Getting their act together

WHEN the recent Auditor-General’s Report revealed that the National Art Gallery (NAG) had misplaced 206 works as of end 2002, it stirred up a hornet’s nest among shocked art lovers who felt that losing even one painting was unacceptable. 

Many were not appeased by other highlights in the AG’s report that showed that NAG had been trying to plug the leak in spite of an overall culture of non-maintenance and apathy that seems to plague government bodies. 

Regardless of whether an impressive 79 had been found by end 2004 and a further 89 works located since January this year, the art community refuses to let the issue rest. It wants to know how the gallery stores, accounts for and conserves its works. 

This behind-the-scenes process, the community says, has been wanting and the problems revealed are merely the tip of the iceberg. (See story below.) 

Mad Anuar Ismail’s sculpture Flight No. 2 that was broken some time between the late 1980s and the early 1990s has been fixed by NAG.

When the request was put to the gallery, the staff readily gave us annual reports – published since 1958 – to show what they have doing.  

“The information has always been available. It's just been a matter of sharing it and whether the public had asked for it,” explained a senior staff member. 

A clearer, if not slightly comforting, picture arises when one looks at NAG's corrective measures in the last decade since younger personnel were put in charge of the research and development division. 

Chi’s Buah-Buahan Dakwat Cina – one of two brush paintings missing from 75 works donated by Lee Kah Yeow.

At present, the division is headed by Zanita Anuar and has nine staff, including four new assistant curators employed in 2003. Of this number, two or three look after collections and conservation.  

Faced with haphazard inventory notes from the previous three decades, the division – pushed on by the late artist Joseph Tan and NAG board of trustee member Prof Dr Krishna Gopal Rampal – undertook its first physical stock-take in 2001 that saw gallery staff coming across paintings left exposed in government buildings under renovation. 

They aimed to relocate about 5,000 artworks but were only able to find half of them by 2003. The result of this mission was the Inventori Himpunan Tetap Warisan Seni Tampak Negara 1958-2003 published last year. 

In the midst of this, the AG reportedly visited NAG in 2004 to ask for an inventory and a list of missing works. And in September this year, these became official news. 

NAG staff, too, feel the loss of the missing 26 works (announced at a press conference on Oct 7) from among 2,835 works they were able to confirm entered the gallery’s storerooms throughout the years. And they say they haven’t given up on the possibility that they will come across more to make up the 5,000 pieces collectors and former board of trustee members estimate have entered NAG since 1958. 

A source pointed out that, at present, NAG could only afford eight guards to man six or seven galleries. A bigger budget for security is clearly needed, especially if NAG is to meet security standards set by the insurance industry – a benchmark art galleries in developing countries should use. 

The artworks in the gallery have been insured by Malaysia National Insurance Berhad (MNI) since 1970 but NAG staff say no annual stock-take is done by the company before it renews its coverage. This has contributed to the lack of monitoring of the inventory. 

On its part, NAG is making efforts to train its staff. For example, Zanita attended the Conference on Museum Practices in the 21st Century: A Cultural Exchange with MoMa in Hong Kong in 2002, and two others, Ameruddin Ahmad and Ahmad Azidi Amin Kolam, went on a working trip to art museums and galleries in Australia. The following year, 35 staff members were sent for training. 

They’ve got tips on conservation from overseas: in 2003, Nicole Tse from the Ian Potter Conservation Centre of the University of Melbourne worked with the department to restore four paintings. A further 125 wooden sculptures were fumigated (through exposure to photoxin gas for 72 hours). In total, NAG has restored and conserved some 288 artworks in its permanent collection. 

And how about its storage and conservation rooms? And how can we ascertain for ourselves what condition the 168 found works are in? 

In reply to a fax requesting permission to see and photograph these rooms for ourselves, NAG director-general Dr Saharudin Ismail denied us entry on the basis that there was no need to do so. NAG’s staff, however, stressed they had been eagerly awaiting our visit to show us their efforts to improve things behind the scenes. 

We can only take comfort in NAG’s annual reports in which audit comments ask for more storage space and better inventory monitoring, especially that of artworks bought at short notice and without the prior approval of NAG’s board of trustees. 

But with taxpayers, through government allocations, paying for up to 84% of NAG’s cost of buying new works (RM816,902.20 spent in 2002), surely more transparency can only benefit the gallery. 

Related Story:Poorly cared for 

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