Sizing up the market

9 May 2013 - 12:00am

The art market is viewed as an ecosystem that needs the symbiotic relationship between artists, gallery operators and collectors. But how will auction houses tilt the equation?

It seems that the local art market needs to be nurtured and protected from speculative elements that could lead to its untimely collapse.

A group of art market stakeholders and individuals gathered to discuss its current state and were confronted with diverse views.

Entitled Beyond Facts & Figures: A Survey and Exploration of Art Market Dynamics in Malaysia Today, the afternoon forum was held on April 20 and participated by artists, collectors, gallerists, entrepreneurs and media representatives.

Panel participants numbered 16, including art consultant Valentine Willie, collectors Pakharuddin Sulaiman, Lee Khai and Ng Sek San, artists Ahmad Zakii Anwar, Jalaini Abu Hassan, Phuan Thai Meng and Bayu Utomo Radjikin, among others.

Held at the Publika mall in Solaris Dutamas, the closed-door session is part of an on-going series of discussions under the Narratives in Malaysian Art (NMA) project. The joint-organiser is MAPKL, an arts and culture platform.

The NMA project aims to document various perspectives on the history, practice and infrastructure of visual art in Malaysia. NMA will eventually be a four-volume tome in English and Bahasa Malaysia.

Educationist Professor Dr. Krishna Gopal Rampal moderated the first of two sessions. The objective was on identifying the perceived roles, strategies and aims of art market stakeholders.

During the discussion, the art market was described as an “ecosystem” where artists are the producers and they have to be practical to survive.

It was revealed that Ahmad Zakii “says goodbye” to his paintings as they leave his studio, whereas Jalaini would like to sell his work, though he emphasised that it was not his main goal. He maintained that assigning monetary value to artwork was an agenda driven by external parties. And Phuan’s only concern as an artist was in producing good art.

These artists recognised the symbiotic relationship between artists and gallery operators as extremely important. The galleries strategise and sell works on behalf of artists, which enables artists to reconcile the personal aspect of their works and the nature of artwork as a commodity.

The gallerists present at the discussion, admitted to having commercial viability in mind. To an artist, a good gallery is one that nurtures young artists and looks beyond this prospect.

The issue of whether Malaysia has “good” galleries was broached. Artist-turned-gallerist Bayu Utomo pointed out that the House of Matahati (HOM) gallery which he oversees, may not be the best gallery strategically for an artist’s career. Nevertheless, it has been helping to foster a new generation of artists through the gallery’s self-funded residency programme and awards.

Collectors are regarded as the main consumers in the perceived ecosystem. Those present at the discussion, like Pakharuddin, Lee and Ng, share a sense of responsibility. And this sense of sharing is manifested in their desire to educate, and to share their collections with the public, as well as to keep Malaysian works in the country.

Even though they may not be the only collectors who ponder over such weighty issues, this group may not be representative of the larger pool of art buyers in the country.

Art Auctions

Significantly, the advent of auction houses provide greater liquidity in the secondary art market. And this encourages new collectors to buy work as it is now easier to re-sell. And auctions also offer a greater variety of artwork that galleries can’t.

Works of younger artists are compared to petty stocks. Not only are the works of established artists becoming harder to source, the current demand for contemporary art for investment could possibly signal a rise in speculative activity in the market. Anxiety over the sustainability of auction houses was evident among the participants.

Recently an article entitled, Art Market Obsession is not Progress (first published in Options, April 8-14, The Edge) revealed what’s happening in the art scene.

The media’s role is seen as a means of raising public awareness and mobilising public support for policies. However, the present focus in various publications is on art news rather than constructive criticism. Such critical reviews could be the right push for artists to work harder, and buyers to be more selective.

Underlying issues of a general lack of interest and public awareness were cited as reasons for less than critical journalism. One participant requested, “Do not underestimate the intellect of the collector, please!” He believes that a deeper understanding of the art scene can prevent our art market from collapsing.

With plans to set up an art museum in Malaysia, Valentine Willie asserts that the Southeast Asian market lacks the intellectual direction that institutions are supposed to provide. Authoritative voices on connoisseurship, belonging to the critic and the museum, are but a few ways to safeguard quality and allow investors to make informed decisions.

In an email response, event co-organiser Bevery Yong says, “I’d like to add that, while it was a very fruitful session, and a useful beginning to more conversations about the scene, we do hope to extend our art market survey to a wider range of participants in order to create a fuller picture of things in our publication.”

She explains that the NMA project will also address the areas of art institutions, independent artist-led initiatives and art education. Each of these proceedings will contribute to Narratives in Malaysian Art Volume 3: Infrastructures, due for publication in 2013/2014.

Participants were reminded that art was no ordinary commodity, and stakeholders cannot expect its market to function like others.

At least in Kuala Lumpur, various components of the art ecosystem have embarked on initiatives to protect and nurture it. There is a shared sense of stewardship, and discussions like this roundtable session make for an optimistic future.

The NMA Project is initiated by a group of editors and writers, and supported by the wider Malaysian art and corporate community. The project is led by co-editors-in-chief Nur Hanim Khairuddin and Beverly Yong, with RogueArt (Rachel Ng and Adeline Ooi) as their publisher and project managers.

Sponsors of the project include Khazanah Heritage and Art Initiative, Bangsar Village, National Visual Arts Gallery, The Krishen Jit-ASTRO Fund, Gudang Damansara, Tenaga Nasional Berhad, Malakoff Corporation Berhad, Libra Invest Berhad, Helu-Trans (Singapore) Pte Ltd, 30 Art Friends, private sponsors and other contributors.