A push for Malaysia Contemporary Art

As the country matures and society becomes more affluent, the appreciation for contemporary art has grown, and investment in art has taken root.

There was a nudging voice of ambition that told Scarlette Lee to walk away from a financially rewarding career and pursue her dream of making a name for herself in the art world. Despite having climbed the corporate ladder at rapid pace, she felt the need to strike out on her own and begin a second career in promoting Malaysian Contemporary art as an investment. A decade spent in the systematic and well-structured pharmaceutical line had become a little too rigid, and she sought to push back the boundaries of the art world.The pharmaceutical trade’s loss had become the art world’s gain.

Although it was a bit of a gamble, lee found the courage to forgo the security of her nine-to-five job and venture into a field that offered no guarantee. Armed with her sales and marketing experience and her MBA, the pharmacist set up Core Design Gallery, which functions as a contemporary art gallery and a design workshop. Her leap of faith was also fuelled by her passion for art and her strong belief that Malaysian contemporary art is of an international standard.

“I loved my job and I did well[in my first career]”,she says. “By the age of 23, I was already a manager. When i was 32, there was this nudging for me to go into the art world. I am glad that I have taken my 10 years of corporate experience into this. I felt that i could push some company into[scaling] Mount Everest, I could push my own company all the way too. I didn’t leave the corporate world too early or too late. In the last two to three years, things have started to move [faster]on the art scene and now I am considered one of the pioneers in Malaysian contemporary art.

As the country matures and society becomes more affluent, the appreciation for contemporary art has begun to grow, and investing in art is taking root. There is a small but growing number of collectors in the country who invest in local artworks with the increased awareness of the quality of work by Malaysian artists. “It is actually getting strong nowadays”, says Lee. “When it comes to art, the perception is that people have to be a bit more intellectual [and profound] in their thinking before they can start appreciating art. Art is appreciated by a small percentage of people in the world, I would say only zero point zero, zero, something per cent [of the world’s population] is collecting art in a big way”.

Art Collectors turn to experts like Lee for advice, recommendation and authentication when it comes to making purchases while artists seek her help to get their work promoted. “We are art consultants for people who need this expertise”, she says. “Some of my collectors take it [art purchasing] as a profession as they are actually collecting art professionally. Some collectors have thousands of artworks, and some of the works are huge. Sometimes they are larger than my gallery. They would store them in a secret location. There are fewer than 10 of such collectors,but we are not only depending on them as they could get exhausted financially”.

According to CBS News, the international market for contemporary art has outperformed Standard & Poor’s list of 500 common stocks since 2003. Despite Europe’s morose economies, its art market has remained vibrant with auction houses like Christie’s reporting sales up to Euro 61.4 mil (RM291.05 mil) a month.

“Overseas, the auction value [of contemporary art] comes up to Euro 400 mil based on the art index”, says Lee. “This Euro 400 mil is just the auction figure; we have not talked about private dealings.
“Here in Malaysia, the collection of such data is dismal.[The estimate] In Malaysia is RM50 mil to RM80 mil.[The dealings by] just auction houses alone were RM10 mil plus, and we have not talked about purchases by private collectors, and private dealings between art collectors and private galleries. It is a self-sustaining industry. It has actually become very strong over the past three to four years, and we are seeing strong growth in auction houses. A painting can give you a few hundred or a thousand-fold return in value because it is the one and only piece in the world”.

While there are several gallerists and art consultants in the country, many of them deal with art from neighbouring countries. “I focus on contemporary art and it is very niche market. I think we are the only one at this moment that focuses 100% on Malaysian contemporary art. I think I am the only one dealing with Malaysian investment-grade artists”, says Lee, who finds there is a growing appreciation for Malaysian contemporary art among the younger generation too. She observes that the public has become more discerning and is beginning to differentiate between what she calls “supermarket art” and the real McCoy.

“If I were to spend that much money to buy a certain artwork, I might as well ensure that it has investment value as well”, she says.

“They may have started by liking certain pieces initially, but when they get deeper into it with more research, they see their value. Then they will look into it more seriously. “There are also art lovers who buy them as gifts. We are art consultants for people who need this expertise. In the last two or three years, there has been a huge rise in interest among the younger generation. I have artists with me whose art pieces were selling for RM3,000 three years ago, and now their works are going for RM20,000”.

Talent scouting in contemporary art is akin to looking for needle in haystack. Out of the hundreds of aspiring artists who present Lee with their works, only handfuls are selected for her gallery. And that is just the beginning as she needs to help them nurture their talent by intellectually stimulating them. To set them up as professionals, their artworks are catalogued, documented and certified. Their portfolio is prepared and she will then ensure that the artists she represents get publicity for their work.

“It’s like baby-sitting”, the art director says. “Some artists run from one-place to another. We are like a one-stop centre, and if anything happens to an artist, touch wood, you can still come back to me to check on the authenticity of his work”.

Ins separating the wheat form chaff, she has to sift through more than 100 artworks submitted by aspiring artists to identify those who can make the grade. Her selection criteria are the quality of the artist’s work, the level of his idea, and how conceptually strong he is. Normally, she will only find three artists who are worthy to be taken under her wing. However, the selection process goes beyond identifying a good piece of work as she needs to understand the artist and his attitude as well. An early promise can amount to nothing if an artist decides to quit the art scene and take on a regular job. “He can paint well, but if he gives up two years later and becomes a salesman, all his works can be thrown away as they don’t have any investment value anymore “,Lee Says.

The selected emerging artists will be groomed into mid-career ones, and the most successful ones will grow into blue-chip artists. “I have represented over 100 artists, but not all are stars. To get a really talented artist, a star, is really rare. That only comes once in five to 10 years. Initially, they may not seem like a star but they may grow into one”.
She likens investing in art to buying shares, where you buy low and hope to sell high. It is the works of the blue-chip and mid-career artist that get snapped up fast. One particular work by Ali Nurazmal Yusoff was sold when it was only 50% ready. “He challenged himself to do the old masters’ works, and the beauty is that he uses freehand, no tracing lines. He injected himself into the painting, so it is a fusion of Western and Eastern. He didn’t use a projector, and it took him 1 and a half years to do this. It was the most photographed piece when I brought it to an art expo, and many newspapers covered it. This piece went for RM60,000”, says Lee.

Ali Nurazmal interpreted Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s The Calling of Saint Matthew, and he added a self-portrait in his piece called Imitation Master After Caravaggio II. However, outright forgery of the works of Malaysian blue-chip artists has happened. “You will be amazed that there is forging of works of Malaysian blue-chip artists “, Lee says. “When you want to buy works of blue-chip artists, we can check with the artist if they are authentic. The forgers do a good work, but the strokes will run a bit, and only an expert eye can spot it. We prefer to deal with artists whom we are familiar with. If someone were to ask us to verify a painting bought from outside the country, we wouldn’t be able to help”. Despite the quality of Malaysian contemporary art, they are still sold at a lower price compared with the works of international artists. “Malaysian art is still very cheap”, Lee says. “If you were to buy from an international auction house, the amount could be over a million. Many people don’t realise that the quality of Malaysian contemporary art is of that level – the recognition is just not there. Unfortunately, our promotion is not world class”.

It is left to gallerists like Lee to carry the torch for Malaysian contemporary art as she strives to create awareness of its quality through various channels. “If I can push Malaysian contemporary art to that level, I will be known as the face of Malaysian contemporary art. I want to be the first gallerist to bring a true representation of Malaysian contemporary art overseas “, says the art director who inspires to be like Philippe Se’galot, a world-renowned art consultant and private dealer.

At the meantime, she has been digging into her savings over the last two years to fund this dream for herself and the Malaysian contemporary art community. “When I left the pharmaceutical line I didn’t give myself the option of going back”, she says. Her success will be Malaysian contemporary art’s triumph.


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