Thanks to One Man’s Collection, Jakarta Now Has a World-Class Museum

Posted December 17, 2017 7:02 p.m. EST

JAKARTA, Indonesia — For a city of its huge size — 10 million people — and economic heft, Jakarta lacked many things one might expect of a thriving Asian metropolis: a metro system, for one, as well as a major international modern and contemporary art museum.

The metro system will be operational in 2019, but the contemporary art museum has come even sooner. In November, the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Nusantara, known as Museum MACAN, opened, with items from the 800 contemporary and modern works owned by Haryanto Adikoesoemo, the museum’s founder, an Indonesian property and chemicals tycoon turned prodigious art collector. Situated on a horseshoe-shaped floor of a tower in the western part of this city, the museum in its early days has stunned Jakarta crowds with phantasmagoric light installations like “Infinity Mirrored Room — Brilliance of the Souls” by Yayoi Kusama, alongside classic Indonesian modernist paintings by the likes of Raden Saleh.

Adikoesoemo, 55, said he was determined to add a dose of culture to a city mainly known for its palatial shopping malls and awful traffic. “If I go to Europe, I go to museums for relaxation,” Adikoesoemo explained, sitting on the edge of his seat in the dining room of his family’s mansion in the heart of Jakarta. “Indonesia still doesn’t have that culture.”

Adikoesoemo, a trustee of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, has been collecting art for more than 20 years, and has amassed an eclectic collection that is a mix of modernist Indonesian artists like Affandi, contemporary Western artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Jeff Koons, and prominent contemporary artists from Japan and China, including Kusama and Ai Weiwei.

While the eclecticism could pose a challenge to curators trying to craft coherent exhibitions out of Adikoesoemo’s personal collection, Aaron Seeto, the museum’s director, insists that the diversity is a boon.

“One of the things we are really looking at in the program is presenting Indonesia in the world, having conversations between Indonesia and elsewhere,” said Seeto, an Australian. “This is what museums all around the world would like to be able to do, but their collections don’t allow them to do it.”

One early exhibition charts the history of Indonesian art, highlighting works by Saleh, a 19th-century Indonesian Romantic painter who lived in Europe for two decades, to demonstrate how Indonesian artistic movements were influenced by international trends. While most of the works displayed at the museum will be from Adikoesoemo’s personal collection, he has invested in state-of-the-art maintenance facilities that, he said, will allow the museum to show works on loan from international museums around the world.

Creating Museum MACAN has been a decadelong dream for Adikoesoemo, whose early attempt to collect art were washed away in the Asian financial crisis of 1997 and 1998, when his family lost nearly everything. He was forced to sell all of his most valuable pieces — including a Renoir and a beloved late Picasso — to keep creditors at bay. “I needed money, so I had to sell all of my impressionists,” he said with a smile. “The crisis was very tough.”

Adikoesoemo was born into a middle-class family in East Java during the early 1960s, at the height of Indonesia’s political and economic turmoil in the transition to the rule of the dictator Suharto. By the time Adikoesoemo reached high school, though, the political situation had stabilized and his father, Soegiarto Adikoesoemo — who traded in chemicals to local textile and rubber factories — had established a thriving operation.

With an eye toward his future in the family business, Adikoesoemo studied at the University of Bradford in Britain, where he earned a degree in business management. There was little discussion of art in the household, and in his youth Adikoesoemo wasn’t particularly interested in it. “I always wanted to be a businessman from when I was young,” he said.

He had an awakening of sorts in the early 1990s, when he visited a friend’s villa on the Indonesian resort island of Bali. The friend “had so many artworks on the wall,” Adikoesoemo said. “His house becomes very colorful, very vibrant, very pleasant, so it makes me think, ‘Maybe I should start collecting art to put on my wall.'” Adikoesoemo began by buying Indonesian artwork, and then in 1996 began loading up on modernist paintings, including a Picasso.

But the good times did not last long. The Asian financial crisis struck in 1997, sending the Indonesian rupiah’s value plummeting. Adikoesoemo had encouraged his father to take on debt to expand the business quickly, and the crisis exposed their businesses as deeply overleveraged.

His father had told him he was crazy to have invested so much money in Western paintings, but with Indonesian assets valued at next to nothing, the Picasso and Renoir were suddenly among the family’s most valuable possessions. Adikoesoemo sold the Western artworks as part of a debt-restructuring deal with 28 foreign banks. “At that time, my father was 63 years old, so he said: ‘It’s up to you. If you can solve it, you solve it, it’s yours; if you cannot solve it, there is nothing for you,'” Adikoesoemo remembered.

By the early 2000s, with the economy recovering, the younger Adikoesoemo managed to pay back the debts and restore the family business.

He never forgot that Picasso and Renoir had saved his fortune. “I realized art is an investment — when you need money you can still get value from it,” he said. But when he went back to buying art in the early 2000s, prices had skyrocketed, so he switched focus and bought mainly contemporary art.

In addition to being solid investments, contemporary pieces worked well in his minimalist house, with its high ceilings, huge windows and white walls. “Contemporary art, which is very colorful, suits the white well,” Adikoesoemo said.

But he acknowledged that founding a museum, and opening up his personal collection to the world, comes with far higher stakes than finding art that looks good in his house.

He even compared it to the anxiety of starting a business. “The same,” he said. “The anxiousness, this generates a lot of excitement and adrenaline.”