Where all the artists go.
I had an interesting conversation with a local businessman in Malaysia, the other day. He is in the fashion business and thus is an habitual observer of all things related to his passion – and that includes fine art.
My wife is an artist, as some of you will know. He asked her if she intended to make a career of it and make money out of it. She gave a nod and a simple “I do.”
He grew reflective. “Many artists in Malaysia just have one exhibition and then disappear.”, he observed a little tiredly, at the thought. “I think it is just a hobby for them.”
In my view he had understood it precisely wrong. It is not that artists in Malaysia only tinker with their art, as a “hobby”, show it once then disappear. What is happening is much more sad than that. What is happening, it is clear to me from observing the situation and speaking to artists, is that the artists are DISAPPOINTED with the response. What frequently happens with artists in Malaysia is that they hold an exhibition and the response is muted. Perhaps the artist doesn’t sell many pieces. Indeed, usually, I would say they lose money on their exhibition. After all, many spaces here charge a daily fee to exhibit – MAPS, for instance, charges an enormous 1,000 RM per day, for the privilege of showing one’s art. These fees almost ensure that new artists lose considerably, if they decide to exhibit in such galleries/spaces.
In a way, the prompt disappearance of these artists from the art scene, after one show – which is quite common – is a rational decision. The disappointed artist is left with the bitter thought that “there is no money in it” or “they hated my stuff” – and they will never, ever go to the expense, bother and effort of exhibiting again. So the artist disappears and is never heard from again. In this way, I am sure that many good voices never get to sing of their art and their world views – their work is lost to us all, forever.
The problem here is not with the artists, but with the system. The way the art market is organized, makes it difficult for the young artist to establish themselves, without incurring considerable cost – or without being deeply disappointed. What is needed is some public art spaces, which are open to newcomers – but which are FREE to hire. This public subsidy for young artists, will ensure that these voices do not fall silent prematurely and that they have a chance to reach their ultimate audience. The public can also play a role here. Why not go to exhibitions of young artists, take a look at their works – and, if you like them, buy one or more? You should note that art makes a good long term investment, since, on average, art prices rise faster than property prices – so, not only will you be helping an artist develop a career and give them hope for their futures – but you will be helping to build your own future wealth too, by building a particularly attractive (in many ways) investment portfolio. Were this to be the common response to young artists, Malaysia would have a much more vibrant art culture than it does. In a way, the depth of art in a nation is precisely related to the willingness of the people to buy it, when the artists are young and starting out. If Malaysian art is shallower than it need be, it is only because the people wait a little too long, too often, to appreciate the outpourings of creativity of their young artists. If not supported at the beginning, there will, most often, be a swift end to such nascent careers.
Part of the problem, perhaps, is the local obsession with “branding”. I note, for instance, that older, establish artists, in a recent Henry Butcher auction, commanded prices up to 1 million Ringgits per piece of work. These are healthy prices and it is good to see local investors supporting such venerable names. However, it seems clear from the phenomenon of disappearing young artists, that the same support is not there, often, for those just starting out in their art careers. Thus it is that the pipeline from first show to venerable, brand name status, is not being properly supported. So it is that many artists fall silent.
The most important stage at which to support an artist, by buying their work, is at the beginning – for that will encourage them to continue. That is also the time to buy to realize the highest long term gains. So, seek out young artists, and invest in their work – you are not only investing in your own financial future, but in the future of the nation’s culture, itself.
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