Paintings are sold in souvenir stalls, art markets, cooperative galleries,
and pushed by hawkers on foot everywhere you turn. Finding good
paintings, however, is hard work. It helps to understand that artists are
now working mostly for a European market and the tourists' demand for paintings
"suitable for framing" has changed the technique and content
of their painting style. Balinese artists only started to sign their paintings
when Westerners started to ask them to about 50 years ago. Now almost all
paintings are signed with the artist's name and the village where he or
Producing copies is one of the main occupations of the artist or his or her assistants. If a particular painting sells well, umpteen copies are spawned. This explains why all over the island you'll find similar paintings portraying hackneyed tourist cliches of a tropical paradise-glowing sunsets, smoking volcanoes, sloe-eyed nymphs bathing. The worst, sold by peddlers on Kuta Beach, possess all the banality of velvet paintings in cocktail lounges.
The competition between all the small galleries and painters' studios has become so intense now that shop owners are contracting with travel agents and tour operators, paying Rp3-4 million up front for the delivery of busloads of tourists. This drives the price of the paintings up, since so many people have to be taken care of-the agent, the bus owner, the guide, the driver. But a tourist who only has a week in Bali and has the money to burn will buy expensive paintings, even for US$3000-4000, no problem. This is how such high-class galleries like Agung Rai, Rudana, and Agung Raka in Gianyar Regency have grown so fast.
To avoid getting fleeced, do your homework. Visit a number of galleries to learn about the different painting styles. Some have whole rooms dedicated to a distinct style so you can get a good sense of each. Don't be put off by the schlocky quality of the majority of the art on display. It's strictly for mass tourist consumption. Finding the best art takes persistence, and when you do find good art it costs a bundle.
If you see something you like in one of the big commercial galleries, you may be able to look up the artist in his or her home/studio, probably nearby. Many of Bali's finest painters live around the villages of Ubud, Batuan, Penestanan, Blahbatuh, and Sukawati-all major centers of Balinese painting in south-central Bali. Go to the village indicated on the painting and ask around in your primitive Indonesian. Many painters are even listed in the phone book. It could be 1000% cheaper if you buy directly from the artist, avoiding business with Ubud's countless galleries. Art shops customarily pay only 20-30% of the sale price to the artist. You also won't have to pay a commission (10-50%) to a guide or driver, which is tacked on to the price of a painting.
However, be aware that high quality paintings by well-known artists may be sold for the same price in the painter's home as they sell for in the galleries. This is because the painters do not want to undercut the galleries where their work is displayed and thus make a bad reputation for themselves. They want the galleries to continue to buy from them. They will sell a good painting to a gallery for Rp500,000, and the gallery in turn charges a million for it.
Naturally, the less successful painters are more likely to sell their paintings cheaper than the shops sell them for because they need the money faster. A painting of good souvenir quality costs about US$200. Ubud is the best place to shop for paintings in this class-the so-called Ubud-style-characterized by men and women naked from the waist up harvesting, planting, dancing, with leafy Spies-like trees and minute birds and insects filling all space.
The cost of higher quality paintings, if you can find them, is roughly US$500 per square meter, the price depending on the markup the owner of the gallery puts on a piece. Van Glerum's in The Hague and Christie's in Amsterdam hold Indonesian painting auctions twice a year, in which some canvases sell for tens of thousands of dollars.
As far as prices are concerned, "classes" of artists don't really mean much. It's the experience that counts. An older artist has a more accomplished stroke than a younger one. Now only the most established, prominent painters have their own studios. Lesser-known, younger artists can only exhibit in one of the hundreds of commercial art shops all over the island, or hit the road and peddle their paintings directly to tourists.
Some Buying Tips
Buy only something you really like. Ask yourself: "Do I want to look at this painting for the next 10 years?" Taste obviously plays an immense role in your purchasing decision. By no means should you take advice solely from a gallerist. Ask the locals and ask other tourists. Look at a lot of paintings.
Decide how much you have to spend. This will narrow your scope. With practice, you can tell the difference between a great artist and a mediocre one. Before you buy, decide where the painting is going to go in your house so it doesn't get stuffed in an attic forever.
If you've decided to invest in a fine piece of art, then start reading reference books (see "News, Travel, and Entertainment Media" under the Information and Services section in the On the Road chapter) and visit art galleries. Go to a gallery where paintings are clearly priced. Fixed prices are fairer to the purchaser; the artist also knows what price his work is being sold for. (You can still bargain a little, by the way.)
Hundreds of large and small galleries are found all over Bali. Smaller galleries are more apt to bargain than big galleries. Walk up and down the roads of Ubud, Pengosekan, and Peliatan, an area smothered in art shops and galleries. With few exceptions, their interminable labyrinths are filled with a bewildering, conflicting, super-kitsch, haphazard collection of paintings from virtually every school encompassing widely differing styles and big gulfs in quality. In many cases, there are so many paintings that they're stacked up in piles on the floor. In addition to these commercial galleries, many painters have small galleries attached to their studios.
For an overview of the full range of Balinese painting, visit the Neka Museum (one km west of Ubud in Campuan), which displays the whole gamut of styles, prices, and sizes. This private museum, the first of its kind on Bali, is distinct from the Neka Gallery in Padangtegal (near Ubud). The owner/proprietor of both, Suteja Neka, is an important force in Balinese painting and has published several books on the subject (see Booklist). The first gallery owner to actively collect the art of expatriate painters, Neka is an excellent source of information and always has time to talk to visitors.
The museum, which should more aptly be called a gallery, is made up of Balinese-style buildings set in an exquisite garden. One room contains just the Balinese masters and early modernists such as Lempad and Togog; another contains just foreign artists who've worked in Bali like Smit, Spies, and Bonnet; another holds Indonesian academic artists who've painted in Bali; and yet another is filled with Western masters such as Blanco, Meier, Snel, and Friend. At the entrance, buy Perceptions of Paradise (Rp65,000) by Neka Gallery, as well as postcards of the famous works inside.
The superb, spacious, and expensive Agung Rai Gallery is in Peliatan (two km east of Ubud). Assembled by a self-made visionary collector of every school of Balinese art and an expert in the evolution of Balinese painting, Agung Rai's collection is accommodated in six separate display halls. Ask to visit the permanent collection and his private museum in Peliatan. The gallery sponsors well-attended painting classes on a regular basis. In 1995, the Agung Rai Museum complex opened in Peliatan. The three-hectare site consists of a spacious building for the permanent collection, another large structure for visiting exhibitions, an art school for children, a library, and an international artists colony.
Also don't miss the Rudana Gallery north of Mas and about one km south of Teges (south of Peliatan). The gallery displays a large collection of traditional, naive, and modern paintings in a sprawling complex of rooms. Also pay a visit to the Sanggraha Kriya Astra Arts Centre in Tohpati outside of Denpasar on the road to Ubud, where a wide range of good quality paintings are for sale at fair prices.