Malaysians are usually a tad too late warming up to world trends, but when we do, we are often hasty, when beamed with pockets of success stories of others, never considering the longer term effects it may have over the whole ecology. As we commute our excitement, we subconsciously fell in line and became the follower of trends, never for once the setter. At the other end of the scale, we would often be left with the final few grains on our palms where others have grazed, after they have moved on to greener pastures. Such is us.
Our national gallery is not at its infancy. But oftentimes, I wonder if there is indeed a national narrative to begin with or that we have spiralled down strutting in a ring filled with the shallow opinions of horse traders, zealots, lobbyists, backdoor experts and money driven leeches; if you could consider them as loyal fans to begin with. Are these the personalities the colourful bedrock upon which we shape our vision? How do our agencies define the limits of their involvement and how far have they gone in pushing the boundaries of our identity?
Our neighbouring compatriots have gone milestones ahead of us, curating not only interesting visual exhibitions but visitor experiences, and have undertaken membership recruitment drives, patron-ship galas, admission packages for groups and families, even enticing members to be gallery sitters. So how can ours still be thriving on a makeshift cafeteria and a minuscule museum shop none thought it important to rife up its setting and contents? Aren’t our agencies aware that the sale of mementos, publications and monograms assist in the sustenance of the gallery not forgetting the promoting and disseminating of our art history and exhibitions to the world? Hell even Penang State Art Gallery has a better museum shop and painting adoption plans! So what can we take pride in, when we are allotted acquisition funds for artworks that stays hidden yet in the few years leading to the pandemic, we were letting out precious spaces for non art-related corporate use? How much truism is there on our visitor head counts then?
Technically, the training of younger artists to become entrepreneurs should be left to business schools when really, the job focus of artists is to make good art because saleability depends on the quality of art each produces. The business aspects of promoting, writing, cataloging, records and recognition, and client sustainability drains time and traditionally been overcome by galleries and auction houses who also by the way, functions as quality controllers. Thus, I am pondering if our national gallery fully understands the intricacies of art management when the importance of proving exhibition history, proving existence, proving fair market pricing, proving purchase and proving its provenance required for art pieces sold in the secondary platform is left out, and that no one artist can qualify or attest himself in such matters.
It may sound like a tall order to some but what seems to be extraordinary to us is common practice for all other reputed national galleries and public museums worldwide. Most of their policy makers have articulated cross border broadening of knowledge and art appreciation throughout their respective countries, which cuts across every culture, aspect and time, eventually expounding a common camaraderie to the masses ready to unite differing values through art. That is how a national narrative is formed. And these could only happen through field studies, mapping, and open engagements with stakeholders beit inside forums, symposiums, or art talks. It would be interesting to invite high profile curators and celebrated luminaries to engage in critical discourses and at the same time, to get them to speak about their current projects and ways of slashing and weaving through mazes and red tapes. That way, we can tap into their ideas, compromise our standard operating process, sell our unique locations and at the same time, make them our catalyst, driver and mouthpiece. Even Marina Abrahmovic stood for Bangkok Art Biennale once! Again, how do we define let alone redefine and push the limits beyond the boundaries of our identity to make it happen?
Have our national gallery ever expanded it’s role by mobilising our collections abroad, since we have been receptively permitting in-bound print shows ala Caravaggio? And when then can we afford to give our visitors a full fledge permanent timeline experience and awareness of our art history that could only happen with a permanent gallery space, so that visitors could devote their time and energy helping us to grow, at the same time becoming our catalyst, driver and mouthpiece? What more, are we prepared to forgo unkempt security guards whose youngs runs around the gallery grounds and partakes in food receptions meant for guests? When would the whole podium not forgetting the prominent spiral staircase become potential display areas and when are we getting rid of the bathroom feel of the entrance lobby?
Plain and simple, our national gallery needed urgent institutional reforms. To begin with, we need first class infrastructure revamp and a reconfiguration of its space and flow. Then hopefully, the rest will fall into place. If our desire is the world stage of course. We needed well exposed and well connected people from different fraternities who live and breathe art day and night to helm it. We can’t have a gold medallist diving expert to be in charge of a football team unless they are willing to learn. Art is serious business and a major catalyst towards growing tourism trends in metropolitan cities. So make us proud!
Elsewhere in our country , our provincial galleries may be modest in infrastructure, but certainly not provincial in ideas. They make do with the littlest of resource and budget yet they managed to deliver their very best. And the key to their success? A selfless, committed, forward thinking, liberal-minded committee who doesn’t promote self-censorship out of fear of losing their jobs. There are benefits in organising gargantuan exhibitions and endorsing artistic freedom. It begets us free publicity worldwide and regional recognition as a formidable player. This all translates to tourist dollars.
Looking inward, we should be receptive enough to acknowledge that every town and city in our country has its own cultural identity and preference of artists which makes each of them different, unique and interesting and with that, sprouts its own conversations and engagement. So why not then, a new language and narrative, if other towns and cities can manage and deliver never mind from where the art scene started first? It is not entirely wrong if there co-exist divergent parallel narratives, since our country is unique. Even Mercedes Benz automobiles has different classes and models.
Since the Nanyang days, Penang has been the preferred platform from whence our national art scene sprang. I singled out Penang because It’s topography had been conducive enough to attract international artists to nest and work. So how then, one wonders, does budding artists become stifled and sidetracked when artists like Ernest Zacharevic and Latiff Mohidin (both not Penangites ) has persevered and made it this far? Perhaps yet another ill informed opinion maybe? Nuf said for now.