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Letter from Jakarta to Bandung: A Gallerist’s Perspective

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In this letter from Jakarta to Bandung, Carla Bianpoen writes to her friend Dr Andonowati, founder of Lawangwangi Creative Space about how she’s coping with the COVID-19 pandemic, as she celebrates the 10-year anniversary of the founding of her art gallery.

Dear Aan,

How are you? Congratulations on the 10th anniversary of Lawangwangi, the institution that you established a decade ago as an ‘Art and Science Estate’, as a first step towards the realisation of your vision to render more prominence to Indonesian artists. I’m so sorry that the planned celebration had to be cancelled because of COVID-19.

The writer, Carla Bianpoen, freelance journalist for culture and contemporary art and co-author of  Indonesian Women Artists: The Curtain Opens and Indonesian Women Artists: Into the Future

I wonder how this forced stay-home situation is impacting you, your projects, the artists under your management, your curators, and your collectors?

On my part, I am reminded that forced situations can also inspire great ideas. Isaac Newton, for instance, worked from home during the plague in London in 1665, and discovered gravity. You yourself became a mathematician as a result of your mother sending you to extra mathematics classes to help tone down your restlessness as a child, not knowing that this would then inspire you to study the subject at a higher level. This elevated training has now resulted in your prominence in the field of art and science in Indonesia.

Dr Andonowati, mathematician and founder of Lawangwangi Creative Space

I remember you telling me about mathematical modelling, and how it is an abstract representation of the reality that is being studied. The most important part of these studies, you explained, is the ability to understand the parameters of the model, as these parameters represent elements that drive the dynamics of the reality which is under investigation. A simple example might be in the study of the price of an object—the parameters here would include the present and future availability of stock, or the demand capacity in the market. It is this kind of structured thinking that has given you insight on how to better showcase your artists.

Would you share with me your first reactions to the COVID-19 work from home order?

What is it like celebrating this milestone anniversary during a pandemic?

When we designed our exhibition, it was meant to be a large show. We invited 10 important senior and emerging artists, and 10 contributors to write essays for a book publication, and we designed the timeline of our gallery’s history. We renovated our gallery for the show and even extended the garden for the party. Then, the pandemic started, causing great disappointment, both for us and our supporting businesses (restaurants, hotels, and meeting rooms).

But after 2 weeks of despair, solutions emerged, initiated by our amazing staff from the art department. We decided to put the show online by renting an online viewing room, and we organised gallery visits by appointment.

Have the artworks translated well online, with new buyers coming forth, or has the response just been from regular gallery supporters?

We have several collectors who have continued supporting us during this bad time. Several clients from abroad also contacted us, mostly via social media.

Do you think there will be a new normal for art galleries as pandemic restrictions ease off, while things take some time to revert to pre-pandemic norms (if ever)?

As a gallery owner,  I have experienced many surprises from this pandemic. Friends who were never collectors before decided to purchase artworks to ensure that our artists will survive the pandemic. In my opinion, online viewing will become more and more important in the future. At the same time, networks of collectors will become more and more open and transparent. Therefore, it will become increasingly more important for galleries to represent good artists who deliver quality works.

I think that the revealing of prices of artworks sold in primary markets i.e. galleries (as is the case in online viewing rooms) is not a bad idea, and will eventually become natural. It has been a tradition in secondary art markets to reveal the price history of an artwork. This can be seen on websites such as Artprice and Artnet amongst others. As far as I know, dealers and collectors often compare the prices of artworks sold in primary markets with similar artworks sold in secondary markets.

Networks of collectors often maintain secrecy with their dealers and galleries. Each dealer or gallery would also not share its networks. But online viewing may break the physical boundaries of these networks and open the possibility to things becoming more transparent.

As a mathematician, do you think that you see things differently in this climate, compared to other gallerists?

My background as a mathematician is always helpful in understanding important structures in the middle of chaos, like what’s happening in this current time. I think, in a time of crisis, the ones who will survive are those that are willing and capable to adapt to changing situations. Creativity and innovativeness are important traits.

What is it like now in Bandung – how do you think it might be different from other Indonesian cities?

Bandung is a big city, and the pandemic here is quite spread out, but it might be the hardest hit, after Jakarta. In terms of art, artists in Bandung are very creative. Our artists, thanks to the Bandung Contemporary Art Awards and its jurors, are emerging as some of the most creative in Indonesia.

From left to right Carla, Andonowati, Anita Dube, and friends. In this recent photo, the writer has accompanied Anita Dube, the first female curator of the Kochi Biennale, to meet Andonowati at Lawangwangi Creative Space, up in the hills of Parahyangan, Bandung. Image credit: Tulus Wicaksono.

How are you generally feeling about everything?

In the first week of the pandemic, I could not sleep. I could not imagine the possibility of having to lay off some 100 workers, and to stop supporting our artists and their assistants.

In the second week, I decided to stop worrying and took action. With our art staff, we re-designed our future exhibitions. I am so lucky that our many friends and collectors have not stopped promoting and supporting us. My artists are also actively participating in our efforts to find ways out (of this difficult situation): they work extra hard in making new works, which in turn helps our financial situation and allows us to limit the retrenchment of staff. Some collectors have even commissioned new works for their new homes.

I have the feeling that both artists and collectors will not let Indonesian art and art business just die and for this, I sincerely thank them.

I am also amazed that my staff members have been so adaptable not only in art but also in the hospitality arm of our business. We are re-arranging and re-designing our business quite fast to adapt to this situation. I have not laid off most of our workers, but some of the staff who no longer fit with this new paradigm will hopefully be relocated to new businesses. For example, the staff of our restaurants are being re-deployed for the delivery of food and healthy drinks. We are also planning to develop a new business sector in organic and vertical farming, as we own large pieces of land. This has been planned for a long time and the pandemic has ironically given us a chance at the possible realisation of this project.

Our artists and collectors have also helped with fundraising to support people who have lost their jobs and other people who need help, for example, by making hand sanitisers for community use. This entire pandemic has taught us about the important matters in life, such as friendship, adaptability, helping hands, and the value of a healthy life. I am sure that we will pass through this pandemic and enter new business paradigms safely.

Thank you Aan, I am glad you are doing fine.

Wishing you and your team all the best,

Carla.

 



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Carla Bianpoen

Carla Bianpoen

Carla Bianpoen has been a freelance arts journalist of contemporary art since 1990, contributing to various local and international print media, such as The Jakarta Post, The Jakarta Globe, Asian Art News HK, Art Republik Singapore and CoBo Social HK. She was the senior editor of C-Arts Magazine (2007- late 2011) and a Juror for the Bandung Contemporary Art Awards for 5 editions of the award. She served as artistic director and co-curator for the Indonesia Pavilion of the Venice Biennale in 2013 and 2015, co-authored the book 'Indonesian Women Artists: The Curtain Opens,' and is the author of the seminal 2019 book on young Indonesian women artists, 'Into the Future.' Carla was the recipient of the Visual Art Award (2011) and Contemporary Art Award (2014). (Profile image credit: SEA Focus 2019)

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