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Appreciating art

Kuala Lumpur will welcome art enthusiasts and collectors from across the globe next month, when the seventh instalment of Art Expo Malaysia descends on the capital’s Matrade Exhibition and Convention Centre. First held in 2007, the event is one that signals Southeast Asia’s growing significance on the global art stage and its developing impact on individual economies.

The country’s biggest international art event, Art Expo Malaysia (AEM) will run from September 19 to 22 and on show will be paintings, sculptures, installations and more from emerging talents and artists considered great masters in their home countries.

AEM was established by art dealer Vincent Sim at a time when Malaysia was far from being known for its appreciation of art and was nowhere near responding appropriately to the fledgling art fairs and auction businesses popping up in various cities. Government support had not yet been implemented, while corporate players were unlikely to drop money on an industry still in its infancy.

Come 2010, however, AEM could proudly boast more than 12,000 visitors and a sales turnover exceeding RM11 million (about $3.5m at that time), including RM2 million ($640,000) paid for a set of Andy Warhol silkscreens, sold by Singapore-based Collectors Contemporary.

Fast-forward to 2013 and the event is stronger than ever, with AEM now part of a greater, government-backed arts festival – the 1Malaysia Contemporary Art Tourism Festival (1MCAT). Organised by Malaysia’s Ministry of Tourism and Culture, 1MCAT began last month and will carry on throughout September. Including everything from its Art Tour Shuttle that transports guests from one creative destination to another, to artist competitions, it is a focused effort to open up Malaysia’s diverse cultural landscape to an audience perhaps only familiar with its more obvious attractions.

“Malaysia’s natural wonders have been its biggest draw for many years. However, we recognised that our contemporary art industry was burgeoning and compelling – an attraction in itself. 1MCAT highlights the best of what the industry has to offer, and the festival is also a way to support our local players by giving them the limelight that they truly deserve,” explained the Minister of Tourism and Culture, Mohamed Nazri bin Abdul Aziz, in a press release.

As well as the light-hearted activities on offer during 1MCAT, the festival will hold a number of auctions, showcasing Malaysian art’s investment potential. Organised by auction houses such as Henry Butcher Art Auctioneers, The Edge and other private bodies, they will give potential buyers a comprehensive insight into the market while continuing to generate record-breaking sales figures.

In 2009, Henry Butcher Art Auctioneers held the first professionally run art auction specialising in Malaysian art. Sales reached 83% and yielded a total of more than RM1.7 million ($476,000) – quite a result.

With more and more auction houses coming into the picture in Malaysia, joined by an increasing awareness of art’s financial value, there is a growing number of collectors who are now focusing more on the investment side of the art world.

“This doesn’t necessarily come with negative consequences if the collectors are well-informed and if they are not buying art simply for money-making ends,” said Christopher Tay, general manager of Henry Butcher Art Auctioneers. “More and more investors are venturing into art as an alternative asset class to diversify their portfolios. When someone [already] has bungalows, fancy cars, stocks and shares, it’s only logical that they might hope to have something to enrich their lifestyle and provide spiritual return, not just a monetary one.”

According to gallerists and art professionals, the collector base for Malaysian art is expanding beyond its shores. Regional and international collectors are increasingly snapping up Malaysian art due to its promising potential and competitive price points.

“While prices of art from neighbouring countries such as Indonesia, Singapore and Vietnam may fetch millions of dollars at international auctions, Malaysian art still comes with a relatively reasonable price tag, making it attractive for higher future financial return, and affordable for novice collectors to begin their collecting journey,” explained Tay.

Yet it’s not only Malaysian art that has piqued buyers’ attention, according to Jorn Middelborg, managing director of Bangkok’s Thavibu Gallery.
“I think Southeast Asian contemporary art represents excellent value,” he said. “In many of these countries you can find the best works by the top artists for quite a reasonable price – up to $20,000. You can hardly expect to find the best works by top artists for this price elsewhere.”

Jason Ong Chee Hwa, 65, is one buyer who has seen this potential and taken advantage of it. Since 2010, he has amassed a collection of more than 300 works. Now retired, Malaysian Ong Chee Hwa was formerly an automotive parts manufacturer and was introduced to the world of fine art by a friend.
“In [the] beginning, I simply acquired art to my liking, but from the second year onward I have tried to collect work by artists who are well known or at least up-and-coming. Art collecting is my hobby as well as an investment,” said Ong Chee Hwa, whose first purchase was a piece by Long Looi Lee – an internationally renowned Malaysian painter.

In these economically unstable times, such an approach has defined the trends emerging in the art industry.

“During flourishing economic times, there tends to be an uprise in the sales of contemporary or new art that is more challenging and unconventional,” explained Tay. “Collectors dare to take higher risks to collect art pieces freshly made by young and emerging artists. During an economic downturn, the blue-chip artists’ market usually performs exceptionally well as collectors are confident of the stability of these pioneer and modern artists whose work has been transacted more frequently in the past.”

While countries such as Malaysia display promising signs of becoming hubs for exhibiting and selling art, Singapore remains the region’s front runner. The National Arts Council continues to invest a great deal of money into the contemporary scene, in both infrastructure and education. Combine that investment with the favourable tax environment of the city-state, which makes for ease of import and export, and the existence of basics such as Singapore FreePort, a facility that provides wealthy collectors with tax-free storage, and you have a strong market environment, according to Cassandra Naji, founder of the Art Blog Taiwan and editor of online news source Art Radar. With increasing numbers of international galleries opening, such as the Gilman Barracks complex, and events including the forthcoming Biennale in September, the market should go from strength to strength.

However, in terms of success and reputation, Singapore still has a way to go before it can compete with the ever-present international auction houses of Sotheby’s and Christie’s, whose Asian art headquarters are in Hong Kong. With an extensive network of clients and offices around the world, they have played a key role in raising awareness of art appreciation and encouraging cross-cultural collecting between the East and the West.

“To generalise widely, [Southeast Asian] countries that sell well at the biannual Hong Kong auctions are the Philippines and Indonesia. Painting is always popular – it’s easy to hang – and right now sculpture is having a bit of a low point with buyers, although installation seems popular among the art cognoscenti,” said Naji.

As auction houses such as Christie’s and Sotheby’s continue their interest in Southeast Asian art, bringing it to a global audience and bolstering its appeal for regional collectors, the region’s artistic significance should continue to grow.

“That’s the beauty of this region,” said Tay, “because once more and more collectors around the world turn their attention to us, they will see our art as a whole and the entire Southeast Asia art market will be elevated.”

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