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Homegrown & Well Known: KOMAN WAHYU SUTEJA

Even though he has inherited the legacy of the world famous Neka Art Museum in Ubud, he doesn’t just stop there. He creates his own destiny, he is his own man, indeed. Koman is the guy behind the series of sophisticated, super looking, art-infused Komaneka hotels in Ubud. Koman has created a legacy in his own right.

You come from a painting enthusiast family, but it seems like you are more focused on being a hotelier. Your biggest passion is the tourism business, rather than art?

I was born in one corner of Neka Art Gallery, in Jalan Raya Ubud. (In fact, what I called gallery was a shop house a.k.a. ruko). My mother said I was born at home because the labour was very short and there was no time to go to hospital. The Neka Art Gallery was founded before I was born, so as far as I remember, paintings and painters was always around me. Most of Ubud’s traditional Balinese painters in 1970s were working in the studio that was provided by the gallery. I also was fortunate to meet a lot of Indonesian master artists like Affandi, who came to visit my parents almost every month; Hendra Gunawan, who was invited by my father to live in Bali after he was released from jail, and many other artists like Donald Friend, Rudolf Bonnet, Theo Meier, Arie Smit and more—I think I met all of the artists whose works are in the collection of Neka Art Museum.

Same as other teenagers, I was rebellious and avoided doing what my parents had been doing. I went away to Jakarta to study business and continued to venture around the US and then came back to Indonesia (Yogya and Bandung) to work with an American company, and only came back to Bali 10 years later. My parents asked me to come back to Bali to start my apprenticeship, to take over my parents duties in the community (temple, banjar, and other Balinese Hindu traditional duties). In 1997 I opened Komaneka Fine Art Gallery. Maybe in the back of my subconscious, art was always there so I felt very confident and comfortable opening a gallery. But of course I built an art gallery that was different from my parents. The building, the display, the marketing and especially the artists featured are completely different. My gallery is only displaying art that represents my era. So, mostly young and new artists. It was a very interesting part of my career because I have seen (and continue to see) the rise and fall of some very talented young artists. In fact some of the top Indonesian contemporary artists today had their first commercial exhibition here in Komaneka Fine Art Gallery.

The hotel business started in 1998. At the back of Komaneka Fine Art Gallery, there was empty land. In the begining we thought we would have some bungalows and a working studio for our artists (as an artist residency). I explained that to the artists and started accommodating them in bungalows around Ubud, but being young, when we gave them a good place to stay and work, it backfired. They stopped working. Haha. Too young and needing more challenge. So we decided to change the concept into a place for the collectors to stay. The place became popular. In 2001 we opened our second hotel, due to popular demand. We opened more hotels in 2008 and 2011 and plan more in the year to come.

Art is still my passion. Hotels can run by themselves once you set up a system then multiply. While art needs full time attention. Dealing with artist is always a challenge. They come from a different world. I always joke that they come from other planet. At the moment, I’m not as active as before because my time occupied by many community works. From temples, to running a school. And not to mention that I have 4 kids. Now I can only work with more mature artists who need less baby sitting. I am still active, however, and have art exhibitions in my gallery and sometimes also in Hong Kong or Singapore.

I have also started using wall spaces around the hotel as a place to display my art collection. So you will see “real” art displayed in our hotel lobby, restaurant or in the rooms. For example, one of Masriadi’s paintings was hung in the gym in one of the hotels. I had to move it to a more secure place because now the value is close to USD 500,000.

Your series of Komaneka hotels are truly works of art. How did you go about building your emporium? Did you go to hotel college before?

The hotel architecture is like a reflection of me and my wife’s dream house. My parents gave us a very large house for our wedding. It is a very big balinese house with a lot of pavilions and a huge garden. But it was not built to our very own taste. It’s very elaborate with a lot of gold leaf carving. When we had a chance to build something ourselves, we really felt that we want to realize our dream house. That is the background behind the design and also the spirit of the buildings. Our satisfaction and of course our limitation in resources (funds) also came into consideration. Not the business calculations. Our limitation made us think harder. I remember we started collecting used wood because it was cheap. It was 10 years ago. I bought a lot of electrical poles from PLN in Semarang which was considered waste materials by them. Because our children were still young, we decided to put our savings into wood instead of bank accounts. Mansri, my wife, and I have a similar passion for architecture. So we designed all the hotels together. I mostly designed the exterior including landscape and mechanical engineering and she focused on the interior. Bali is paradise for people like us because there are very few environmental calamities to prepare for. No typhoons, nor extreme weather. Workmanship is reasonable. Materials are abundant. We had a lot of fun experimenting with different kinds of materials. The soil also very fertile. We have a lot of fun on recreating the landscape. I love natural, semi wild landscapes. Mansri also has her own sewing workshop. We have our own furniture workshop to make samples.

We always integrated our hobbies into the design. Mansri likes old fabric and I like paintings and sculpture. Every time we design a hotel, we start from thinking where we will put our collection in the future building.

Neither of us have attended hotel college. Mansri is an architect graduate from Udayana University, Denpasar, and I studied economics in Trisakti University, Jakarta. Our love affair with the hotel business just developed by chance. We started from 12 small rooms. That was a good size to manage for beginners like us. Timing also played an important role. Coincidently we opened our first hotel business always in tough times, hence we had less competitors. Most traditional hoteliers were just loosing interest in the hotel business as we started. Our first hotel in 1998, opened its doors during the South East Asian financial crisis. Our second hotel in 2001 opened right when the two planes hit the World Trade Center in New York. The third one opened in 2008 as the Lehman Brothers went bankrupt. Only the 4th opened when the Bali economy was on the rise.

We create and manage our own hotels. On the operational side, Mansri is very good at working with people. She trains the staff while I create the management and financial systems. We have been so fortunate to meet a lot of good young people and they have become the backbone of the whole operation of Komaneka Resorts. Mansri’s experience, working for the Four Seasons in Jimbaran (and then continuing to work in hotel management) has also played an important role. I also had experience managing a garment factory in Yogya and Bandung, which gave me a feel for business management.

How many hotels do you own now? Interested in expanding to other areas in Bali/Indonesia? You own a Koman Hotel in Japan, truth or rumor?

We have four hotels now. All of them are located in Ubud. Maybe because we are a bit lazy and don’t want to be too far away from our home. Now the management is already settled, we are planning to open outside of the Ubud area.

We don’t have a hotel in Japan, but in 2005 and 2007, we co-designed two luxury apartment complexes in Biwako Lake outside Kyoto. The theme and the amenities are inspired by Komaneka.

You plan to open another art gallery? Or you’ll take over Neka Museum, continuing the legacy?

One of the main reasons my parents asked me to come back to Bali was to continue the legacy of taking care of the Neka Art Museum, along with my brother. The extensive collection in Neka Museum is beyond comparison. That was the achievement of my parents, and a reflection of their time. As the second generation, we hope to complement their collection with a new collection from our time. Most probably we will build a special section inside the Neka Art Museum complex to house our new collection. An art business is not a common business. The intrinsic value is more in the equation. You can’t make a normal logical calculation. The value of your collection can be staggeringly high, but that will only mean something, in real money, if you sell it. The problem is, you never want to sell your best and most valued pieces in your art collection. You always try to find a balance between what to keep and what to sell. That is why I deal with living artists, because we can acquire new works. But again, you never know whether the value will go up or stagnate.

Some say the quality of tourists coming to Bali is degenerating, and the government doesn’t give enough support by providing proper infrastructure. What’s your opinion?

All development, if you don’t plan it well, with integrated systems, will have problems. It is good for Bali to have more tourists, but as always there are two sides. One side is that economic acceleration is helping Bali to achieve prosperity. The other side, or challenge, is that we must find a balance, so that social and cultural traditions can be maintained. To attract the “right” kind of tourists is always a challenge. Government, as the permitting authority for development of tourist infrastructure, must have a clear goal. Attracting the wrong tourists can be disastrous. Bali is a unique place. People come to Bali because of her distinctive culture and environment. Not because it is affordable (at least, not as the first reason for their visit). So by allowing the development of cheap and “pigeon like” hotel accommodation, Bali has become a cheap tourist place. This will only create quantity instead of quality. The economic value is less, but increased tourism creates more traffic jams, more garbage, more sewage, more use of water, and more use of energy. Allowing these kind of hotels to be built and operate will also kill the traditional home stays, and hotels that are owned and run by locals. Capitalism, in the hands of the authorities, must be controlled. Sounds like we need to start a Bali Spring, hehehe…

Now let’s get personal, name three of your favourite records of all time and why?

I love a wide range of music. From classical to jazz to hard rock to alternative. From Tchaikovsky to Jaco Pastorius to Led Zeppelin. I love Jaco Pastorius since I played bass in my jazz group when I was in high school. The different sounds that he can create from a single instrument will convince you that anything is possible if you use your creativity.

Also three of your favourite books and why.

I’m not a book reader. I read magazines more. I feel more relaxed, not too deeply engaged in a single topic. I enjoy any kind of magazine. Architectural Digest, National Geographic, Condé Nast Traveler are among my favorites.

…Well, actually, I do like one book that I have read over and over. The one by Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time. This book has made my problems disappear. After reading it, if I have a problem, it seems insignificant, because I realize that as a human being, I’m only a small, tiny part of the whole universe. So any problem is only a small thing that our mind exaggerates into something big. Our problem will not change the balance of the universe, so try to solve it and accept the result.

Any last nagging words?

Art must be viewed from an artistic point of view or otherwise it will be misinterpreted. I don’t understand when people start controlling the freedom of creativity that an artist is entitled to. Don’t forget they are not politicians. They are creatures from another planet. Art should enrich our everyday lives.

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*This interview was also published on The Beat (Bali) #313, Jun 08-21, 2012

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