Malaysian art scene not digitally savvy enough to adapt to Covid-19 crisis

  • Arts
  • Wednesday, 25 Mar 2020

TitikMerah’s gallery is now being utilised as an ‘artist studio only’ as no exhibitions will be held until further notice, says Ajim Juxta. Photo: The Star/Sam Tham

When visits to art galleries are out of the question, what happens next? Many local galleries in Malaysia are looking to engage with their audience online. Their doors might be closed to the public until April 14 (the last day of the Government's movement control order to contain the Covid-19 outbreak), but they are trying to find new ways to reach out to people. Behind the scenes, it is business as usual – as much as they can get it to be anyway.

Lim Wei-Ling, founder of Wei-Ling Gallery and Wei-Ling Contemporary shares that she doesn’t see this pandemic as a huge shift for the gallery or the industry.

“If anything, it should encourage galleries and collectors to start looking at art through more virtual channels and to be more creative in getting artworks out to the public, ” says Lim.

“The gallery is already on Instagram and Facebook now, but in April, in collaboration with Ivan Lam, we will be launching a new online platform and an exciting project which will focus on social enterprise through the democratisation of art, ” she adds.

G13 Gallery has set up an “Online Viewing Room” on its website for its ongoing Of Dream And Reality group exhibition, featuring artists Siund Tan, Ho Mei Kei, Arikwibowo Amril, Syafiq Mohd Nor and Nitinai Meesun.

“As we find ourselves having to find ways to cope with this new situation, it is our responsibility as a gallery to play our part in helping the industry. For G13, preparations for art exhibitions will go on as planned, but we are moving the viewing experience from the physical gallery to online. We will continue promoting art and art appreciation – that is not going to stop. But we have to think of other options to reach out to the audience now, such as through more extensive use of social media, ” says G13 gallery partner Wendy Chang.

Auction goes online

Henry Butcher Art Auctioneers’ (HBBA) Malaysian and South-East Asian Art Auction, initially scheduled in Kuala Lumpur on March 15, was conducted via Absentee Bids, Telephone Bids and Online Bids only. No floor bidding was held.

“This was the first time in Malaysian art auction history that there was no floor bidding. We wanted people to be able to bid safely from the comfort of their homes, in line with the government’s advisory on banning public gatherings of over 250 people.

“Response was good and we feel encouraged that at such a challenging time, appreciation for good art still goes on. HBBA managed to achieve RM2.26mil auction sale recently, ” says HBBA director Sim Polenn.

The next auction is slated for June 28.

Wei-Ling Contemporary will be working with Ivan Lam next month to launch a new online platform that focuses on social enterprise. Photo: FilepicWei-Ling Contemporary will be working with Ivan Lam next month to launch a new online platform that focuses on social enterprise. Photo: Filepic

“If the pandemic is still going on by then, we will conduct it as we did the other day, without floor bidding. But of course, we hope and pray that things will be back to usual soon, ” says Sim.

Joshua Lim, founder of A+ Works Of Art, echoes this sentiment, saying that the focus will certainly shift online – with or without pandemic.

“The current situation will definitely spur the industry as a whole to developing their digital profiles, whether it is for viewing, or buying and selling art.

“On our part, we have a lot we can explore by taking it digital. But there is also the larger issue of recognising the role that art plays in society, even in times of crisis, ” says Lim.

Despite Art Basel Hong Kong 2020 cancelling its ground event and it has taken the entire art fair experience online, with its inaugural Online Viewing Room that will be open to the public until March 25.

There are over 1,900 works presented by more than 220 galleries from 31 countries that you can browse through in these virtual viewing rooms.

Richard Koh Fine Art is the only Malaysian gallery that is participating in Art Basel HK this year. The gallery's feature local artist Yeoh Choo Kuan’s new series A Day And Forever is available as an online viewing room experience.

Back in KL, Richard Koh Fine Art gallery remains closed as the Malaysian art scene waits out the movement control order scenario.

Founder Richard Koh is in a contemplative mood as he observes how much the local art scene has to do to get back on the rails.

“The art industry has been in overdrive for many years, with back-to-back art fairs happening around the world. I think when this (pandemic) is over, you will see a move to recalibrate. By then, people will be used to the fact that life goes on even if you don’t visit so many art fairs, go to so many art exhibitions. Art will still be important of course, we will always need art in our lives. But I think we will be more mindful of what is meaningful to us. It is strange times we live in now but just maybe, something good can come out of it, ” says Koh.

In Malaysia, web-based works and curated online exhibitions have yet to make an impact in the art scene. Surprisingly, even younger artists and independent art collectives do not have a major social media presence. The old school first-hand experience in a gallery seems to be the preferred option.Richard Koh Fine Art presented Yeoh Choo Kuan’s works at Art Basel Hong Kong’s Online Viewing Room platform last weekend. Photo: The Star/Chan Tak Kong Richard Koh Fine Art presented Yeoh Choo Kuan’s works at Art Basel Hong Kong’s Online Viewing Room platform last weekend. Photo: The Star/Chan Tak Kong

Delay in going digital

"Actually, the need for galleries and institution to go online has been there for the past couple of years. The world over, gallery footfall has been on the decline, with more and more collectors opting to visit art fairs instead. I think what the Covid-19 pandemic has done is to accelerate the move to the virtual online space. The need to go online has been there for a while, but Covid-19 has turbocharged the urgency - a kick in the rear, as it were," says S. Jamal Al-Idrus, owner of KL-based Artemis Art gallery, which nurtures emerging regional artists.

In terms of revenue, Artemis Art's annual planner banks mostly on international art fairs and regional collaborations.

"Hence, not being able to travel right now makes being online even more critical. We're already using Instagram quite a bit, but the next step is to have more content online, to generate revenue via online presence.," he adds. ​​

From the start, art space collective TitikMerah’s venue at Taman Tun Dr Ismail in KL was set up with a dual purpose in mind: to be used as a gallery when there are exhibitions, and as a studio at all other times.

At this point in time, however, it looks like it will have to be the latter.

“That is where I am working right now. We are trying to make the best of the situation and I hope these two weeks will be productive. Most of the artists in this collective have their individual projects to work on anyway, so we are using this time to work on our own since we can’t hold exhibitions, ” says TitikMerah founder Raja Azeem Idzham, who is better known as Ajim Juxta.

Artemis Art's exhibitions are mostly dependant on collectors and regional shows. Photo: Artemis Art Artemis Art's exhibitions are mostly dependant on collectors and regional shows. Photo: Artemis Art

He adds that moving forward, they will have to rethink how best to manage the space and engage with the audience. Titikmerah is on Instagram but it has yet to make the most of the art business through online channels.

“We have been focusing more on our physical space of late, but we might have to take it to social media to reach out to people now, ” says Ajim.

Sabahan activist art collective Pangrok Sulap is doing the same, working alone and exchanging ideas via email or phone.

It updates its Instagram feed regularly, focusing on community projects and new works surrounding the Covid-19 situation. But social media is not used as a commercial space here.

Despite Pangrok Sulap's strong online visual presence, it has kept to its own community-centred pace when it comes to the self-sustaining side of art.

“All workshops and community projects have been stopped but we are always working behind the scenes. The artists of the collective are working from home and we will also plan for future events, so when all this is over, we can get back in action as soon as possible.

“We will be reaching out to our audience online more than ever in the coming weeks and we hope that through our art, we will send a positive message for them to stay strong and look out for each other in these trying times, ” says co-founder Rizo Leong.

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Gallery , Art , Exhibition , Virtual Room , Malaysia


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