Ismail Marzuki. The inauguration of the Jakarta Art Center - Taman Ismail Marzuki (PKJ-TIM) marked a new chapter in the history of art in Indonesia. The dreams of artists from ten years earlier (during the 1950s) had become a reality with the construction of the Open Theatre, Closed Theatre, Arena Theatre and Exhibition Hall, which complement this arts center that stands on Jalan Raya Cikini 73.”

This extract from the website of the Jakarta Arts Center – Taman Ismail Marzuki (PKJ – TIM) shows how, in the 1960s, the Indonesian government played a significant role in the development and planning of arts infrastructure in the context of institutions and fields of modern art. During the Suharto regime (the New Order Era), cultural centres were built in each province as part of an agenda of cultural politics. However, as we observe their role today we can see that these institutions have been left far behind, and no longer hold a vital position in the context of the arts and cultural dynamics of the city.

One of the most fundamental failures of Indonesia’s art infrastructure was its failure to make and hold a relevant role in the accelerating field of art practices, and the developments and changes in the social, cultural, and political realities of society. An art centre should be able to continue to build and manage its relevance, including aspects of appreciation, criticism, education, and mediation, all of which should be supported by good management. Yet, insufficient support from the government made the situation in Indonesia go from bad to worse. Government art institutions did not offer a systematic support of the movement of the discourse of art in society, due to a lack of human resource capacities, facilities, funding, and further problems that were caused by bureaucracy. At the same time, there was the growing discourse of the commercial art market, particularly in the field of painting, which emphasised production tendencies rather than the development of critical ideas. This posed a threat: art had been stripped away from its critical role and position in society. And although there were many artists and artworks that offered critical and explorative ideas, they ultimately failed to reach a broader audience due to the lack of space and mediation.

Meanwhile each city or region, with its own complications as a social, political, and cultural site, was fragmenting the art scene according to their differing intentions. This interesting phenomenon developed as a result of a combination of the high complexity of vision (ranging from the commercial to the ideological), and the agenda of each of the cultural actors, who finally took their own paths and tried to fulfil their own needs for infrastructure. Despite coming from a real and actual need of the public, it did not, by itself, turn into a vital infrastructure.

Obviously, we can complain about the system that does not run well, or the structure that stays incomplete or imperfect. However, the problem is that in all these circumstances, we can label anything as being an "alternative" model. In the past decade, efforts have been made by those trying to build or develop an art infrastructure or platform, which have come from the need to accelerate art, social, political, and critical ideas, and which have not been facilitated by the government-built infrastructures and other infrastructures that clearly hold a different orientation. This can be seen as a failure of the prior infrastructure—the commercial galleries, the government institutions, and critics, up to the existing educational institutions—in responding to the acceleration of art ideas that have moved just as quickly as the cultural and social changes in society. As an example, we can see how backward the ideas of art are that are currently being applied in art education institutions in Indonesia, compared to the visual culture that is happening in a public highly influenced by the development of technology and the media.


Infrastructure development and the role taken on by various organisations, in an effort to rectify the deficiency or the infertility of the existing infrastructure, had become very sporadic and was done according to each organisation’s agenda. It certainly did not guarantee a synergetic relationship between them all. The path to a non-centric network, one based on collaboration and horizontal partnership, is obviously a long and winding one. During this time, various collaborations between groups and organisations, which had involved informal infrastructures from many disciplines, began to occur more frequently. This calls for a need for research and mapping that should be done intensely and persistently, regarding the birth and development of group(s) and or institution(s) in the fields of art and culture, so that a foundation for networking and cooperation can be established. This, in turn, can form an intensely connected network consisting of small units engaged in each locality.

The emergence of this group was not intended as a direct opposition, nor an antithesis, a resistance, or a direct reaction to the mainstream; but instead can be more properly understood as an urgent need that had grown from an idea in development. This infrastructure/practice, even when it was small, was mostly run by an independent agenda and was not too concerned with, or did not give any attention to, the existence of a prior art infrastructure. It is conceivable that a group of creative workers who are very active with their own ideas would not be too directly affected by the presence or absence of an art centre in a certain city or region. This happened, of course, because there was no prior relationship with mutual influence, which can also be seen as the failure of the previous art infrastructure that had failed to understand the movements in its vicinity. Most of the initiatives and activity was triggered by a need, and then, through certain experimentations, it formed a structure or a model that was deemed the most appropriate. Then it becomes a survival strategy in filling the gap or the absence of a system or structure, which was imagined/dreamed as an ideal one, sporadically and even temporarily.

We can mention some of the organisations and groups, who in recent years have struggled with activities, groups which are centred on an issue or a specific medium, which had not been facilitated by the existing infrastructure: Cemeti Art House (Yogyakarta), IVAA (Indonesia Visual Arts Archive-Yogyakarta), ruangrupa (Jakarta), Serrum (Jakarta), Mes 56 (Yogyakarta), Forum Lenteng (Jakarta), Gardu Unik (Cirebon-West Java), Jatiwangi Art Factory (Jatiwangi-West Java), Byarr (Semarang-Central Java), Importal (Semarang-Central Java), Grafis Sosial (Jakarta), Sanggar Anak Akar (Jakarta), and Sarueh (Padang-West Sumatera). The scope of work of these organisations spans from producing artistic works to organisations with strong social functions through programmes and activities that raise public awareness. The range of activities for the public have included the execution of exhibitions, workshops, festivals, discussions, publishing, film and video screenings, websites, archiving, and research.

The practices of these organisations began with an urgent need for a vessel to mediate and propagate a certain idea. Departing from a small and intense community, who ultimately found its own networks, the organisation had to survive with all the financial constraints and experimentations in management. With a small amount of financial support—which is to say, self funding—they are intensely active in conducting art projects, exhibitions, archiving, research and artistic collaborations that focus on local social political issues, with a particular regard to the city and the urban environment. But unfortunately, this particular dynamic faces significant problems in sustaining a long-term vision, strategy and financial support for the organisations. In most cases, these organisations do not survive for more than three years. As a consequence, certain issues and ideas do not have a chance to be developed through intensive and broad discussion.

Amidst the various practices which are independently developed and tested, the repositioning of the local, government-built art centres becomes very important if they still want to be a vital infrastructure and not merely maintain their physical existence without holding any significant position among the growing number of positions that have been well executed by other independent groups and organisations. A concentric position is of course obsolete; what is needed is a position that focuses more on the facilitation and mediation in a partnership platform with no structural bind.


Ade Darmawan is an Indonesian artist and Director of the ruangrupa artists’ initiative—a non-profit organisation in Jakarta that focuses on supporting the development of art in the cultural context through research, study, and documentation. A graduate of the Indonesian Institute of the Arts Yogyakarta, Darmawan spent two years at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam in 1998, before returning to Jakarta to establish the ruangrupa artists’ initiative. Darmawan’s work has been exhibited in Indonesia and Europe.





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