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NAG-ging questions about art

The National Art Gallery (public domain /

IN the last decade or so, the National Art Gallery (NAG) — or Balai, as it is informally known — has accumulated a dismal reputation. In Malaysian art circles, the institution has been accused of shirking its duties as a national culture custodian, being remote from both the artistic community and the public, and being careless with its 3,800-plus collection.

Most infamously, it was known for leaky roofs. In July 2005, artist Lydia Chai complained about dripping water and non-functioning humidifiers, and asked: “Why should our young artists aspire to exhibit in our National Art Gallery when, chances are, their art would be (1) poorly presented or (2) damaged?” she demanded.

The man with the unenviable challenge of salvaging the gallery’s reputation is Dr Mohd Najib Ahmad Dawa, who took over as director-general in December 2007.

“I’m trying to minimise criticism against the NAG,” Najib tells The Nut Graph. “It’s a tough job. People will only notice the bad parts. So I’ve been trying to uplift the system, and win the public back.”

Dr Mohd Najib Ahmad Dawa

A former street artist and dean of Universiti Sains Malaysia’s Centre for Art Studies, Najib was previously among the institution’s chorus of critics. Seen as a reformer, his appointment was lauded by some who saw it as an effort towards reversing the gallery’s downward spiral.

“One of the weaknesses of the Balai is that a trained [workforce] has not developed,” Najib says, referencing the problem of his staff’s hitherto lackadaisical attitude with regards to art. “That is my biggest task: to make [people who work at the gallery] experts.”

He points out efforts at upgrading the institution’s art restoration department. “The people that treat and repair artwork — they’ve been sent for training.” The Balai has also hired a number of younger, art-savvy curators, which have arguably given it an opportunity to step up conceptually.

What is art?

The National Art Gallery Act of 1959 was passed under the Tunku Abdul Rahman administration, and designed to be a national institution that performed four main functions: to showcase exhibitions; to acquire artworks; to take care and restore art within its collection; and to assist in developing Malaysian art.

Implied within the Act is the Balai’s function as a tool for nation-building: a steward and guide to what Malaysian art — and by extension, the Malaysian people — means.

Artist Sharon Chin, in an April 2005 article, observed that the National Art Gallery had the authority to determine what art is to all Malaysians. “Even to the auntie down the road who’s never heard of the place,” Chin wrote. “If one day the auntie decides she wants to know about art, the Balai is where she will go.”

Unfortunately, the Balai’s official positioning has demonstrated little comprehension of this role. Take Minister for National Unity, Culture, Art and Heritage Datuk Mohd Shafie Apdal’s speech at the opening of the gallery’s 50th anniversary exhibition, Susurmasa, in April 2008:

“I hope the National Art Gallery will emphasise commercial aspects and more strategic marketing so that local paintings can not only be exhibited for the public, but also sold … I urge that artists and practitioners be smart in exploring the tastes of contemporary consumers, because visual art is also a lucrative product.”

It is a fact that the art world is as much an emporium as it is about appreciation. But it is scary when our government is willing to view Malaysian heritage, like our petroleum reserves and hillsides, as nothing more than something that can be bought and sold.

Money money money

With or without the Balai, commercial galleries in Malaysia understand that the art industry cannot remain healthy with money as its only motivator.

Raja Ahmad Aminullah, owner of R A Fine Art, a private gallery located near the Balai, says that he started his gallery to assist in the process of further generating awareness of visual art. “I want R A to be part of a process to increase the benchmark of galleries,” he says, citing greater curatorial professionalism and a focus on sidelined Malaysian artists as goals.

Other galleries share such principles. Valentine Willie Fine Art has a regional presence, and actively helps Malaysian artists to wider, Southeast Asian recognition. Central Market’s Annexe Gallery consistently showcases unknowns, giving such artists the attention that market forces might deny. Galeri Petronas has a very visible public outreach programme, “Art For All”, that adorns LRT carriages.

While he recognises art as a medium that can bring people together, Najib is realistic about art’s mercenary nature. “Art is no longer bohemian, like in the time of Van Gogh,” Najib asserts. “It’s all about the dollars and cents.”

He cites initiatives such as the International Art Expo as laudable efforts to enhance the Malaysian art market. Artist development, according to Najib, is sometimes a matter of convincing aspirant artists “whether art can be something to cari makan or not.”

Artist development

Many of the national institution’s current endeavours seem geared to address this issue. The Balai’s first project under Najib’s leadership was to put together a directory of Malaysia’s 180 private galleries; next on the list is a directory of artists. “This is so that we have a document to help market Malaysian artists,” he says.

The Balai appears to have a new-found commitment towards artist development, and in 2008 began Tabung Bantuan Seni. Funded by the ministry, it aims to assist artists in various aspects, such as purchasing art materials and the publication of exhibition catalogues and flyers. It has helped over 40 applicants in the past year.

“We are also trying to get corporate support,” Najib says, pointing to recent corporate social responsibility joint ventures such as the Wajah Jati Malaysia project, which had Exxon Mobil as its main sponsor. “We need them to show solidarity with us.”

And, as Najib realises, “We can’t afford to work on our own.”

Uncaring masters

Funding from non-government sources will allow the Balai some degree of autonomy — crucial, as one of the Balai’s biggest stumbling blocks is its close relationship to politics. The National Art Gallery Act empowers a Board of Trustees to okay decisions made by the Balai’s management, “with the consent of the Minister.”

This means that shifting political winds often leave the Balai hanging. The proposed KL Visual Arts Village is a case in point. Announced in January 2008 with a cabinet-approved RM25 million budget, the 2.83 ha compound would have featured “art houses and facilities … to allow artists to work and express themselves,” according to then-Culture, Arts and Heritage Minister Datuk Seri Dr Rais Yatim.

Following the March 2008 general election, however, Rais’s portfolio was assumed by Shafie Apdal, and there has been no word about the Visual Arts Village since.

“I keep fighting with the system,” Najib says, acknowledging that the way the Balai is structured means that it is at the mercy of forces that may not have cultural interests at heart. “The country has priorities, and it’s not art.”

Bringing in the public

The Balai is arguably the least known of our national cultural institutions. Bodies like the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka and Istana Budaya dwarf it in terms of public visibility — and physically, in the case of the latter. Visual art is typically a difficult sell, due to its often subtle nature.

“2008 was about bringing people to the gallery,” Najib says. His initial annual target was a total of 37,000 visitors, but results so far exceeded expectations. “We had a total of 100,000 visitors by August,” he reveals.

While the Balai is taking laudable steps, it is still a far cry from the sort of national cultural institution it should be, according to artists.

Veteran artist and two-term Balai Board of Trustees member Yeoh Jin Leng emphasises the place of artists in the Malaysian social context. “Artists are not politicians,” Yeoh says. “We provide enrichment [to those who experience our work], whatever the ethnic background. We don’t create conflict.”

Sensitisation to art, Yeoh affirms, is vital in today’s climate of racial and political fear. With that in mind, he believes that the Balai has a particular responsibility.

“With capitalism, how can you avoid commodification?” Yeoh sighs, in response to the Balai’s current money-minded-ness. He was also frustrated by systemic failure, including inertia on the part of the Board, and the institution’s tendency for race-based — instead of merit-based — appointments. “I resigned in 1997,” Yeoh reveals, via email. “Thank you, refused to be involved in any way anymore.”

Younger artists are also cautious. “In many countries, the support of a national body like an arts council or national art gallery is vital in nurturing a healthy artistic community,” artist Chang Yoong Chia observes.

“In our case, there are grants available for artists, but the procedure for applying for these grants is unknown to me. There is simply no easy access to information about these grants.”

Chang admits that he rarely goes to the Balai anymore. But there is reason to be hopeful. Recently, he paid a visit to the institution, to describe an art project he was spearheading. The Balai was interested.

“There are some dedicated staff in the Balai who are genuinely eager to contribute to the development of the arts,” Chang says. “I hope it is a sign the Balai is more receptive towards working with artists.”

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3 Responses to “NAG-ging questions about art”

  1. artist says:

    Well these art things are such genius.

  2. Michael Eng says:

    The problem with Malaysia is the need to celebrate mediocrity and put aside excellence when it is not aligned to the “current political winds”! Perhaps that explains the ills of the country including the once lofty ideals of the balai. Is this the reason for our country’s downward slide towards being a mediocre rather than a great country?

  3. Chng says:

    Running National Art Gallery Malaysia is not a simple task. On one hand, the government do not really put art and culture as a priority, unlike in the Western countries. On the other hand, most people that are directly or indirectly involved in this field care more about making money (very short sighted) than having a passion to help grow this unique entity (in the long run). Having disadvantages on both side and yet having the courage to take up the responsibilities and cleaning up the mess, I salute Dr Najib.

    For those that claim to have a heart in Malaysian art, talk is cheap – understanding and giving a helping hand are preferred.

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