It might be commonly understood that a major art institution funded by a state-owned oil and gas company will be a permanent fixture in the Malaysian arts and culture landscape.
But art galleries do close, even the major ones, especially during these unprecedented pandemic times.
On May 3, Galeri Petronas in Kuala Lumpur, owned and funded by Petroliam Nasional Berhad (Petronas), announced in a media release that it has shut down effective this month due to the pandemic.
“Despite the closure of the gallery’s public space, artworks from the Petronas Art Collection remain available for loan to relevant programmes and initiatives. This is in line with Petronas’ long-standing commitment to promote greater understanding and appreciation of the arts in Malaysia, ” read the gallery’s media statement.
Galeri Petronas declined to comment further when contacted.
Galeri Petronas, arguably, might have been run with a unique artistic and corporate vision, depending on who was in charge and steering this non-profit gallery in the last 28 years.
Even if it has now been consigned to Malaysian art history, the news of Galeri Petronas’ closure did sadden many in the art community, especially the homegrown artists who had some of their biggest shows or breakthrough exhibitions there.
The list is a long one considering the gallery first opened in 1992 at Dayabumi Complex in Kuala Lumpur to champion the value of the arts to a wider community. It moved to its present location – a circular gallery measuring 2,000sq m – at Suria KLCC in 1998.
Once the talk of the town
“In 1999, Matahati had its Matahati: PL show at Galeri Petronas. It was a major show, I would say the biggest one in the history of Matahati. At that time, it was a brave decision to go with a show that focused only on art installations, but Galeri Petronas was bold and progressive in those days, ” says Bayu Utomo Radjikin, an established Malaysian contemporary artist, gallerist and Matahati collective member.
“So we have some kind of sentimental history with the gallery and, of course, I am sad that it is closing. Over the years, I have had my works exhibited there in various group shows as well.”
Bayu reflects on Galeri Petronas’ progressive early years, with the Suria KLCC art space opening on Sept 7,1998, and promising to give Malaysians a new millennium-ready art platform and destination.
In the mid-1990s, plenty of art events circled around Menara Maybank, The National Art Gallery, Galeri Petronas (Dayabumi) and the Australian High Commission.
Galeri Petronas’ arrival at Suria KLCC in 1998 signalled a serious intent to keep art as its main focus. The appointment of artist/art historian Zainal Abidin “Zabas” Shariff as its director in the early days underlined the creative mission.
Judging by the indifferent response from the public and certain quarters of the art scene about the gallery ceasing operations, it seems that this once highly popular space did lose much of its appeal and importance in recent years.
“We had heard about the gallery potentially closing for some time now. It is a pity that in the years leading up to this, their exhibitions seemed to lack the kind of focus that was apparent in the years before. It would have been good if they retained the momentum till the end, ” says Bayu.
“For a big company like Petronas, I think the decision to close the gallery isn’t a monetary driven one. And like many others, I hope that they will be able to get someone capable and passionate to be in charge of the gallery, if and when they reopen, ” he adds.
CEO of Segaris Art Center Nizam Rahmat, who worked at Galeri Petronas for about two years in the art management department, is nostalgic about the gallery’s closure.
“As a student, I remember telling myself that one day I am going to show my works there. Unfortunately, I haven’t had the chance to, but I did end up working in its art management department.
“I still remember the last exhibition I was involved in, Semangat 10: Visual Expressions of South-East Asian Identity in 2016. Not many local galleries have the means to put together big regional exhibitions, but Galeri Petronas could. If they decide to reopen the gallery in the future, I would say please go ahead, ” says Nizam, who is also an artist.
Renowned art collector and lawyer Pakhruddin Sulaiman says the closure of the gallery was not a shock to him.
“However, the news of its eventual closure is still heartbreaking and painful to accept. The gallery closure to me is a clear manifestation of how the majority of those who helm our corporations are clearly philistine in their outlook and orientation. For the future development of Malaysian art, I am afraid we may have to look elsewhere, ” says Pakhruddin.
“The exiting of Galeri Petronas from the Malaysian art scene means the loss of one more public art space that could complement the National Art Gallery in promoting and developing Malaysian art.
“This complementary role may now reside solely with another public art space which is still operating, the Ilham Gallery (KL) owned by Tun Daim (Zainuddin). I hope it will be sustainable, ” he adds.
Rahel Joseph, Ilham Gallery director, feels the closure of Galeri Petronas will be a huge loss for the Malaysian art scene.
“I was sad to hear that Galeri Petronas was closing – we do not have many institutional galleries in Malaysia in the first place, so it is very sad that we are losing another one.
“I have fond memories of the gallery as I worked there with Tengku Nasariah (Tengku Syed Ibrahim) and Anurendra Jegadeva from 2007 to 2009. We had a really active exhibition programme – some of the highlights were The Independence Project, Ahmad Zakii Anwar’s Disclosure, Liew Kung Yu’s Cadangan-Cadangan Untuk Negaraku, the Matahati retrospective, among others, ” says Rahel.
Malaysian art scene should be expanding, not shrinking
Galeri Petronas has also been a repository for many seminal artworks by Malaysian artists that have been collected over the years. It would be a pity if the public did not have access to these artworks anymore.
"Some of the most memorable exhibitions I saw at the gallery were iconic exhibitions such as Latiff Mohidin's Voyage Kembara in 2007, the Matahati retrospective exhibition in 2008 and Go Block in 2009, just to name a few," recalls Lim Wei-Ling, founder/director of the Wei-Ling Galleries and Badan Warisan Malaysia president.
"As a private commercial gallery, we count on public institutional galleries to be patrons of, and to promote and host large scale retrospectives and exhibitions of relevant and important Malaysian/international artists. These institutions should form the backbone of any thriving art scene.
"As it is, this responsibility of creating community and outreach programmes to stimulate the local art scene, has also fallen onto the shoulders of private galleries. We are happy to take up the mantle, but it should be public institutions that take up this role, so that we can concentrate on nurturing and developing platforms for the next generation of emerging artists," says Lim.
In identifying Galeri Petronas' legacy and role in developing and supporting the Malaysian arts and culture narrative, Jaafar Ismail, the founder of Fergana Art in Kuala Lumpur, comments that "the gallery had 28 years, there were good and bad periods... however, this conversation will differ significantly depending on who you talk to."
"Maybe the question that I need to ask is about the role and responsibility of a government owned corporate entity in complementing the development of the narrative of national history - from visual arts, literature, sciences, technology and humanities," says Jaafar.
"For a corporation that founded its existence on extracting the natural wealth of the country, one would expect Petronas to be more sensitive that they have to add more value than just ringgit to the national narrative. Not just sensitive, they have to be responsible in replenishing wealth that has been extracted by way of adding intellectual and cultural history," he continues.
Vision, mission and delivery matters
As one of the most well-funded public art galleries in Malaysia, Galeri Petronas was seen as an institution representing and supporting a diverse and vibrant visual arts ecology, embracing a broad range of artistic and curatorial practices across the nation. Did it evolve or pivot to meet the challenges of the pandemic-era? In the past year, Galeri Petronas remained relatively quiet, without much engagement with the masses.
" An art institution like Galeri Petronas needed quality programming, led by a visionary management to meaningfully contribute to a cultural ecosystem. The gallery launched with such vision and delivery. With time and changing management, Petronas' focus has shifted. Petronas must have considered carefully the company's current inability to satisfy that remit.
"Importantly, companies can contribute in other ways to the cultural ecosystem - through sponsorship, collecting patronage, art scholarships, space provision for programmes/ pop up exhibitions," says Shalini Ganendra, the founder of Shalini Ganendra Advisory, which used to collaborate with Galeri Petronas as one of its partners in the annual Gallery Weekend Kuala Lumpur event.
Ahmad Fuad Osman, a multidisciplinary artist and a member of the Matahati collective, remains philosophical about the events leading up to Galeri Petronas’ end and how the pandemic has impacted this decision.
“While some countries like Britain are turning some buildings in which businesses closed during this pandemic into arts centres, studios and art spaces, Petronas, on the other hand, closed their gallery.
“To the public, it might give them the impression that art is not important. Many art institutions around the world are temporarily closed but they are taking this period as an opportunity to reflect on their roles, rethink and re-strategise their programmes and exhibitions, ” says Ahmad Fuad.
With its financial capacity, adds the soft-spoken artist, Galeri Petronas should instead be able to initiate and organise programmes that deal with the pandemic, the documentation of this particular period through visual arts, performance, photography, video and films. In the months or years to come, Malaysians will need art more than ever.
“In the post-pandemic era, the arts will be therapeutic. These are the roles that a big gallery or art institution like (Galeri) Petronas could or should undertake, but without the right leadership, it will definitely be dysfunctional.
“I hope Galeri Petronas will consider reopening the gallery again soon, this time with a better and knowledgeable curator, better team, better vision and direction, ” he concludes.