Malaysia Airlines recently turned its Golden Lounge into an art gallery of sorts. Rachel Jenagaratnam takes a peek
AT airports, the luckier among us have access to special airline lounges, where all manner of amenities await to ward off the discomforts of travelling. And at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport, these perks are available at Malaysia Airlines International Satellite Golden Lounge, where they’ve recently added a new type of customer experience — an art gallery.
In collaboration with the visionary arts management team from MAP@Publika, Malaysian artworks are now showcased across the space, giving customers a snippet of the country’s cultural side before their flights take them beyond her physical borders.
“The lounge has been here since the opening of KLIA in 1998,” explains head of Customer Experience, Datuk Mohd Salleh Ahmad Tabran, at the Golden Lounge’s spacious lobby where we meet. Guests are wheeling in their cabin luggage, checking-in at the desk with Malaysia Airlines staff in their classic kebaya uniforms and around us, artworks are lined up on otherwise bare white walls, awaiting a curious glance or close inspection.
Mohd Salleh adds that the move to update the lounge was a long time coming. Malaysia Airlines had left this cloistered space untouched for 13 years before deciding a facelift was due. And the choice of incorporating an art element into the rejuvenation process was natural. “One of the ideas we had to enhance the overall feel and comfort of this lounge was to use it as a platform to promote Malaysian artworks and artists,” he explains.
Needless to say, it was necessary to get a partner for the effort, and that’s how MAP@Publika came into the picture. At the helm of all arts and culture efforts with the public in mind, the team is led by architects Nani Kahar and Peter Kiernan as well as key staff, like Alex Yong and Ong Jo-Lene.
“We were fortunate enough to find a partner like MAP@Publika, which share the same view and appreciation of art,” Mohd Salleh says, adding that it is a totally collaborative effort between the two parties.
Points must be given to both teams for coming up with this tactical manoeuvre. Passengers-in-transit don’t have the option of leaving the terminal and it’s a crafty way of bringing the gallery to them. While waiting, they can walk around and admire the artworks on display and the other obvious boon is right before their eyes — it’s a quick and sure way of making the lounge more beautiful. “MAS have provided a very good infrastructure for the arts here,” MAP@Publika’s Nani says.
The other main goal according to Malaysia Airlines, is to introduce Malaysian art to a different audience, both international and local. It was a conscious choice to leverage on the type of passenger who walks through their Golden Lounge’s doors — business folk and those generally more well-heeled — as they want to give Malaysian art the shot of being seen by some rather distinguished viewers.
CORPORATE SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY
MAP@Publika will be on board for an initial one-year term, and while the pilot showcase only involves galleries from the Publika development in Solaris Dutamas, there are later plans to expand the reach to others in and beyond Kuala Lumpur.
Currently on display are 33 artworks by three galleries from Publika: R.A. Fine Arts, Galeri Chandan and MAP itself. And the selection is decent, covering artworks from the 1970s to present.
Senior artists include Yusof Gajah and the late Ahmad Khalid Yusof and there are plenty of Rafiee Abdul Ghani paintings brightening up the space, and Donald Abraham — one of the younger local artists du jour — has quirky paintings on show.
In the lounge’s Platinum Suite, there’s an Ismail Mat Hussin batik painting that takes centre stage, proffering a veritable contrast between our cultural heritage and the sprawling views of the tarmac and aircrafts before it. Curiously, there are also three Yusof Ghani paintings on display. Known as a popular bet among local collectors, these works come from the artist’s Topeng series with prices ranging from US$18,500 (RM57,900) to US$20,000.
Choong Kam Kow’s Tai Chi series vies for attention nearby.
The most expensive painting on show at the moment is a 1979 painting by Mustapha Ibrahim, priced at RM250,000. It’s a steep figure but it’s one that guarantees you a seminal artwork by a former Anak Alam artist, whose oeuvre has been fairly reserved.
So as far as art commerce goes, it’s clearly good pickings at the moment. But even so, the sales element is done inconspicuously at the lounge — only small signs by the paintings indicate that the paintings are for sale.
Indeed, Malaysia Airlines’ representatives point out one crucial element to the whole arrangement — all sales of the artworks on display get channelled back to the artists and galleries involved, and not a single sen goes into the airlines’ coffers. “We do not profit at all,” Mohd Salleh says, keen to confirm that this is a 100 per cent CSR effort from the airlines.
Naturally, the subject of Malaysia Airlines’ exorbitant purchase of Fernando Botero paintings in 2005 comes up. It was an investment that caused quite a stir in the local media as the paintings were bought at a time when the airlines was facing financial hardship. The Malaysian art community wasn’t too pleased either and many argued that the money should have been spent investing in works by local artists.
However, it’s a question that the airlines’ representatives remained fairly tight-lipped about. And they’re clearly keen to move away from that picture, almost a decade down the line. “Today, we are really positioning artworks that don’t belong to us, the artworks of top Malaysian artists,” Mohd Salleh says, noting that Malaysia Airlines’ own art collection is housed at their headquarters at Sultan Abdul Aziz Shah Airport, Subang.
Could this be Malaysia Airlines extending a long-awaited olive branch to the art community? We’ll see. In the pipelines for now are further plans to incorporate more art into the airlines’ efforts. They also have plans to feature artworks in displays on their key aircrafts — the new Airbus A380, in particular.
“The next step is to work with MAP@Publika to identify selected artworks and have these reproduced in the form of prints,” explains Mohd Salleh of the latter plan. “It will be the highest art gallery in the world,” Nani says.
ART FOR ALL?
All these bode well for local artists — artworks being exposed to a wider audience beyond the confines of the city, and later, artworks literally soaring to greater heights. And on-ground, there is buzz being created for the artworks.
“It’s good that it (the art) generates various types of conversation among different individuals,” Mohd Salleh says.
Malaysia Airlines moving in this direction is a good example of corporate patronage for the arts. However, the one obvious downfall about this arrangement is the exclusivity of the lounge. No first class or business class ticket? Then no sauntering in for a look-see. No payment to use the lounge’s facilities? Then you’ll have to settle for the view outdoors.
All things considered, KLIA isn’t a bad spot for travellers, but it is a shame that this effort hasn’t been extended elsewhere in the airport yet. May Malaysia Airlines Holdings Berhad follow suit and offer display opportunities for local art works, too?
Malaysia Airlines’ move is about making art all the more public and the public — well-heeled or not — are getting just that. The future looks promising, too. “Next round, we may feature more artists from Sabah and Sarawak. We want to be more inclusive in terms of where they (the artists) come from in the country,” Mohd Salleh adds.
A true glimpse of Malaysia through her art? Hopefully. To bring Malaysian artists beyond our local borders, there is value in exposing their arts to a wider audience. And as for Malaysians who are already in the habit of collecting, well, I believe many of those key pieces are still up for grabs. Time to check-in, perhaps?