Aaron Seeto: spurring cultural participation via art

 Photo by Muhammad Fadli
Photo by Muhammad Fadli

Aaron Seeto moved to Jakarta in 2016 when he was presented the opportunity to lead the development of Indonesia’s first museum dedicated to modern and contemporary art, the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Nusantara (MACAN) in Jakarta.

An art lover and an experienced curator, Aaron previously worked at the City of Sydney as Public Art Curator who was responsible to work alongside accumulated visions and ideas from artists across different backgrounds to rejuvenate and refresh the public space in Sydney’s Chinatown where it has now transformed into a lively precinct, reflecting the cultural diversity and dynamism behind one of the most successful multicultural societies in the world.

“I find Indonesia exciting because it offers incredible opportunity – the scale and relative youth of its population; its creativity, its ability to think differently to disrupt and adapt, make for fertile conversations about the current and future role of our museum.”

As Director of MACAN, he is excited to enrich the art scene in Jakarta and beyond with broader cultural participation and he shares with Advance the lessons he has embraced on his journey from Australia to Indonesia.

What made you move to Jakarta?

The opportunity to lead a new major museum project in Jakarta (Museum MACAN) was the primary reason I moved to Indonesia. I arrived in November 2016, and I have had the great fortune of being involved in the development of a major piece of cultural infrastructure, the museum houses an important collection of international modern and contemporary art from Indonesia and around the world; has a fundamental commitment to art education for Indonesians, and presents a program of Indonesian and international exhibitions to facilitate cultural exchange and understanding. In the short period since I arrived, I believe we have made a big social and cultural impact here in Indonesia and also South East Asia.

How were you first introduced to art?

Like most Australians, I was introduced to art at high school. I had a number of art teachers who really cultivated my interest in art, they opened up this area of study and encouraged me to take it seriously. They helped me to understand that art was more than just a practical activity, but one that was connected to history, politics, philosophy and knowledge, and that had an important place in understanding our complex relationships. This encouragement opened up a completely different way of understanding the world around me.

What’s the biggest joy working in the art world?

I really enjoy traveling and meeting people. In the arts, you have opportunities to spend time and to get to know artists, writers and curators, they constantly challenge me to see and understand the world differently. It’s the variety of points of view, and being exposed to the completely unexpected which is one of the joys of working with artists. I also really enjoy the opportunities to share – I have had some great teachers, friends and mentors who have helped me along the way, at school art was the way in which the world around me opened up, I hope that I can help spark this curiosity in others, and share this through meaningful educational experiences.

You previously worked as a Public Art Curator for Sydney’s Chinatown at City of Sydney. Did the experience in any way help advancing your career shifting to work at an art gallery?

Being involved with the City of Sydney through their public art program, was a very rewarding experience. At the time, I had been working and running a contemporary art gallery in Sydney’s Chinatown. It was a space dedicated to Asian and Australian art, and it was committed to exploring the Asian cultural experience in Australia. And so the work as the Public Art Curator for Sydney’s Chinatown was the coming together of a number of ideas and interest areas that I had been nurturing. I think that the approach to public art that the City was undertaking was extremely progressive, in the sense that it understood the cultural and historical significance of a place like Chinatown, respected the input and contribution of artists in creating a cultural expression for the area, and sought the active participation of the local community. Our approach was to use public art to stimulate a broader discussion of public space. I see the work that was done here as an important milestone – I hope that this Public Art plan has helped to make artists and their ideas more visible within the city.

What was the most exciting project that you have ever worked on?

At this point, coming to lead the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Nusantara (Museum MACAN) has been both exciting and rewarding. What we are trying to achieve here in Jakarta, hasn’t been done at this scale, and I hope that the social impact of our activities – to encourage and develop art education in Indonesia, will be widespread. I find Indonesia exciting because it offers incredible opportunity – the scale and relative youth of its population; its creativity, its ability to think differently to disrupt and adapt, make for fertile conversations about the current and future role of our museum. 

You have worked in multiple art projects and galleries before relocating to Jakarta. What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned on your way?

I have worked in small non-profit art organisations and larger government museums. Before I took on the role in Jakarta, a more learned and experienced friend of mine suggested to me that regardless of scale, organisations usually face very similar issues. I see my role as one that supports a team to cultivate the expressions of artists at the same time as encouraging the broader participation of the community. It requires a team effort, to know your strengths and to know the strengths of the team around you. Now, being in Indonesia, what I am constantly thinking about is how to harness its diversity to ensure that cultural participation can occur in the broadest possible way. I think the experience of Australia, working with its multicultural context and recognising its indigenous foundations has allowed me to apply this thinking to our programs.

What is the importance of art and art galleries in society today?

Museums provide intellectual, aesthetic and emotional experiences, they give people insight into history, themselves and the world around them. In my mind, museums provide us with both rational and emotional experiences. When we encounter a work of art, art speaks to us in ways which are factual and fantastic, great works of art can generate conversations and research for many years, giving up endless perspectives and insight into the world around us or the world at a particular moment in time. Yet an encounter with art may also be personal, transformative, expansive and not able to be completely defined in words. Art also helps to create empathy, in that we get to see and experience things from multiple perspectives. I think, for the future, people will need to develop both creative and critical skills to negotiate a complex changing society. I believe that art, galleries and museums are fundamental.

Has technology transformed the role of art curator? Do you agree that social media is making art more accessible to the general public?

The truth is that technology has transformed everything, we live in a world where the analogue has been increasingly replaced by the digital. For me, social media is something to harness. At the museum, we have been talking quite a lot about technology and social media. I work in a country of over a quarter of a billion people and in a city with widely different social and economic experiences, and constrained by infrastructure. In these situations, technology, and in particular social media can be an important disruptor of the status quo, and it can also enable access to culture. Social media is relatively cheap, which means that participation across social class can be facilitated; and secondly, where you have a lack of cultural infrastructure, and where access to artworks, or books may be limited, perhaps social media might be the first experience that a person has with the world of culture. For me, as a director of a museum, I see this as an exciting challenge, to create different ways to make art accessible, and encourage participation that might look different to how things have been done in the past.


What’s the difference in curation between Jakarta and Australia?

The principles of making exhibitions are the same wherever you are. Of course artists and their interests might shift from geography to geography, but this makes the whole process of working with artists exciting. However, in a very practical sense, the big difference working in Jakarta has to do with infrastructure – where artists exhibit, the kinds of technologies they employ, and the training that people have to develop and express their ideas. So many of the processes and activities which we are implementing at Museum MACAN are quite new to the Indonesian context.

What do you miss most about Australia?

I was born and raised in Sydney, I feel like I know that city intimately. As I began working in different cities, I became aware of how influential my home town was in the development and construction of my personal identity. It’s this intimate knowledge of a city which I suppose one has to try and remake as you move and work in different places. But this is also what makes living and working away from home exciting on a daily basis.