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Letter from MACAN: Driving Action

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Now on my ninth week of working from home, I’m used to hosting Zoom meetings while my children are running around the house, getting annoyed by erratic internet connections and setting virtual wine dates on Friday evening. This period is all about disruption.

I can’t say that it’s easy. We all face significant problems, including the lack of human interaction and financial uncertainty. Museum MACAN temporarily closed on 14 March, and as the weeks go by, I am certainly worried about the projected financial loss. Our team imagines endless scenarios and plans to see our way through but we are all frustrated by a quarantine period with no definite expiry date.

We’ve been looking to other institutions in other countries slowly reopening after quarantine. UCCA in Beijing – our collaborator for the exhibition Xu Bing: Thought and Method held last year at Museum MACAN – has a reflective exhibition that revolves around the pandemic. Hong Kong, Austria and Germany are slated to reopen their galleries and cultural institutions. I am crossing my fingers tightly for them.

Installation view of the Xu Bing: Thought and Method at Museum MACAN last year. Read Plural’s coverage of the show here. Image credit: Museum MACAN.

While the institutional impact of the COVID-19 pandemic directly affects us all, at MACAN we are also aware of the lasting impacts that this pandemic is having on our immediate community of artists. I think about the creativity of artists, their contributions to podcasts, and Spotify play lists, the virtual studio tours and workshops. We’ve seen artists band together to create and distribute PPE to our frontline health workers; we’ve seen artists develop educational material for children and families. The arts is a fragile ecosystem that requires our attention. The postponement of exhibitions, and the tenuous freelance-nature of artists’ incomes will be a major concern right now – while artists are active within their communities, and assisting others to create content and participate in the digital society, many artists are wondering where their next paychecks are coming from. Without the largesse of the social safety systems that we see in the West, there is real concern for the future.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shifted how we all work, and it has given us a glimpse of a different future. What does work for individuals, and public engagement for institutions look like now? While Museum MACAN has had a ‘digital life’ since we opened – these last seven weeks, have shown us the real opportunities – and pitfalls of digital engagement. The great rush to digitisation will be a legacy of this pandemic – but it also lays bare broader social gaps that exist within our society. Yes, online programs allow us to reach potentially new and geographically diverse audiences, but quality and access to the internet is an important concern. The idealism of digital economies needs to be tempered by the social reality of class and economics – not everyone is able to participate freely. If you are faced with job insecurity, what priority is your bandwidth? The drive towards digital content has produced a glut of programming in need of editing. Not all ideas are equal.

A page from the Museum MACAN Education Resource Kit on Yayoi Kusama’s Life is the Heart of a Rainbow exhibition. Image screenshot from Museum MACAN webpage.

Issues around access and quality have been at the forefront of our idea for Museum from Home. After MACAN’s physical doors temporarily closed, the team gathered for our weekly meeting, now via Zoom, to brainstorm ideas. Our main aim was to be specific about our audiences, and to be aware of how people will engage with us. As we struggled to reorganise our offices in our homes, we suspected that our audiences were also struggling. Our response had to be simple and direct. Instead of creating new content, we realised a need to connect students, teachers and parents with material that we had already created over nearly four years, to repackage our programmes so they could be easily accessed and distributed. Basic things – like simplifying colour and design and reducing document file sizes so a teacher or parent was able to print it out at home. Even amongst the museum’s management team we experienced different internet and data capacities – and so our delivery also needed to be sensitive to this. A number of programs are delivered as audio guides accessed through Instagram and podcasts on Spotify – we thought that this would allow our broader constituencies to engage with us. This thinking has paid off; our collection guide for Arahmaiani’s Lingga Yoni has been accessed more than 30,000 times. And while usually all our programs are delivered bilingually in Bahasa Indonesia and English, we know, that right now our primary audience with the most substantive need are our Indonesian audiences, and so, at this moment, this is the primary language for all of our programs.

We have also just launched a program to help generate awareness of artists because without artists we have no museum. The idea is to help stimulate small amounts of income for artists right now. The program is called ‘Arisan Karya’ (which translates to ‘artwork raffle’, but is probably more closely connected to the concept of ‘paying it forward’) as a fun initiative that has serious outcomes. Arisan refers to a monthly gathering among neighbours or friends, where every member submits an agreed amount of money to shared savings. Every month, randomly selected participants get the collected money, traditionally to purchase extra needs for the household. At its core this activity is based on trust and the willingness to support one another which a fundamental part of contemporary Indonesian communities.

We’ve designed Arisan Karya as a ‘drive’ in which the public supports artists and helps to generate small but necessary funds. Through MACAN’s online shop, people can purchase a numbered ticket for a flat rate of IDR1 million (approx. SGD100). At the end of each sale period, tickets will be matched with artworks. Artists get a cut of the proceeds and the ticket buyer receives an artwork – which is anonymous until revealed via a live raffle on Instagram Live. Along the way, together with artists we will be producing a series of art-related tips and workshop tutorials to do at home. We hope that this ‘cycle of support’ will inspire others in a similar spirit, and spark generosity and support throughout the community. So far, as a result, we have seen sponsors initiate care packages of food and staples for participating artists, and I am sure that more generosity will come. While at the moment much of our lives are put under strict limitations, I do believe that a time like this can, and should, inspire action.

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The first round of Arisan Karya was launched yesterday, 20 May 2020, and sold out within the day. Stay tuned for its second edition on the Museum MACAN webpage – it is slated to be launched in June.

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