Art Galleries Galore
Artcube gallery at the Intermark is the latest art gallery to pop up in the Klang Valley. Azhar Ahmad, co-founder of Artcube, talks about business of art galleries, their growing popularity and their role in the nation’s fine art system.
There is a growing number of art galleries in the Klang Valley,but you may not actually have passed through the doors of one. The general public may lack any real interest in art, or perhaps is dissuaded by the appearance of these shops, which may seem pompous. Many of these galleries, while open to the public, cater to a niche clientele of fine-art lovers who can afford the prestige, rarity and price of the art in question.
Some names on the gallery landscape are more well-known than others, having found success with exhibitions by reputed artists. The Wei-Ling Gallery, for example, is regularly cited as one of the leading galleries in Kuala Lumpur, having been established 11 years ago and strongly promoted by founder Lim Wei-Ling. Its exhibition Fiberspace by Argentina artist Claudia Bueno recently ended; while another exhibition, The Big Picture by Stewart McFlarne, will run until Nov 15.
For visitor trafiic, galleries could do worse than Publika in Solaris Dutamas, Kuala Lumpur seen as the latest Klang Valley art hub. The venue is as good as any in Malaysia. Publika features MAP’s 6000 sq ft White Box gallery and the commercial centre’s Art Row initiative.
But despite the success of these venues and galleries, fine art has stopped short of entering the mainstream of Malaysian culture. The industry, traditionally catering to the affluent, has not yet come into its own in a society wrangling with the prospect of new taxes and other immediate issues. While the arts and culture have been cited as a means by which to redraw the seams of Malaysia;s riven civic life, very few have the luxury of an art collection.
There is reason to be optimistic that a thriving arts industry will benefit the economy. A May report by Arts Council England reveals the arts and culture contributed £ 5.9 bil in gross value to the UK economy in 2011, which is more value per pound invested than the health, wholesale, retail, professional and business sectors.
Malaysia’s own Pemandu has addressed the importance of the arts under Entry Point Project 1 (EPP1) of the Communications Content and Infrastructure (CCI) NKEA. But the initiative, “ Nurturing Malaysia’s creative content industry”, emphasis digital content, broadcasting and- as seen in the launch of the Royal Arts Gala in September- the perfoming arts. However, EPP1 may grow to include the fine arts. According to CCI director Dr Fadhlullah Suhaimi Abdul Malek, “Initially, EPP1 covered just film, documentaries, miniseries and animation. Due to the positive upside gained in 2011, in 2012 the scope was expanded to cover creative content as defined under the National Creative Industry Policy which includes the fine arts, painting and sculpture.”
It is also good news that a separate government vehicle for the promotion of the creative industries, MyCreative Ventures Sdn Bhd, has offered funding to an art gallery the first of such to be offered a loan from the RM200 mil fund announced in Budget 2012. Artcube gallery, a contemporary fine arts gallery launched at The Intermark two weeks ago, was given taxpayer support to create a space that offers some rarer Malaysian art. The Intermark is an upscale integrated commercial development that includes Doubletree by Hilton and caters to the upmarket KLCC ares, which seems an ideal location for the gallery to engage with “high society”.
The founders of Artcube , biochemist Azhar Ahmad and building manager Fuad Salleh, had been involved in the art scene for eight years before the launch of Artcube.
They previously acted as agents for Abdul Multhalib Musa, considered on of the foremost sculptors in Malaysian contemporary art.Now Azhar and Fuad have given up their days job to start their own gallery and dealership, which they believe will be a mainstay of the local art scene.
According to their tenancy proposal to The Intermark, the duo believes the Malaysia’s fine art scene is at a “tipping point” and the time is ripe for more investment grade works on the market. For the gallery’s inaugural exhibition, the price range is between RM 20, 000 and RM 150, 000, the higher and of the range being a work by Ahmad Shukri. “ Making the Mark”, named in celebration of its tenancy at The Intermark, will also feature well-known contemporary artists such as Azrin Mohd, husin Hourmain and Fazli Othman.
It took a year of interviews and presentation before My Creative Ventures was sold on Artcube’s plan. “You need that capital. If we went to the banks and asked them to finance the whole thing, they would never entertain us because they don’t know how it function,” says Azhar
Azhar draws a comparison in the attitude towards art between our corporate sector and that of the Western world. Gemany’s Deutsche Bank for example, has shown itself a loyal supporter of the arts, having over of the years amassed a comprehensive collection of over 55, 000 photographs, prints and drawings.
“If you look at mature economies, the corporates are big patrons of the arts and their banks accept art as collateral. In Malaysia, banks will offer you a loan for a vacuum cleaner, which has no investment value, but not for art. We don’t have a valuation mechanism for art in Malaysia, “ says Azhar.
Things are changing in Malaysia, with the setting up of auction houses in the country. In an interview with Benchmark in August, Datuk Vincent Sim, founder of the Malaysian Art Expo and director on the board of Henry Butcher Auctioneers, commented that auction houses form part of the infrastructure for setting standards for the quality and pricing of local arts. “Artist have to be trained in college and universities, and collectors have to learn from seminars and forum. On a bigger scale, you need to have expos and auction houses. And you need the media, with write-ups and exposure, “ he said.
Art galleries are another component of this system. “ The role of the gallery is as a distribution and marketing channel. All the works that are coming in through our gallery will be properly curated. Every piece in the gallery will have something written on it. We will document the process and explain it to our patrons,” says Azhar.
“We tell the public- this is how you appreciate a work of art.”
While gallery owners such as Azhar and Fuad form close partnerships with artist, any one gallery does not represent the latter but place their work in several. An art gallery’s access to an artist depends on its relationship or history with that artist and vice versa.
“Artist can put their paintings everywhere but they restrict themselves to a few, depending on how comfortable they are,” says Azhar. “It’s just like how Damien Hirst has ditched White Cube bermondsey ( a London gallery) and is now working with someone else.”
There have been some critics of the growing number of art galleries in the country, not least of them Yusof Gajah, a well-known name on the art scene, who believes in the democratization of art so as to make it accessible to all segments of society. Yusof believes the over- commercialization of art by galleries and the high commissions they charge, which can go up to 50% of the sale value, put up barriers to entry and make it difficult for artist to be financially independent.
Azhar however, begs to differ. He justifies the commission charged on the sale with payments to curators art writers, the used of rented space and other service rendered. “ We add value to the work,” says Azhar. “ A very important thing in art is provenance. How sure are you that the artwork is not a forgery? You open a catalog and its says this work has been exhibited at a gallery and in what year. So that is provenance.
“ When a collector goes to an artist directly, buys an artwork and keeps it in house, no one will know about the artwork. But if it goes through the gallery system with a catalogue and its covered in the media, people will know about it.”
Azhar adds that with regard to art sales being an artist’s bread and butter, a high-priced investment-grade painting does allow an artist to make enough from the sale.