Neka Art Museum: Bali

Twenty-five years after its difficult birth, the Neka Art Museum (NAM) has matured into one of the most respected and influential cultural institutions in Bali. Its successful transformation owed much to the perseverance and inclusive character of its founder, Pande Wayan Suteja Neka.

“Neka knows how to overcome obstacles without stepping on someone’s feet. Moreover, he knows the importance of networking, and has diligently and sincerely built a powerful network since day one of the museum,” noted art critic Putu Wiratha Dwikora stated.

Neka conceived the idea of building a museum following a one-month tour to Europe in late 1975. It was the first trip abroad for the man who had made his name as, arguably, the most successful gallery owner at that time. During the trip, he was accompanied by Rudolf Bonnet, a prominent figure in the development of Balinese painting and a family friend.

“In Europe, I visited numerous museums and saw a large number of Indonesian and Balinese arts objects on display there. I felt a tinge of sadness that the younger generation of my people wouldn’t have the chance to admire their own heritage. That’s when the idea to build a museum crossed my mind,” he said.

But the idea met with much resistance. The government refused to issue a license to Neka, arguing that no private citizen should be endowed with the right to own a museum. While certain segments of the Ubud community also opposed, accusing Neka of trying to erect a front for his commercial gallery.

Even so, Neka was undeterred. He bought a spacious plot of land in the then desolate Sanggingan area of Ubud and began construction on his museum. He also started visiting and lobbying famous artists, asking them to support the museum.

With the help of Jusuf Wanandi, an influential collector turned best friend, the government eventually granted the museum recognition.

In July 1982, then minister of education and culture Daoed Joesoef officially opened the museum, which had only 45 paintings at the time. And the opening ceremony was held during the day because electricity had not yet reached Sanggingan.

“Jusuf Wanandi and Daoed Joesoef later assisted us greatly in getting a power line extended to the museum,” said Neka.

“Moreover, they also succeeded in getting a new, wider bridge constructed on Campuhan river, thus giving the people better, easier access to Sanggingan… We are truly indebted to these magnificent persons.”

For Jusuf, it was just a matter of helping an inspiring friend.

“He has earned much from art, but he has given back in return with his great passion for it. Neka has educated a wide range of people and students of all ages to appreciate and collect art. He inspires me to build my own museum,” he said.

Today, the museum has an ever-growing collection of over 400 paintings, including the works of Balinese, Indonesian and foreign masters. The walls in the sprawling compound are filled with the authentic, prized paintings of Lempad, Affandi, Bonnet, Hofker, Arie Smith and others who have made enormous contributions to arts development in the island.

“NAM is, in my view, the best (museum) in Bali and one of the best in Indonesia,” praised Tommy Koh, chairman of Singapore’s National Heritage Board.

“The significance of NAM goes beyond the strength of its permanent collection. It is also a center of research, scholarship and intercultural dialogue.

“It has actively promoted Balinese art abroad by holding many exhibitions from its collection in museum around the world. It has also held exhibitions of non-Balinese artists at its facilities. In these ways, NAM is outward-looking and a center for intercultural dialogue,” added Koh.

While NAM might celebrate its silver jubilee this month, its journey is far from over.

Neka’s sons, Kardi and Wahyu Suteja, have already discussed plans to expand the museum.

“We want to establish a permanent collection of Bali and Indonesian contemporary works,” Wahyu said.

I Wayan Juniartha