DMA Insight

Development of the Dallas Museum of Art's Indonesian Collection

One of the Dallas Museum of Art's most significant collection areas is in the regional, or traditional, art of Island Southeast Asia, especially Indonesia and Sarawak. Looking back, several events in 1979 and 1980 represent the auspicious beginnings of this collection.

John Lunsford, then curator of the non-Western collections, purchased a pair of Batak knives from Steven G. Alpert, who was beginning his career as an art dealer after years of living in Indonesia. Jean Paul Barbier, whom Margaret McDermott knew through the International Council of the Museum of Modern Art, also encouraged Margaret, John, and Director Harry Parker to collect Indonesian art. After all, Indonesian regional sculpture could be as inventively abstract as the sculpture of sub-Saharan Africa or the Oceanic sculpture of Papua New Guinea, two better-known traditional art traditions that were already well represented at the Museum. Indonesian art also included intricately patterned textiles and sophisticated metalwork in the form of jewelry and weapons.

John traveled with Mr. Barbier to Brussels to see Indonesian sculpture. He was especially attracted to a funerary figure from the island of Sulawesi and was anxious to show the sculpture to Margaret McDermott. The Toraja tau tau was not an easy piece. Its surface was weathered from having stood for generations on a balcony chiseled from the face of a cliff. Yet the emotional quality of the figure remained intense. Margaret, too, saw that immediately; the open-mouthed expression of the tau tau reminded her of Edvard Munch's evocative painting The Scream. The Eugene and Margaret McDermott Art Fund, Inc., purchased the figure for the Museum. Soon after, Gabriel Barbier-Mueller gave the Museum two Indonesian objects: a mythical creature from a Batak house façade and a lime spatula with a crouching-monkey handle from the island of Lombok. The major sculptural themes of the human figure and animals, both real and imaginary, were established with these first acquisitions, as was the architectural context of much Indonesian sculpture.

The Museum's interest in Indonesia quickened during the early 1980s. The first Indonesian textiles were purchased and the Museum League funded the hanging ancestor figure from Atauro. The Museum hosted the seminal exhibition Art of the Archaic Indonesians, which included the Toraja tau tau and the Batak singa. Judy Tycher initiated three sculpture acquisitions, each funded by a group of donors. Rita and Fred M. Richman of New York gave groups of objects in 1982 and 1984 that broadened the scope of the collection. In 1983 The Eugene McDermott Foundation made possible the purchase of the Steven G. Alpert Collection of Indonesian Textiles–seventy-six pieces that represent the major textile style areas of southern Sumatra, Sarawak, Sulawesi, and Sumba. When the downtown building opened in January 1984, a long-term loan from the Barbier-Mueller Museum in Geneva–fifty sculptures that had appeared in the Art of the Archaic Indonesians exhibition- filled a gallery devoted to the sculpture of Island Southeast Asia.

Gifts from Sarah Dorsey Hudson, the Barbier family, and Margaret McDermott enhanced the collection, but in general the acquisition of Indonesian sculpture slowed after John Lunsford's departure in 1986. Additions were made in the textile area, and Indonesian textiles were featured in focused exhibitions. In 1987 the exhibition Woven to Honor: Textiles from the Steven G. Alpert Collection was paired with Power and Gold: Jewelry from Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines from the collection of the Barbier-Mueller Museum.

The return of the Barbier-Mueller loans to Switzerland in 1990 challenged the staff to plan a new installation that would rely on Dallas Museum of Art holdings and loans from local private collections. The result was an impressive combination of sculpture, textiles, and metalwork. The potential for excellence was apparent. Director Rick Brettell and Deputy Director Emily Sano supported significant purchases—as did their successors, Jay Gates and Charles Venable—through Museum funds and the continued generosity of The Eugene and Margaret McDermott Art Fund, Inc., and The Eugene McDermott Foundation. Gifts of art came from the Steven G. Alpert family and from Mr. and Mrs. James H.W. Jacks. Indonesia was the theme of the 1995 Beaux Arts Ball, Shadows of Gold, chaired by Jeanne Marie Clossey, and the Museum League Purchase Fund supported the acquisition of a pair of mythical animals from Sarawak. In 1996 the Indonesian Community Association sponsored a gala event that benefited the Museum's Indonesian collection. Gallery space for Indonesian art increased as well with the reinstallation in 1996 of the arts of Africa, Asia, and the Pacific, a project initiated by Director Jay Gates.

The primary additions of the 1990s exemplify the aesthetic qualities of the arts of Island Southeast Asia: mastery of materials; primal artistic themes, which usually embody beliefs rooted in nature; and an animation of form that conveys emotion, whether subtle and serene or bold and energetic. With sculpture, especially, the additions have often been one-of-a-kind rather than representative or characteristic of collecting from about 1880 to 1920 (common in European museums but rare in United States collections). Seven sculptures purchased by The Eugene and Margaret McDermott Fund, Inc., in 2001, championed by Director Jake Lane and Deputy Director Bonnie Pitman, reaffirmed those goals and brought international acclaim to the Dallas Museum of Art's Indonesian holdings. No collection is ever complete, but the qualifications for future additions in this area have been clearly established.

Adapted from

Carol Robbins, “Development of the Dallas Museum of Art's Indonesian Collection,” in Dallas Museum of Art, 100 Years , ed. Dorothy M. Kosinski (Dallas, TX: Dallas Museum of Art, 2003), Pamphlet number 42.

Related Multimedia

Interview with Steven Alpert for the Indonesian Collection Oral History Project; conducted by Hillary Bober; in conjunction with the in conjunction with the Indonesian collection catalog (DMA),