“Discovering Together”: Co-Founder Melin Merrill on RUCI Art Space making an impact in Indonesia and beyond

Melin Merrill, co-founder of RUCI Art Space in Jakarta, Indonesia. Image courtesy of Melin Merrill.
External view of RUCI Art Space in Jakarta. Image courtesy of RUCI Art Space.
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Young Indonesian art gallerist shares behind-the-scene insights on running an innovative and exciting young art space in Jakarta, Indonesia

TEXT: Reena Devi
IMAGES: Courtesy of Melin Merrill

In a country with a median age of 28.8, it makes sense that most of Indonesia’s exciting art spaces today are young in terms of their audience and the people running them. However, this fresh and youthful energy is not merely due to their age, but a spirit of discovery and innovative instincts. Melin Merrill, co-founder of RUCI Art Space in Jakarta, Indonesia, the successful art gallery, considered a favourite in Indonesia’s art scene, embodies exactly this energy.

 

Melin Merrill, co-founder of RUCI Art Space in Jakarta, Indonesia. Image courtesy of Melin Merrill.

 

31-year-old Merrill, who was always interested in art but had very little previous experience or knowledge in the field, co-founded the 800 sqm double storey industrial art space in the now-hip neighbourhood of Senopati, Jakarta, along with Tommy Sibarani and Rio Pasaribu in 2014. The opening exhibition “Hole in the Wall” featured 11 local artists with their works filling up 250 to 300 sqm space on each of the two floors. But the RUCI team did not stop there.

Speaking with CoBo Social in an interview, Merrill said with a laugh, “We’ve got to make a splash, so how do we make a splash? We invited all these local DJs, the up and coming ones and we had a three-day party [on the third floor of the gallery] because we thought it was normal for an art exhibition opening to have a three day party.”

The former gallery director of RUCI said, “We thought there’s no way we’re going to compete with existing galleries. We had nothing to offer in that sense [because] we don’t come from an art background so we don’t know anything. What we need to do is make our own crowd.”

“By doing that, I always try to frame my mind that we [RUCI Art Space and its audience] are on the same playing field—we don’t know art, so let’s discover art together [and] the shows are presented in ways we can both learn,” she added.

The intended demographic of RUCI Art space are people between mid-twenties to early forties who are new to collecting with no prior art experience. “We are always talking to people who are basically like ourselves, [without] excluding those people in art,” she explained. In fact, Merrill pointed out that amongst more than 200 people who attended the opening, the art collectors in attendance were surprised to see how many non-art viewers were at the party.

“[This was] because we engaged fashion designers and they had art installations as part of the display. These were young Indonesian designers and we thought it would be cool to mix art and design. At the time not many people were doing that but now it’s more common. (At that time) we didn’t think much about it, other than, hey, they do art display, let’s bring them on,” she explained. This intuitive, flexible and organic process is why the art space has grown to have an indelible impact on the Indonesian and Southeast Asian art scene today.

According to regional industry insiders, there is a new generation of Indonesian artists making waves in Southeast Asia and beyond. The older legends such as Jendela Group, Arin Dwihartanto Sunaryo, Christine Ay Tjoe, FX Harsono, Arahmaiani, Melati Suryodarmo and collectives like Ruang MES56 and ruangrupa are very much respected locally and internationally. At the same time, the multiple names that appear repeatedly in exhibitions across Southeast Asia are Indonesian artists who happened to be on the artist roster from two young and exciting local art spaces in Jakarta—ROH Projects and RUCI Art Space. Ella Wijt and Abenk Alter are two such artists associated with RUCI Art Space over the past few years.

Merrill, who left RUCI in 2018 and was consultant with the team till March this year, shared her insights behind their artistic process. “What’s important is that the artist is articulate, meaning that when we sit one-on-one, they are able to express themselves because I don’t know art history, I need them to walk me through their process so I understand their practice,” she said.

 

External view of RUCI Art Space in Jakarta. Image courtesy of RUCI Art Space.

 

Merrill added, “Let’s say they’re terrible at public speaking, that’s fine. That’s our job, essentially. But [they must be able to] walk me through their process in their studio [and share] this is what happened, this is why I chose this medium. Those things are quite important because those are things I need to convey to the public.”

“When we [the artists and I] engage in a conversation, there’s genuine interest from my side and then everything else becomes natural… When RUCI was built, it was with the intention to discover together. With artists, I want to learn as much as the artists.”

Describing the phrase “discover together” as a motto in her head, Merrill is currently working on her new company, Project Mei, an online art gallery coupled with artist management services and even providing content in snippets on Instagram stories about interesting exhibitions and the art world. Launched in May this year at Art Moments Jakarta, a boutique Indonesian art fair, she describes the process behind this platform as continuously morphing, following the instinctive and organic approach she brought to RUCI Art Space.

“That’s always been an important thing for me, even when running RUCI. I was constantly asking questions like what is my role as a gallery in the larger Indonesian art scene and trying to answer it myself. From that [process], I developed my own understanding of how things should function which makes (RUCI) quite different in that sense.” She added, “[I’m doing the] same with Project Mei, asking what is this (platform) trying to answer in the larger context of the scene.”

From the success of RUCI Art Space and Merrill’s consistent efforts to create new and engaging art spaces whether physical or online, it is clear that a sense of discovery and an inherently instinctive process is behind the innovative energy in Indonesia’s art scene today.

 

 


 

Reena Devi Shanmuga Retnam is a Singaporean arts journalist and critic who writes for regional and international media such as ArtAsiaPacific (HK), Hyperallergic (NY) and Artsy (NY). Previously she was a full-time reporter with Yahoo Lifestyle Singapore and TODAY newspaper (SG), breaking stories and exploring issues such as leadership, race, funding and censorship in the Singapore arts scene.

 
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