Nathaniel Gunawan, Art Collector
Venue: Art Jakarta
Tell us, Nathaniel, what are you wearing right now?
I’m wearing a Comme des Garcons T-shirt. My (long-sleeved) shirt is from Opening Ceremony–it’s just something that’s comfortable to wear. My jeans are from Rag & Bone. The shoes are Riccardo Tisci.
(Tisci) used to design for Givenchy, and now he’s with Burberry. These shoes are from a collaboration he did with Nike.
What do you think about this iteration of Art Jakarta?
It’s a watershed moment and I’m really happy. I’m also happy about the things you can’t see at the fair–all our friends and collectors rallying around, doing things like organizing dinners and dialogues with artists. Everyone’s putting in effort that might not show immediate results, but which builds a sense of community.
How did all this start and how did you get involved with Art Jakarta?
Honestly, it was just down to Tom Tandio!
He’s very sincere and he loves to build communities. He put together a board of young collectors, which I’m a part of. It’s exciting because we got to vote on the public works at the fair. We had a chance to discuss them and it’s nice to be able to hear from other people.
At Plural, we are often asked about how one might get started in building an art collection. Do you have any advice?
Be a ferocious reader!
I think context is important to understand what artists are trying to do and why they choose their mediums. Research is super important. In a way, it’s simpler if you’re looking at art as purely an investment product—if you want to do this, you study auction records, talk to people and see what people are buying. Investing in art is pretty much trend investing. You’re not really buying what you like, but what other people like. Art collecting I suppose has cachet, it’s a bit like trophy hunting in a way. For some people, there is a competitive spirit to it, but I’m not into that at all.
So how did you get started?
I moved back to Jakarta after working in a bank in Singapore and collecting became a purely intellectual pursuit – I wanted to study the artists and find a like-minded community that wasn’t just into talking about business and politics, and I managed to find it in art. I didn’t have those opportunities as a kid because my parents never collected art.
Tell us about the first art piece that you saw, which triggered this interest to build a collection of your own?
It was an Agan Harahap work, from his Superheroes series–it’s smart, witty, and also a bit dark. It appeals to my feelings of being in a digital, post-truth world. I mean really, these days, what is fact?
Do you collect non-Asian artists?
I do if they really speak to me emotionally, but our core holdings are still Southeast Asian.
What do you think of the idea that art collectors need to have a ‘collection philosophy’ when building a collection?
Well, you have to start somewhere, but for me after five to six years, it’s become a necessity. I do take a step back every now and then to examine my collection. I’ve come to realise there are about five threads that can describe my collection, and I’m quite focused on two or three of these. One is what (my wife) refers to as my ‘sad paintings!’
We grew up as millennials in Southeast Asia where we experienced a lot of fast-paced changes in urban life and technology. There was always this persistent melancholy, or longing for a ‘kampung spirit,’ that seems to come across in cities like Singapore, Manila and Jakarta. The other thread (in my collection) has to do with older female artists. I feel like they are sincere and tend not to compromise on things. The market can be tough on them. Artists like Mella Jaarsma are just amazing.
(Here, at Art Jakarta) I just saw in Nova Contemporary, this young painter called Aracha Cholitgul– she’s like 22 and she paints from her dreams and longings. Her work just felt so instinctual and emotional to me.
Ok so let’s break it down, and talk about it step by step–how should someone get started in building an art collection?
Just buy your first work, and do it at an art fair!
Look around for a couple of hours and see what catches your attention, regardless of whether it has been sold or not, and regardless of what the price is. Economically it may not make sense, but you have to feel something, it has to be alive for you and you have to feel a connection to something. And then you start from there. A Poor Collector’s Guide to Buying Great Art is also a good, interesting read.
(This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity)