How These 7 Women Are Making the Art World More Diverse
Women have played key patronage roles in the history of art—from the Egyptian Queen Hatshepsut, through Renaissance patrons such as Marie de’ Medici, to Peggy Guggenheim—but they’ve long been the minority of collectors recognized for their contributions. One analysis of ARTnews’s list of top collectors found that only 10 percent were lone females, perhaps a reflection of the outsized economic power still held by men.
But as women grow as forces in the art world—as artists, dealers, curators, and museum directors—it’s clear that female collectors will be part of the change. Many of the collectors profiled below share a resolve to bring their private passion for art to a wider audience, taking art out of their living rooms and into the realm of public discourse.
“Their commitment goes beyond just the acquisition and display of the artworks,” said San Francisco–based gallerist Wendi Norris. “There’s a devotion and a financial commitment towards education and accessibility to a greater group of people who couldn’t otherwise have access to it.”
Melani Setiawan and S. Sudjojono in Pandanwangi Studio in Jakarta, 1984. Courtesy of Melani Setiawan.
Some grew up with art, while others discovered it later in life. Some pursued formal education in art, and others are self-taught. But they are all driven by a vision of collecting that has less to do with objects and more to do with supporting their communities in whatever way they can.
“There does seem to be this sway of women who, once they start to go a bit more public in what they do, are very much focused on this creation of conversational spaces…rather than the ‘I’m going build a museum’ model, the phallic approach,” said Rose Lejeune, a London-based curator and researcher who has worked with collectors through the Delfina Foundation’s residency program. They seem to understand “that the privilege of wealth enables you to support an ecosystem,” she said, especially in places with limited state support for the arts.
“It feels less like they’re trophy-hunting,” said Norris. “It’s more of a gathering than a hunting-type thing,” she added with a laugh.
The trailblazer: Makgati Molebatsi
Portrait of Makgati Molebatsi. Courtesy of Makgati Molebatsi and LATITUDES Art Fair.
When she started collecting art, as much as she loved it and the artists who made it, Makgati Molebatsi, the South African art collector and advisor, had trouble understanding it. Although she read books about art and subscribed to magazines like Art Review and ARTnews, “the language [in which] art is written about is a little bit beyond comprehension, if you did not study” it, she said.
Molebatsi educated herself by traveling to biennials and befriending artists and curators such as the late Nigerian curator Okwui Enwezor. Finally, in 2015, she left her corporate life (where she had hit a glass ceiling, she believes) to retrain at Sotheby’s Institute of Art in London, where she took a six-month course in art and business in 2016. She still reads relentlessly to deepen her understanding of modern art.
“It gave me that confidence to come back and talk from a position of knowledge,” she said.
Ugandan gallerist Daudi Karungi and Tanzanian artist Sungi Mlengeya in conversation at LATITUDES Art Fair, 2019. Courtesy of LATITUDES Art Fair.
Growing up in the apartheid era, she noted, “there was very little art education—in fact, none at all.” It was only after South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994 that white universities began accepting black students, exposing them to arts education and equipping a new generation of curators and writers with the language to write about art.
Molebatsi, who began collecting in the late 1990s through gifts or exchanges from artist friends, sees her mission as cultivating and educating black collectors. Her professional background is in marketing; she has held roles in a range of industries, including energy, transportation, and consumer goods. When she joined the Johannesburg nonprofit the Bag Factory Artists’ Studios—first as a board member in 2008 and then, in 2017, as chairperson—she saw that most of the collectors were white, despite the emergence of a black business elite.
“Being at the Bag Factory, there were lots of black artists there, and more and more black artists were coming into the fore,” she said. “One thing I really wanted to see was a critical interest from the black community in acquiring art.”
Makgati Molebatsi with International Jazz Day Director Brenda Sisane (left) and visual artist Adejoke Tugbiyele (right), 2019. Courtesy of LATITUDES Art Fair.
Molebatsi used her business background and art knowledge to professionalize and expand the Bag Factory’s programming, bringing in curators and holding exhibitions for visiting artists. She also took it upon herself to speak to potential collectors, educating them about art, how to think about value, and why collecting and supporting artists matters. She now regularly gives presentations to educate and cultivate collectors at auction houses, fairs, and private events such as those organized by the Black Collectors Forum.
In 2019, Molebatsi and her colleagues Lucy MacGarry, Nokwazi Zimu, and Roberta Coci launched Latitudes, a Johannesburg art fair that runs alongside FNB Art Joburg. Right now, Molebatsi noted, Cape Town has seized South Africa’s art-world spotlight, with the opening in 2017 of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, a private museum that has the largest collection of contemporary art on the continent. She would like to see the country’s art scene move beyond the two major centers and into smaller cities such as Durban, Bloemfontein, and Port Elizabeth.
Installation view of LL Editions’s booth at LATITUDES Art Fair, 2019. Courtesy of LATITUDES Art Fair.
Her latest project is rediscovering and recontextualizing the work of artists who lived in South Africa’s townships in the 1960s and ’70s. Known as “township artists,” they were largely self-taught, given the absence of academic training, though some studied at informal learning sites such as the Johannesburg Art Foundation, the Federated Union of Black Artists, and Polly Street Art Centre, spaces which no longer exist.
“During apartheid, black universities did not offer fine art degrees, and white universities—where fine art and history of art qualifications were offered—did not accept black students,” Molebatsi said.
“My interest is to work with a number of these curators and start to look at these artists and say: ‘What do they have? What is it that today’s artists can learn from what they produced at that time?’” she said. “Bring them up, let’s talk about them!”
The global citizen: Catherine Petitgas
Portrait of Catherine Petitgas by Benedikt Frank. Courtesy of Catherine Petitgas.
London-based collector Catherine Petitgas was born in Germany, grew up in Algeria and Morocco, and considers herself “totally French”—a heritage unmissable in her delightful accent. But she’s best known for her support of Latin American art and artists, which she traces back to her stint living in Mexico City in the 1980s after business school with her then-boyfriend Franck, who is now her ex-husband.
“We felt very much at home,” she said. “I found a lot of what I loved in my upbringing in Morocco and Algeria…that nonchalance, color, noise, that craft.”
She swiftly realized her mission as a collector was not just to acquire works, but—especially in the case of living artists—to support them and ensure the work is seen.
Petitgas had already developed an amateur interest in contemporary art when she took a course on 20th-century American art during business school; she was drawn to more conceptual work, how “art that is not just visual forces you to think about your everyday life,” she said. Working in finance, with a focus on Latin America, she became more acquainted with the artists, galleries, and museums of the region whose art reflected her instinct to try to find beauty in harsh environments.
Leonora Carrington, Coeur d'amour epris, 1960. Courtesy of the artist and Catherine Petitgas.
“Francis Alÿs, he’s a bit of a flaneur who finds poetry in everyday situations,” Petitgas said. She was also attracted to “artists who collect objects that are rejected and transform them in art,” such as the Brazilian Alexandre da Cunha.
It was only after Petitgas left finance in 1997 that she began seriously acquiring work, including pieces by Gabriel Orozco and, later, a number of Surrealists with connections to Latin America, such as Leonora Carrington. She swiftly realized her mission as a collector was not just to acquire works, but—especially in the case of living artists—to support them and ensure the work is seen.
Portrait of Catherine Petitgas with her dog Marcel. Photo by Benedikt Frank. Courtesy of Catherine Petitgas.
Gabriel Orozco, Treble Time, 2007. Courtesy of the artist and Catherine Petitgas.
“We realized we should dedicate a significant part of our collecting budget to philanthropy,” Petitgas said, describing her current approach as “the philosophy of sharing and support.”
A significant portion of that support has gone to Tate, where her ex-husband Franck was a trustee for eight years; she serves on the Latin American Acquisitions Committee and, in 2016, assumed the chair of the International Council. She also supports the Serpentine Galleries and a number of smaller initiatives in London including Fluxus Art Projects, a public-private initiative that funds exhibitions of British and French artists, and Gasworks & Triangle Network, an organization offering residencies and studio space (she is the chair of both). Although the Petitgas collection, which numbers around 900 works, was recently digitized, she is a firm believer in supporting public institutions over starting a private foundation.
Max Ernst, Paysage, 1921-22. Courtesy of the artist and Catherine Petitgas.
In 2011, Petitgas was approached by the publisher Hossein Amirsadeghi, who asked her to edit a book on Brazilian contemporary art. She wanted to write about Colombia and Mexico, and wound up doing both—plus the book on Brazil. The books, several hundred pages each, remain one of her proudest accomplishments. Even eight years after their publication, she still gets a frisson when she sees them for sale in museums and galleries.
“I think people still believe that those books are relevant and helpful,” Petitgas said. “It makes me very happy.”
The disrupter: Komal Shah
Portrait of Komal Shah by Drew Altizer. Courtesy of Komal Shah.
A native of Ahmedabad, India, and currently based in Atherton, California, Komal Shah has become something of an evangelist for female artists in her circle of mainly technologists and engineers. She does that by letting the art—almost exclusively abstract—speak for itself.
“I think that my job is to buy great art and then just invite people to look and think,” she said, citing a recent dinner party in which three guests noticed a work by the young artist Firelei Báez and asked for her dealer’s contact details. At the core of Shah’s collection are Jacqueline Humphries, Laura Owens, Amy Sillman, and Charline von Heyl; she later expanded it to include other women, such as Lynda Benglis, Zarina Hashmi, and Phyllida Barlow, and artists of color, including Mark Bradford, Kevin Beasley, and Sam Gilliam.
Top: Firelei Báez, temporally palimpsestive (just adjacent to air), 2019. © Firelei Báez. Courtesy of the artist, James Cohan Gallery, and The Komal Shah and Gaurav Garg Collection. Center left: Lorna Simpson, Ice 11, 2018. © Lorna Simpson. Courtesy of the artist, Hauser & Wirth, and The Komal Shah and Gaurav Garg Collection. Center right: Simone Leigh, Stick, 2019. © Simone Leigh. Photo by Farzad Owrang. Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, and The Komal Shah and Gaurav Garg Collection. Bottom: Jennifer Bartlett, At Sea, 1979. © Jennifer Bartlett. Courtesy of the artist, Locks Gallery, and The Komal Shah and Gaurav Garg Collection.
Shah’s collecting approach aligns with her other philanthropic activities, which focus on gender-related causes (she has been on the advisory board of the Feminist Majority Foundation since 2014). Shah believes that women in the art world face substantially more discrimination than in the notoriously male-dominated technology industry, where she began her career in 1993. She mentioned a recent study that found that female artists’ work consistently sells for less than men’s at auction.
“That to me is real bias,” she said. At least in the technology industry, she added, “there are still concrete metrics through which you can shine, whereas in the art world…it’s much harder. That’s where I feel like it has become so much of a mission to really try to move the needle as much as I can.”
As a trustee of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Shah is working on increasing the museum’s representation of women in its holdings—which currently stands at 19 percent. She is also a board member of the Tate Americas Foundation, and wants to bring what she sees as Tate’s leadership on diversity, global awareness, and underrepresented artists to the United States.
Dana Schutz in conversation with Hamza Walker for The Komal Shah and Gaurav Garg Artist Conversation Series at Stanford University, 2019. Photo by Drew Altizer. Courtesy of Stanford University and Komal Shah.
In 2019, Shah launched a series bringing the art and tech worlds together through her alma mater, Stanford University, where she earned her MS in computer science in 1993 and has been on the board of the Stanford Arts Advisory Council since 2017. “Artists on the Future” pairs accomplished artists with experts from other fields for conversations that address thorny issues through the lens of art. For example, last March, LAXART executive director Hamza Walker spoke to Dana Schutz about representation and identity, showing a range of images of representations of Emmett Till, whose depiction in Schutz’s painting Open Casket (2016) sparked controversy when it was exhibited in the 2017 Whitney Biennial. The events draw students, curators, and gallerists from San Francisco’s growing art scene, as well as technologists—Shah cited attendees from Google and Instagram—and elementary school teachers.
“They think of art as being extraneous or a little frivolous,” Shah said, referring to her Silicon Valley peers, adding that many engage in non-art-related philanthropy. “That is one of the reasons for this talk series to have this particular flavor, that it’s not extraneous to our societal dilemmas.”
The diplomat: Nadia Samdani
Portrait of Nadia Samdani by Noor Photoface. Courtesy of Samdani Art Foundation.
Imagine a major art event devoid of exclusivity—one where ambassadors get the same treatment as local public schoolchildren; where young people volunteer as “art mediators” to show visitors around and answer questions; and where there are no VIPs. That’s the Dhaka Art Summit, launched in 2012 by Bangladeshi art collectors Nadia and Rajeeb Samdani.
“The president of Switzerland comes, and the taxi driver,” said Nadia Samdani. “It’s really for everyone.”
Samdani began collecting when she was in her early twenties, inspired by her parents, who collected Bangladeshi modernists. But as she became more involved in the art world, traveling to fairs, biennials, and other art events (“Once you get into that art madness, it takes over your life!” she joked), she found herself answering the same question over and over, whether she was in Miami or Hong Kong: What is Bangladeshi art like?
Bharti Kher, installation view of Intermediaries, 2019-20, at the Dhaka Art Summit, 2020. Photo by Randhir Singh. Courtesy of the artist, Samdani Art Foundation, and Nature Morte.
“There’s lots of things happening here, there are talented artists, but there is no platform, there is no place for them to show,” she said. No Bangladeshi galleries represent artists abroad or show them in international fairs. While Samdani tried to pitch in, sending artists overseas for residencies or exhibitions, she realized there was only so much she could do artist by artist.
She and Rajeeb decided to create an event that would entice both their curious art-world friends from across the globe and the citizens of Dhaka, a city of 21 million in a country where people earn an average of about $141 a month. Since its launch, the summit has evolved and changed.
Installation view of the Samdani Collection, featuring works by Rabindranath Tagore and Abanindranath Tagore. Courtesy of Samdani Art Foundation.
“It has matured, content-wise,” she said. “It’s so much more research, it’s richer now, and it’s more serious.” This year, the summit teamed with the Getty Foundation, Cornell University, and others to bring 21 scholars from all over the world to present papers over the course of 9 days in February in an open mini-conference designed to bring world-class scholarship to people who might not ordinarily encounter it. Similarly, the summit can serve as a crash course in Bangladeshi contemporary art for people who would otherwise find the country’s scene difficult to navigate, due to the lack of infrastructure in the form of a gallery system or institutions dedicated to contemporary art.
“[Artists] work out of their homes, they don’t have websites, no blogs,” said Samdani. “Even for me as a Bangladeshi, for me to find these young artists, was like, where do you find them? It took time.”
Reetu Sattar, Harano Sur (Lost Tune), 2017-18, at the Dhaka Art Summit, 2018. Photo by Sayed Asif Mahmud. Courtesy of the artist and Samdani Art Foundation.
Now, visitors to the Dhaka Art Summit can reap the rewards of her work and get a taste of Bangladesh’s young artists and artists from around South Asia in one go. And it has led to remarkable opportunities for local artists: One of them, Reetu Sattar, is still unrepresented by a gallery, but her performance and film installation Harano Sur (Lost Tune) (2017–18) will be on view this spring at the Museum of Modern Art in New York after a curator saw it at the 2018 summit.
“As [a] collector, I don’t get as much pleasure out of buying art and bringing it and putting it in my home as much as I enjoy this—being with artists,” Samdani said.
The adapter: Luba Michailova
Portrait of Luba Michailova by Dima Sergeev. Courtesy of IZOLYATSIA.
As a girl, Luba Michailova got two important things from her father, a factory director in Soviet-era eastern Ukraine: stamps for her stamp collection, which he brought back from his business trips, and the idea that one must be useful to people.
“He always believed in the importance of the social part of industrial enterprise, and prioritizing the needs of people who work there,” she said. “Therefore I am very socially oriented, even [while] being capitalist.”
Later, she also got from him part of the factory. Once the site of a large insulation materials factory (and amenities for the hundreds of workers it employed, including a canteen, a kindergarten, a movie theater, and sports facilities), it had fallen into disuse by the 1990s. She proposed turning it into a cultural center, which she called Izolyatsia.
Leandro Erlich, installation view of Bank, 2012, in “Where is the Time?,” 2012. Photo by Ruslan Semichev. Courtesy of IZOLYATSIA.
Pascale Marthine Tayou, installation view of Make up... Peace!, 2012, in “Where is the Time?,” 2012. Photo by Ruslan Semichev. Courtesy of IZOLYATSIA.
Nobody understood what she was doing at the time, Michailova said; the city of Donetsk, with 1 million inhabitants, had just one Soviet-era art museum, with no contemporary art in its holdings. “We took one building and we made a beautiful, beautiful gallery there—clean, with good toilets, in the middle of an industrial disaster,” she recalled. Izolyatsia was founded in 2010 and subsequently converted more of the factory into exhibition spaces and added more site-specific artworks. The cultural center quickly gained traction amongst locals; Michailova recalled one coal miner coming to hug her, in tears, after seeing his portrait included in a show by Cai Guo-Qiang, who had made gunpowder drawings of miners at work. At one point, she hoped to add a 12-acre park.
“Culture is a great instrument to prevent any conflict, by giving people a different way of thinking, resolving, and having their voice.”
Michailova’s early collecting focused on Soviet Realist paintings, mostly landscapes that glorified manufacturing and even pollution, then seen as signs of progress. As she pursued her own career supplying commodities such as fertilizers and later carbon products to multinational tire and aluminum firms such as Alcoa and BHP, she started to acquire in earnest, all the while studying the art world and its infrastructure. Art also provided her an escape from the male-dominated world of industry; on business trips overseas, she visited museums and galleries for breaks from deal-making.
Top: Process photo of gunpowder drawings for “Cai Guo-Qiang: 1040m Underground,” 2011. Photo by Dima Sergeev. Courtesy of IZOLYATSIA. Center left: Cai Guo-Qiang, 1040m Underground, gunpowder drawings of miners, 2011. Photo by Dima Sergeev. Courtesy of IZOLYATSIA. Center right: Cai Guo-Qiang with miner from Donetsk region, 2011. Photo by Andrii Prakhin. Courtesy of IZOLYATSIA. Bottom: Cai Guo-Qiang, installation view of “Cai Guo-Qiang: 1040m Underground,” 2011. Photo by Dima Sergeev. Courtesy of IZOLYATSIA.
In June 2014, Izolyatsia was taken over by Russian-backed separatists; militiamen looted the premises, then permanently stationed themselves at the site, which remains under their control. Michailova believes most of the site-specific pieces by the likes of Leandro Erlich, Pascale Marthine Tayou, and others were destroyed, and that the site is currently being used as a prison. She was living in France at the time, and flew to Kiev, the country’s capital, at the time of the takeover. When Izolyatsia’s creative team of 10 arrived after an overnight train from Donetsk to join her, Michailova gave everyone money for three months’ rent, presuming they would stay until it was safe to return.
The move became permanent, and later that summer, over 100 people from Michailova’s industrial business moved to Kiev, too. That same summer, she rented a new space in Kiev’s industrial shipyard to revive Izolyatsia and start a new project, the creative community and open studio IZONE. Now that her businesses have been taken over by the unrecognized Donetsk People’s Republic, the organization works in partnership with other countries’ cultural institutions, such as the Alliance Française and the Goethe-Institut, to fund its activities.
Daniel Buren, installation view of Dans les filets, la couleur, 2012, in “Where is the Time?,” 2012. Photo by Dima Sergeev. Courtesy of IZOLYATSIA.
Although her own organization was not immune to conflict, Michailova still believes that culture is a key bulwark against the kind of monolithic thinking that drives it. She witnessed as much in Donetsk, watching people become more curious, open-minded, and tolerant.
“Culture is a great instrument to prevent any conflict, by giving people a different way of thinking, resolving, and having their voice,” Michailova said. “This is the role of culture. It has to be built, an infrastructure of culture, where everyone has access to cultural institutions.”
The archivist: Mouna Atassi
Portrait of Mouna Atassi by Nairy Shahinian. Courtesy of the Atassi Foundation.
Mouna Atassi and her sister Mayla had little experience in fine art when they opened a gallery in 1986, in the same building as the bookstore they ran in Syria’s third-largest city of Homs. Their opening show was a selection of artists from Homs, alongside the Syrian modernist Fateh Moudarres and the younger artist Saad Yagan. To their great surprise, they managed to sell some works—“mostly to family members,” Atassi recalled.
“Normally the art market requires a couple of factors to flourish: freedom and wealth,” she said. “With the absence of these, only part of the society in Syria was in a position to acquire art.” Nonetheless, the gallery slowly broadened its audience beyond artists and intellectuals, opened a larger space in Damascus in 1993, and showed Syrian and Arab artists, including Marwan and Louay Kayali, selling mostly to collectors in neighboring Lebanon, as well as a few Syrians and collectors from the Arab Gulf. In 1998, Atassi published Contemporary Art in Syria,1898–1998, the culmination of four years of studio visits, interviews, and research.
Louay Kayyali, Boy Sitting on a Chair, 1976. Photo by Jaber Al Azmeh. Courtesy of the artist and the Atassi Foundation.
Fateh Moudarres, Safita (al Oum), 1988. Photo by Jaber Al Azmeh. Courtesy of the artist and the Atassi Foundation.
“This was key to building my expertise and knowledge on art and, in particular, Syrian art,” she said. “I developed the passion that has driven my work until today.”
Following the outbreak of the revolution in 2011, Atassi relocated to Dubai, settling there in 2012 (her daughter Shireen had been based there since 1998). After getting the family’s collection—around 500 pieces—safely out of Syria and into storage in Dubai, Atassi decided to use her deep knowledge and extensive collection as the basis for a foundation that would preserve and promote Syria’s artistic heritage, militating against a conflict that has already seen damage and looting to the country’s major cultural sites. The Atassi Foundation, directed by Shireen, works on multiple fronts, staging shows in Dubai (with plans for exhibitions elsewhere), publishing a quarterly journal, and building the Modern Art Syria Archive, which will be a free online resource documenting the recent history and present of Syrian art.
“It was important, with my experience and my background, to have public presence at a time when my country was being destroyed,” Atassi said. “When all the artworks made it, I felt the need to take a stand against violence and destruction.”
Saad Yagan, Almawal sabri Almudallal, 2009. Photo by Jaber Al Azmeh. Courtesy of the artist and the Atassi Foundation.
Fateh Moudarres, Palm Sunday, 1965. Photo by Jaber Al Azmeh. Courtesy of the artist and the Atassi Foundation.
Now that Syria’s artistic community has scattered all around the world—to Lebanon, Germany, France, Canada, and other countries—documentation, criticism, and the creation of scholarship are all the more important. Art journalism and criticism were always weak points in Syria, Atassi noted, with only one art publication in the country, put out by the Ministry of Culture. “Knowledge creation is a priority,” Atassi said, so next year, the foundation will focus on research, publications, and creating archives. But, she added, the artists she works with haven’t stopped making art.
“Almost all say that it is their art that helps them make sense of the madness,” she said. For Atassi, the “page has turned over,” and she doesn’t see herself returning to Syria, despite her deep connection to the country and its art.
“I am 68 years old and a lot of my friends have either died or now live in diaspora. It pays back knowing that we have such rich heritage, as Syrians,” she said. “Life must go on.”
The healer: Melani Setiawan
Portrait of Melani Setiawan. Courtesy of Melani Setiawan
In the 1970s, when Dr. Melani Setiawan began collecting art, there were just a handful of places to see and buy art in Jakarta, a city of 6.5 million in 1980: one art center (Taman Ismail Marzuki), one art market (Pasar Seni Ancol), and “only two or three galleries, which were more like shops,” she said. Decades later, the country has Art Jakarta, an international art fair; another fair, ARTJOG, in Yogyakarta; the Jakarta Biennale; and a new private contemporary art museum, the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Nusantara. And Dr. Setiawan has played a significant role, both formally and informally, in nurturing the region’s art scene.
“For me, it is not about collecting. It is more about human interaction and friendship with the people in the art world.”
It’s no wonder that in the intervening half-century, she became known as “the mother” of the Indonesian art scene for her unfailing support of the country’s artists, which takes the form of buying the work and promoting it around the world and to other collectors, as well as offering free medical treatment to artists who can’t afford it. (Although now, at age 74, she notes that ibu, the Indonesian word for mother, is also a polite way to refer to older women.)
Imari porcelain bowl from the Meiji Taisho period, 19th century. Courtesy of Melani Setiawan.
Melani Setiawan with her collection. Courtesy of Melani Setiawan.
Dr. Setiawan’s uncle, a pediatrician, collected antique Chinese ceramics, paintings, sculptures, and works by modern Indonesian artists such as Hendra Gunawan and Liem Tjoe Ing. She worked with him at the same hospital as an assistant in the pediatric department; after work, the two would go look at art and antiques.
“He influenced me to see the human connection behind the artworks,” she said. “He took me to visit artists who were ill. Artists often came to his practice for medical consultation.” Rather than any one specific piece of art or artist, she said, “what stays more in my mind was the experience and the journey” of getting to know art and the people behind it. In 1986, her uncle had a stroke, but she continued in his path, collecting work by Indonesian artists and treating their medical conditions.
Heri Dono, Affandi with His New Generations, 2009. Courtesy of the artist and Melani Setiawan.
“My strenuous work in the hospital was balanced by the art,” said Dr. Setiawan, who retired from medicine in 2015 after practicing for 44 years. She noted that there are several Indonesian artists who use objects related to medicine in their art nowadays, and she offers her guidance and any medical objects they might need.
While she is known for supporting living artists and buying contemporary works, she also has a deep appreciation for traditional Balinese painting, including the Keliki genre, in which paintings can be as tiny as a matchbox. She collects these as well to support the artists behind them, and is part of a group of collectors who created the Bali Bravo awards and exhibitions, which honor traditional painters.
Top: Melani Setiawan with artists at 2nd Vasl International Artists’ Workshop in Gadani, Pakistan, 2006. Courtesy of Melani Setiawan. Center left: Melani Setiawan with Jerry Thung in Jakarta, 2002. Courtesy of Melani Setiawan. Center right: Melani Setiawan with K. Sulindro (left) and Pwan Cho (center) in Jakarta, 1982. Courtesy of Melani Setiawan. Bottom: Melani Setiawan with Ketut Liyer and daughter (left) and I Gusti Kompiang Wardana and family (right) in Bali, 1994. Courtesy of Melani Setiawan.
In addition to her active support of artists, Dr. Setiawan is known for her archive of almost 100,000 photographs documenting the Indonesian art scene going back to 1977. She has been trying to find ways to publish a book she has been working on since 2004 titled The Indonesian Art World. It’s ready to print, but at nearly 1,200 pages, it requires more sponsorship and support before it can be published widely. And because public patronage is not yet widespread in Indonesia, she is still working on a way to ensure that her photo archives and art collection can be made available to the public.
“I always dream that I can donate my archive and collections to the public,” she said. “For me, it is not about collecting. It is more about human interaction and friendship with the people in the art world. Art is my life.”