Aaron Seeto is the Director of the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Nusantara (Museum MACAN), the first museum dedicated to modern and contemporary art in Indonesia. He spoke to Leanne Newsham about his passion for making art and art education more accessible to the public.
What attracted you to move to Jakarta and take up the role as the Director of Museum MACAN?
As a curator of contemporary Asian art, my work has taken me throughout the Asia Pacific region, including Indonesia. So when I was approached to lead this new major project in Jakarta, the opportunity to make a real impact not just on the art world but on cultural exchange and education here in Indonesia was irresistible.
Even though we are a private museum, we are actually a museum for the public. The fact that education is such a core part of our philosophy means that we’re not just talking to people about art, we’re also talking to young people about their future and about how they can participate in societies of the future.
Can you describe your vision for Museum MACAN? What do you see as the opportunities and challenges for Museum MACAN going forward?
Our first mission was to build the infrastructure. In Indonesia there really was no infrastructure like this. So we’ve built a museum which is really striving for international standards of presentation and facilities. So we are able to control the humidity and temperature, for example, which is all very important for the safekeeping of art.
Secondly our vision is about education and cultural exchange and how we use art to create empathy and understanding. We know that in a place like Indonesia that is multi-ethnic and multi-racial, art and culture help people to better understand their own societies and their own histories.
The third component is really about global participation. We want to ensure that this museum is a place for crosscultural interaction. So our goal is to not only present Indonesian art but be able to present and welcome artists from around the world to present their art to the Indonesian public.
What part does education play in the Museum MACAN?
Education is central to Museum MACAN’s vision and ethos. In designing our education program, we took a holistic approach. So as well as providing on site programs, we sought to partner with schools, provide educational resource materials for teachers, create peer networks and run forums and workshops, to help teachers engage their students with art, create experiences and share knowledge.
We also have a place on site called the Children’s Art Space. Twice a year with the help of a sponsor, we bring an artist into the space to create a work specifically for children. Our educators work with the artist to create activities to help open up opportunities for young children and their parents to engage and interact with the artworks.
What excites you about living and working in Jakarta?
Indonesia is a fascinating place. It’s a vibrant, multiethnic, multi-religious society. It’s made up of more than 265 million people. Jakarta itself is a very dynamic, interesting city with around eight-10 million people, while the greater region of Jakarta is more like 20 million. The city fluctuates by two million people day to night. So I really see Jakarta as being like a living organism. Wherever you go, you are always meeting someone from somewhere else.
There are many barriers, including barriers to education and employment. So the impact that a museum like this can have, is very real.
You’ve had such an interesting career from working as a curator for Sydney’s Chinatown at the City of Sydney and Curatorial Manager of Asian and Pacific Art at the Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane. Can you describe some of your career highlights?
After I finished my honours degree at the University of Wollongong I worked for a non-profit organisation in Sydney called 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art.
It was a very different situation to working in a museum. It was very small, artist focused and we had to raise everything that we spent. So it was a really good learning opportunity to not only understand how to work with artists but also how to plan and manage a small organisation.
My role at 4A Centre for Contemporary Art played a crucial role in raising awareness of art from elsewhere and cemented my interest in contemporary Asian art.
From there I went to the Queensland Art Gallery as head of Asian and Pacific Art working with artists and collections which in turn lead me to being here in Jakarta.
What attracted you to study creative arts at the University of Wollongong?
The degree that I did at Wollongong, in the time that I did it was really exciting because it exposed me to disciplines and theories outside of the visual arts. I also got to meet a range of people with different perspectives outside of my key interest area that really opened up a way of looking at things that maybe I wouldn’t have got from a more traditional art school.
Also being in a smaller place like Wollongong allowed me to engage with the other cultural institutions in the city and not just be creative, but really make things happen.
What is your current view of the role of arts and culture in society?
I think that art can play a really important role in society in term of its ability to help us look at things from different angles and take a broader global view. Great artists have an ability to help us to look at things differently, to understand who we are and where we have come from.
More than ever, not just in Indonesia, but all around the world, there is a need for people to try to see the world through the eyes of somebody else.
Can you tell us what’s in store for Museum MACAN?
We have just opened a major exhibition by renowned Chinese artist Xu Bing. This is the first and biggest retrospective of this artist in South East Asia. His work doesn’t really fit into basic characterisation. It’s Chinese, but it’s also not Chinese. He’s using language to make us understand that there are systems of language and that there is both communication and miscommunication.
His work is thoughtful and ground-breaking in its exploration of language and the impact of globalisation and cross-cultural understanding on human society. The exhibition includes important works and installations that span more than 40 years of artistic practice.
Bachelor of Creative Arts (Visual Arts) (Honours), 2001