Shining a Spotlight on Malaysian Art
Gallery Director Scarlette Lee shares her love for the Contemporary Arts Scene in Malaysia
With art etched in her heart, Scarlette Lee turned her back on the pharmaceutical line in 2010 to pursue her interest in contemporary art, alongside her architect husband Chun Hooi Tan. The duo left their corporate lifestyles to establish Core Design Gallery, a boutique art and design gallery championing Malaysian contemporary art and its artists.
Envisioning herself running an art gallery since her corporate days, Lee used to take on voluntary jobs as an artist’s agent to promote local artists and find platforms to showcase their works. That was when she realised that the art industry was more challenging than she expected, but she persevered through passion.
HOW DID YOU COME TO THE DECISION TO START CORE DESIGN GALLERY? WHAT VISION DID YOU HAVE IN MIND?
I have always had an interest in art but it took me a few years to understand what contemporary art is about. When we decided to start the company, contemporary art was not a big word. With my appreciation for art and Chun’s deep passion for design and creativity as a design architect, we began to visualise the new place as not just a home, but also a creative design studio and an art gallery – a platform showcasing our local talents in art. We spent all our savings on remodelling the old linked house that we bought and created a space that we dreamt of.
With Chun’s background in architecture and my enthusiasm in art appreciation, we envisioned that Core Design Gallery would become a meeting place for both art and design, which it is today.
WHAT’S THE STORY BEHIND THE NAME OF THE COMPANY?
When we started the company, we knew the long journey ahead would have obstacles and distractions. Since it was the first time for both of us to run our own business, we wanted something to keep reminding us of the value of our work. Core would constantly give us directions from within ourselves, rather than just following the path society expects.
HOW DID YOU DECIDE ON FUNCTIONS AND SERVICES THAT CORE DESIGN WOULD BE PROVIDING?
When we started Core Design Gallery, and later, the space we created, we knew very clearly that the space would be for art and design, and the two elements represent the passions of both Chun and I.
DID YOU EVER GET DOUBTFUL LOOKS FROM PEOPLE FOR BEING INVOLVED PRIMARILY IN THE ARTS?
Yes, but it was within our expectations. We knew our position, even at the beginning. We started from a very small space, one that was not just a gallery but also a design studio and home. However, from the very beginning we had faith in creativity, and it was with creativity that we re-modelled the space, set ourselves differently and independently from others.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR PERSONALITIES, AND DOES IT AFFECT THE WAY YOU MANAGE YOUR WORK?
We both have rather different personalities towards work. I am a planner while he is the executer. At times we switch roles of course, but I believe that the differences in our personalities have resulted in the best combination, giving a sense of balance when establishing and operating the gallery.
IS THERE A QUOTE OR STORY THAT INSPIRES WHEN YOU ARE FRUSTRATED OR DISAPPOINTED WITH WORK?
“We are brought to this life to learn” is our philosophy. Since the journey of life is about learning as much as possible, frustration and disappointment are simply inevitable on this journey.
WHAT IS THE CORE PHILOSOPHY OF YOUR WORK?
We believe our work comes from our passion. We do not find a balance between our work and our lives, because to us, our work is our life. We enjoy our work and in return, we enjoy life.
HOW DO YOU FIND ARTISTS TO BE FEATURED AT THE GALLERY?
Initially, we looked for artists on social media. Admittedly, it’s not easy to find good artists. It takes a lot to find the cream of the crop. It is not just about the visuals or the talent, but also about the attitude and struggles of the artist. Sometimes it makes a lot of sense to say the artist needs to struggle for at least five years with no regular income, before the artist in him emerges. Now that Core is more established, we have artists coming to us.
CAN YOU TELL US MORE ABOUT CORE GALLERY’S FEATURED ARTISTS?
We feature works from Malaysians from different cultures and backgrounds. Among them include critically-acclaimed Ali Nurazmal, whose ReALISM works have elements of culture, the landscape of nature and socio-politics, the essence of Malaysia. Another is emerging artist Haafiz Shahimi who uses the chemical burn technique. Shooshie Sulaiman is an up and coming artist in the international art scene, known for her minimalistic yet nationalistic pieces.
WHAT IS THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE YOU FACE IN YOUR BUSINESS?
Most businesses would say the challenge lies in the cash flow, but for us it’s not just a business. Chun and I believe that we are moving the whole Malaysian contemporary art industry to be recognised first by our own people, Malaysians, to eventually being recognised internationally. We believe in building the base here, coming up with the art infrastructure, with art managers, art dealers, art agents, and production houses. We need a proper museum for Malaysian contemporary art. That is the biggest challenge – to set up a whole industry that believes in it.
DO YOU HAVE ANY FAVOURITE MALAYSIAN ARTISTS? WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ABOUT MALAYSIAN ARTISTS IN GENERAL?
I don’t have any favourites but there are a select few who are of a certain calibre. Some of them are blue chip artists, or emerging artists who make you want to start looking at them. We try to feature such artists at our gallery. I think Malaysian artists are very daring and creative. They are not confined to doing certain things and are always looking to express themselves in different ways. While modernist works are important, the younger generation needs to be highlighted.
HOW DOES CORE GALLERY DRIVE ART FURTHER TO THE MALAYSIAN PUBLIC?
One of the ways we do it is through the Great Malaysia Contemporary Art Show (GMCA), a platform to showcase selected Malaysian contemporary artists with works that are of critical value and museum quality.
The curated exhibition was first created in 2013, and is a catalogue of A-Listers in the country’s contemporary art scene. This has never been done before. Malaysians were never proud of their art but now people remember it, and they have greater awareness of local contemporary artists. We also hope to take GMCA to international art fairs.
Published by: PILLARS Magazine – Malaysia SME
Publication Issue: May 14th – May 27th 2016