Galeri Petronas closes: local artists and gallery owners speak out on future of Malaysian art scene

News of the effective termination of his Galeri Petronas activities this month after 28 years has caused echoes in art circles in recent weeks. Shock, sadness, dismay, nonchalance and hope were among the reactions expressed by artists and industry players.

Galeri Petronas, owned by the national oil and gas company, was established in 1992 at the Dayabumi complex in Kuala Lumpur. Six years later, it moved to Suria KLCC, under the Petronas Twin Towers, occupying a circular space of 2,000 m² presented as a world-class venue designed to promote, develop and preserve modern and contemporary art.

Shaliza Juanna Alfred was among those shocked by the May 3 announcement of the gallery’s closure “following a realignment of its operating model to adapt to the changes brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic”.

One of the selected for Young Malaysian Artists II in 2014, she mounted her first installation. “It was a dream come true. After the exhibition many doors opened for me. She did her hands-on training at Galeri Petronas -” an overwhelming experience and I met many friendly and helpful employers “- while studying fine arts at Universiti Teknologi Mara, then taught art at UiTM before returning to Pontian, Johor, to be a full-time artist.

Kedah-born artist Eng Tay, now based in New York City, held a solo show at Galeri Petronas and was part of a group show there as well.

“It was such a fantastic space for artists to exhibit their work. What a pity that a place with such a prime location had to close. It made the tour so easy and convenient for people. In fact, I was visiting the gallery. every time I came home. It has shown many great exhibits over the years. “

Melbourne-based Anurendra Jegadeva, an established name in Malaysian contemporary art, was the gallery’s senior curator for four years (2007-2010). “It was an interesting experience,” he said via email.

The gallery’s statement that artwork from the Petronas Art Collection will remain available for loan to relevant programs and initiatives gives hope to WinSon Loh. Loh’s PINKGUY gallery has been doing curatorial framing on the collection for over a decade.

“I provide the service whenever the gallery acquires new works. In recent years, the price of oil was lower and the economy was affected, so I have less and less work.

“I am sad that the gallery has closed. There is talk – I’ve only heard, never seen the details – that he would have his own multi-level building near KLCC, with room for his own collection, artists to display and storage.

“If this plan stays, that’s good because it will mean a bigger space to show art in the future. The gallery has been around for so many years, by right they should have their own building and move there.

Lim Wei-Ling, Founder / Director of the Wei-Ling Gallery, remembers Galeri Petronas’ “heyday” under the direction of Tengku Nasariah Tengku Syed Ibrahim, when she hosted serious and iconic exhibitions by local artists and international, invited them to write too, and published books. “It was a dynamic time,” she says.

“Government-backed organizations play an important role in promoting art and provide an organized platform to educate people. There are not enough local institutions to support contemporary art. It’s a shame that Galeri Petronas closed at a time when art is developing so well thanks to the interest shown in it.

“A lot of young Malaysians are interested in art but there are no places to go. They visit our galleries and we offer free lectures and tours on a private basis, because we want them to see and feel what artists want to show.

Public institutions are the guardians of the art world. Lim says Galeri Petronas has a large and seminal collection and it is good to know that she could show it because in many countries people go to public museums to see the permanent collections.

Syed Thajudeen Shaik Abu Talib, known for his figurative paintings, claims that when a country’s economy grows, so does artistic and cultural activities. At the time of its founding, Galeri Petronas was run by professional business leaders who were also patrons of the national cultural heritage and knew the importance of developing it. “The gallery has supported local artists by bringing together their major works.

Over the past 28 years, there have been major changes in the management of Petronas. “The old leaders have left or retired, and the culture of thought has changed as well. The new management, lacking in knowledge of the country’s arts and culture, may have thought the Petronas Gallery was a white elephant and an unnecessary expense for the business, and decided to shut it down for good without acknowledging the damage. to the future growth of arts and culture.

“It’s just a technical error. Things can be rectified by changing the mindset, ”he says.

Collector Pakhruddin Sulaiman gets straight to the point: “Don’t blame Covid. It doesn’t make sense that [one of the biggest oil companies] in the world cannot allocate a small amount under its corporate social responsibility (CSR) program to support art.

Pakha, as he is called, says that rumors about the gallery closing have been rife for years. Closure was almost certain until a call was made by senior management with reference to the end result: the value of his works, which had appreciated over the years, saved the fate of the gallery.

“Those at the helm are now using the price of oil as an excuse. They’re just Philistines. They don’t care about art and don’t know it. You know, tak kenal maka tak cinta.

“Banks were the main proponents of early art development in the country – they were pretty enlightened. This type of company does not have a solid model as a CSR. If there were, those who came later would not talk about money and would see that the value of art cannot be determined by it.

In this case, following the two economic crises, government programs to collect and promote art dried up and the banks left the scene. “Fortunately, private collectors have come to fill the huge hole.”

Pakha laments that Malaysia has failed to develop its vision of art – the country has retreated while others, like Singapore, have made progress. “The National Art Gallery (NAG) was first and foremost in Southeast Asia, but Singapore has replaced it. We’re pretty insignificant now, so small. It’s a shame, this Philistine culture.

About a new Petronas gallery, he says, “They announced it and were busy chasing heads. Recruitments have been made, I heard. A few people were named but couldn’t get started until the new world-class art space was ready.

Now they’re going to reconfigure that space into something else, he thinks, something more commercially viable.

“It’s simple logic: if you don’t have a gallery, what will that space be when the building is ready in two or three years? If Petronas is going to have a new museum, why close the current one? You have to prepare yourself. If you have hardware, you also need software.

Former NAG Managing Director Wairah Marzuki expresses sadness that “such a stable company is not able to run its arts center, this commitment to the country.”

In the 1970s, there was only UiTM. Many artistic institutions have since opened and the artist population is increasing. Malaysian works are recognized and collected by museums and collectors around the world, she says.

“Industry professionals are very sad that Petronas has decided to close its gallery. The cultural industry is not limited to the visual arts; it’s about music, movies, digital art, moving images, and the money is there.

“I don’t know if Covid is a valid reason. Some artists continued to maintain their activities. Henry Butcher is doing well and Malaysian works of art sell for high prices at auction.

“Singapore started late but got into it. Art is also important elsewhere – in Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand. Sales through art are part of a country’s growth. People are starting to learn about art, industry and investing in art.

Wairah, who has also heard of Petronas having a new museum, says artists are looking for prime venues to hold exhibitions. “I don’t know what’s going on, but I’ll be excited if it happens. I pray that the gallery reopens because the country and the art industry need more involvement. “

A gallery owner who chooses not to be named is nonchalant. “I am not involved in Galeri Petronas and its closure is irrelevant. I think the setup hasn’t done much for Malaysian artists – it has nothing to do with what’s happening on the pitch. How many artists have actually exhibited or benefited from it? It’s very selective.

“People can tell the gallery was doing a lot in its prime. But the climax has residues [impact]. There is none – it made no difference in Malaysian art.

This insider believes the shutdown is an interim measure. “Aren’t they working on a Petronas museum at a site near KLCC? And this has nothing to do with the Covid: if the current space is not active, why bother to keep it? If Petronas isn’t doing well, find ways to cut costs. the [closure] was probably made from a commercial point of view.

He believes the decision reflects what is happening to many public institutions – they are good at first but fail because officials don’t know what to do.

“The gallery is a white elephant that disappears. We all have hope, but somehow it is all shattered. It’s a shame because there is one less nonprofit art space now.

This article first appeared on May 17, 2021 in The Edge Malaysia.

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