“Art means life for me,” says Monica Gunawan, Managing Director of Art:1 New Museum, which boasts 3,000 art pieces from 30 years of collecting by her mother.
“Most of the time, I don’t treat my work as, well, work,” she laughs. “My hobby is going to art museums, so what I do for a living has always been a mix of business and pleasure.”
Prestige sits down with Monica at Art:1 Café in the museum’s lobby. There are cups of cappuccino on the table. “I need a coffee at this hour,” she smiles. The venue features a striking “Beetle Sphere” by Ichwan Noor, a piece she is proud to have in her family’s museum.
“We are the first who acquired this art piece,” says Monica. “We’ve collaborated with Ichwan Noor before and we wanted to bring him to a new level of challenge. So we asked him to create something for Art Basel Hong Kong in 2013, and he came up with this stunning piece.”
Soon after that, a yellow 1953 Volkswagen Beetle compressed into a spherical ball received public acclaim. It was chosen as one of the top 10 favourite Instagram-able art pieces and Noor was named among the top 10 artists at Art Basel Hong Kong. Art lovers can see similar sculptures in many places all over the world, including National Gallery Victoria in Melbourne and Gandaria City Mall in Jakarta.
This story is one of the many achievements of Art:1, which also include a Purwakalaghra Museum Award. Art:1 New Museum was formerly known as Mon Decor Gallery, which was founded by Monica’s mother, the notable art collector Martha Gunawan, in 1983. Mon Décor was a pioneering art gallery business in Jakarta. “We are the oldest gallery in the city and our collections are from Indonesian old masters, Indo Euro artists, modern masters and Indonesian contemporary artists,” says Monica.
“My mother started off by providing interior design and decorating services, and selling art reproduction prints,” says Monica, who went to high school in Melbourne and earned a Bachelor of Interior Architecture degree from RMIT University. “In 1986, there was a chance for her to start dealing in artworks. She met some important figures who had big collections to sell.
“Eventually, it became routine for her to buy and sell art pieces. To promote sales, she held exhibitions. Along the way, she met many knowledgeable curators and they had important collaborations. Her idea was to ensure we had a collection that would last for the next 10 or 20 years, by when many of the artists would have become prominent.”
Monica earned her Master’s degree in Museum Management, majoring in Painting Conservation, from Istituto per l’Arte e il Restauro, Palazzo Spinelli in Florence in 2004. It was her idea to build a museum in 2011. Mon Decor Gallery reinvented its initial fine-art gallery concept and expanded into a private museum, art space and art institute. The museum’s mission is to support art infrastructure in Indonesia and to showcase the gallery’s collection of masterpieces made over a period of 30 years.
“I had come back to Indonesia in 2005, and I worked for a few years as a Gallery Associate,” says Monica, an admirer of the work of American artist Robert Rauschenberg. “I made a deal with my parents. If they wanted me to stay in Jakarta, I needed a challenge. The next step was that we relocated to a bigger and better equipped exhibition space in Kemayoran. At that time, we had four branches: Gunung Sari, MD ArtSpace in Wisma Mulia, Mon Décor Framing in Plaza Senayan and Jakarta Art District in Grand Indonesia.”
The 4,000 sq m area in Kemayoran comprises two buildings: the three-level museum and the three-level ArtSpace. “Instead of a gallery, we called it an ArtSpace because it is not just a commercial gallery but also a place to collaborate with artists and promote them,” Monica explains. “We offer products and services dedicated to art, art developments and activities for Indonesian art students, art audiences and markets.”
One of its services is art conservation, initiated by Monica. Art Restauro Laboratory (AR Lab) was founded in 2005 and is now a permanent resident at Art:1. AR Lab provides services dedicated to art preservation and conservation services, and consulting in relations to museum ergonomics and collection maintenance, storage and conservation issues.
“We have about 3,000 art pieces from 30 years of collecting,” says Monica. “We have permanent collections, such as from Heri Dono and Srihadi Soedarsono. Heri Dono is my all-time favourite Indonesian artist. I saw him for the first time at Venice Biennale in 2003. We had his solo exhibition ‘The World and I: Heri Dono’s Art Odyssey’ in 2014, and it was really amazing.
“I have a few of his pieces in my personal collection as well. Others are from J Ariadhitya Pramuhendra and M. Reggie Aquara. I personally love art photography and I’ve been collecting such works since 2005. My mother and I have different tastes in art, as you might expect. She’s more into old and modern artists.”
Monica’s father, Ricky Gunawan, is a businessman. Of their children, Monica is the only child who wanted to work in the art world. “Growing up, I think my parents took me to Disneyland more than they did to museums,” she laughs. “I started to like art when I was at university. I lived in Melbourne and I did my final university year in Mexico, and stayed there for eight weeks in a studio.
“During that period, I visited many museums, and that was when the bug really bit me. Of course, I grew up surrounded by art at home and I would help my mother in the gallery during my summer breaks. So I was well used to the gallery business environment. After my time in Mexico, I realised I’d really like to have a career in the museum industry. I came back and did some interning for few months at galleries, and then I decided to go and get my Master’s degree in Museum Management in Florence.”
Monica worked as a junior designer at Contemporanea Progetti e Esposizione, an established consulting company focused on building private museums. During her time there she was involved in the development of the Salvatore Ferragamo Museum in Florence and the Ducati Museum in Bologna.
“My mother never forced me to be in this field, but she supports my decision to be part of the art industry,” says Monica. “Her advice was: Be as niche as you can be, and be an expert in your field. I think both of my parents influenced me to be who I am today. My father is really good at managing businesses, while my mother has her expertise in art. It helps me to keep a balance between the two. I have also met a lot of inspiring people from the industry. We share the same dreams and passions. Curators and artists are people that keep me motivated, because I always learn something from them. They have a positive energy that inspires me.
“For example, we could have an exhibition and the artists would talk about environmental issues. From there, we might realise that they are about more than just the art. There are issues, concepts and real problems to deal with through art. It is not just something you put on the wall. Once you understand what the artist is talking about and trying to convey, then art talks to you in a different level.”
Monica’s dream is for Art:1 New Museum to grow. “Currently, we have about 1,000 visitors each month,” she says. “That’s good, but we want to attract more people. I want to see the museum become self-sustaining and one of the must-visit places in Jakarta. Eventually, I hope we can open additional branches of Art:1. Art means life for me. I don’t know what I’d do if I wasn’t in this field.”