Pandemic panic: a wake-up call for the art market

Pandemic panic: a wake-up call for the art market

What will the ‘new normal’ born from the coronavirus pandemic look like for Malaysian galleries and artists?

By Ellen Lee

The coronavirus outbreak this year has made ‘April the cruelest month’, as T.S. Eliot’s post-apocalyptic poem, The Waste Land goes, ‘breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain.’ But instead of breeding lilacs, the pandemic has been stirring the old dull roots of social and class divisions, forcing them into greater clarity like untended weeds.

For the international art market, it’s exposing an over-dependence on the patronage of an elite few, an excessive amount of international travelling, and networks of artists and art workers living on the very brink. Fortunately in Malaysia, things have not gotten as bad as in the United States, where institutions have begun mass lay-offs, but the future is uncertain for everyone. The PRIHATIN economic stimulus package announced on 27 March 2020 offered some hope, but it alienated many artists who have always lived a precarious freelancing and free-wheeling life, never making enough money steadily enough to bother declaring their income.

Many are starting to speak of a ‘new normal’, an implicit acknowledgement that things will not — and perhaps should not — return to the way they were before. What could the ‘new normal’ for Malaysian art look like during and after the pandemic? Gallerist Alvin Chia of Ming Fine Art gallery at Straits Quay, Penang, and Penang-based artist Hoo Fan Chon speak to us about how they’re facing the uncertain future.

The new normal for galleries: art goes online

Galleries, like every other business, have had to indefinitely postpone future projects and it’s generally expected that social distancing measures may continue even after the MCO is lifted. Crowded openings are out of the question for now.

In Malaysia, some galleries are continuing operations, but virtually. Artemis Art, G13 Gallery, and Segaris Art Centre — all Kuala Lumpur-based galleries — have taken their exhibitions online via different platforms at differing levels of technical Internet knowhow. Artemis Art is hosting a virtual exhibition entitled Monochrome on Artsteps, a virtual gallery platform; G13 has a Viewing Room page on their website for their latest exhibition, Mending Fence, with images of the artworks and their captions; and Segaris Art Centre is hosting their exhibition, No(w) Showing!, on their Instagram page by featuring an artwork per post.

Artemis Art’s strategy is the most advanced one, but G13’s and Segaris’s prove that ‘going online’ can be as straightforward as uploading images online. Different galleries will find different strategies more suited for their demographics.

‘I don’t think [online exhibitions are] feasible for us to focus on at the moment. Based on our clientele demographic alone, we might face sustainability issues,’ commented Chia, referring to Ming Fine Art’s largely middle-age clientele who may not want to bother with trying to navigate a virtual exhibition and its controls. ‘But […] we are going to enhance our webpage to cater to the rise of younger clientele.’

Alvin Chia (left) with artist Bibichun at Ming Fine Art for PAD’s Sesi Seni event.

‘We are drafting some future events with artists at the moment. It’s not virtual based, but won’t be conventional exhibition style either,’ he continues, teasing that it may be something that hasn’t been done yet by other galleries. ‘We hope audiences will find it exciting when we launch it. What’s it going to be? I wish I could share more, but we have to keep it mysterious as for now!’

Over the years, Ming Fine Arts has consistently used Instagram as a tool to showcase the artworks they have for sale.

It seems it’s time for gallerists to get creative as well. The first hurdle is finding and creating a new non-physical platform to run on. (Or if it is physical, ensuring that it keeps a safe distance between visitors.) The next hurdle is the possibility that collectors may not be buying new art as they used to amidst all this uncertainty.

The new normal for artists: thinking beyond sales

Malaysian art was already a niche market to begin with, with many artists and not enough collectors. Among the collectors, the circle of those who consistently buy art is even smaller.

Speaking to Shyan, the writer behind local art criticism and scene report blog, Art KL-itique, he characterises the art collector base in Kuala Lumpur as such: ‘This active group of art collectors are professionals such as lawyers/doctors/architects. I hear remarks that very few Malaysian elites consistently buy local art. As such, the local art market is subject to the whims and interests of a limited audience, which then restricts creative output and modes of expressions.’

By now, most Malaysian artists are aware that artwork sales are not enough to sustain an artistic practice, and many already seek out alternative sources of income, such as by taking commissions or utilising Internet crowdfunding resources such as Patreon and Kickstarter. Artist Hoo Fan Chon considers himself lucky because he’s not totally reliant on artwork sales for the foreseeable future, so the prospect of a diminishing collector base doesn’t scare him (yet?).

Hoo Fan Chon speaking at the Missing Links: Piecing Together a Penang Art Scene panel discussion

He has a few projects lined up, including a major curatorial one that was meant to take place soon. All have been postponed, but work on them continues with an optimistic eye on the future. ‘In general, most projects that I’m involved in are being pushed back. There’s no cancellation, at least not yet. I suppose nobody knows what to expect since this pandemic and the whole chain of reaction that comes with it is unprecedented. It seems a bit unrealistic to plan anything ahead of us when we are not sure when the MCO will be lifted.’

Hoo occupies his time by preparing material for his upcoming projects; revisiting old writings and ideas; and getting around to reading books he bought but never read. Recently, he published an article with O For Other on the outsider artist Wu Ma, whose paintings he rediscovered while cleaning up his studio during the lockdown.

‘Now is the best time to equip ourselves with more knowledge and to think about the resources we already have,’ explains Hoo. Indeed, it may be time to reclaim the early-millennial optimism towards the Internet as a force for knowledge distribution, instead of the alienating surveillance tool it turned into. Listicles abound with free courses, virtual tours, and open libraries for cultural enlightenment but it’s up to artists to direct their attention productively.

Merchandise from Hoo Fan Chon’s recent exhibition, Biro Kaji Visual George Town. Clockwise: Bermimpi Demi Negara silkscreen print (RM 300), Karma-karma Chameleons limited edition handmade photo book (RM 100), exhibition zine (RM 15), and Bermimpi Demi Negara silkscreen printed t-shirt (RM 60).

In the long term, artists may need to apply themselves to other forms of Internet-friendly work (such as writing, translation, graphic design, digital illustration, or setting up online stores or Patreon pages) if sales come to a standstill.

Says Hoo, ‘Projects are postponed for now. Six months down, we may start to see more cancellations and cuts, the state may decide to cut funding to arts and culture to invest more into aid and medical services. We need to find a way to exchange our skills for new forms of income other than commercial sales.’ 

The new normal: mutual aid

‘Lockdown also forces us to think about who our immediate community actually is,’ says Hoo. Half-jokingly, he suggests a new barter system where artists help street hawkers to redesign or re-vamp their stalls in exchange for food. In fact, a few years ago, silkscreen punks Bogus Merchandise created signage for the owner of a nasi ayam kukus stall opposite their studio. The gesture was a friendly one (not a desperate one in exchange for food), but the pandemic has certainly inspired a new sense of concern for one’s community, especially when they seem to be overlooked by government efforts.

Early into the MCO, artists were already utilising their skills to raise funds for vulnerable communities. Graphic designer and activist Fahmi Reza is offering free custom portraits to every person who donates RM50 or more to one of the organisations listed with the #KitaJagaKita civil society initiative. As of 9 April 2020, his efforts have helped raise RM25,000. Meanwhile, Sabahan collective Pangrok Sulap have started creating woodcut prints of motivational visuals related to the coronavirus pandemic in Malaysia, along with selling prints of their past works to keep themselves afloat and raise funds for NGOs.

Like fashion designers who are suspending normal operations to make personal protective equipment (PPE) for frontliners, art may be headed towards becoming more localised and community-based, commissioned for a purpose rather than created for pure contemplation in a gallery. Many of our traditional crafts are already like that.

The ‘new normal’ requires a radical re-imagining. Most probably, the art world will see more online presence and more cuts, more artists forced to learn new skills or commercially monetise their current ones. These are standard ways of adapting when people find their work is no longer feasible. But just as the pandemic has shown, it’s possible for radical change to happen in a short span of time. We should not be confined by what is realistic or predictable.

Art is essential — as a connection to history, to the way we lived before, and to past generations’ ideas of beauty, truth, the sacred and profane. And yet even before the pandemic, this connection to the past was not accessible to the general public, due to state negligence and an embedded perception that art is only for the elite few who can afford it. Currently, we are seeing lines being drawn between the ‘essential’ and ‘nonessential’ across all sectors, not just art.

The ‘new normal’ could be a savage climate in which vulnerable sectors like art and heritage are abandoned; or, in a more utopian ideal, this vulnerability could be the basis for greater unity among artists, art appreciators, and their local communities. If art is really necessary, we will have to find new ways to prove it.

Cover photo by cottonbro from Pexels

Ellen Lee is a writer and art worker based in Kuala Lumpur. She is interested in all forms of culture, from fine art and poetry to trap music and anime.