Booming sales and record prices underscore the growth of the art trade
THE third Henry Butcher art auction in May raked in sales of over RM4 million, compared to more than RM3 million last year and RM1.7 million the previous year. Though art auctions always get publicity because of the record-setting prices -- RM572,000 for Pago-Pago Forms by Latiff Mohidin last year, and RM797,500 for Ibrahim Hussein's Red, Orange and Core this year -- the fact is that the local art market has been vibrant for some time now. The second Art Expo Malaysia held in 2008 registered a turnover of RM5.3 million, followed by sales of RM5.6 million in 2009 and RM11 million in 2010. To be sure, the works sold do not come close to the US$120 million (RM379 million) paid for The Scream by Norwegian artist Edvard Munch at Sotheby's auction in New York in May. Nevertheless, the sales at the art auction, expo and galleries offer "proof that Malaysian art can be sold as a tourist attraction", as Tourism Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ng Yen Yen said at the opening of the Langkawi edition of the 1Malaysia Contemporary Art Festival on Sunday.
This view of art as a tourism "product" and Malaysia as an art tourism "destination" may not sit well with those who believe that art should not become a commodity to earn foreign exchange or making objects for the rich to hang on their walls. However, the fact is that the world of art has always been populated not only by artists but also by dealers, collectors, galleries, museums and auction houses supporting the artists and promoting their work. In this sense, the trade in art is an integral fact in the life and work of an artist. The art market is certainly not about painting pretty pictures to sell to tourists. At the very high end, they are iconic works and masterpieces. So, in this sense, there is nothing wrong with tapping into the popularity of Malaysian art and incorporating the 54 art galleries in the tour packages.
That said, however, this should not exclude looking at art as cultural property and not just as a tourism product. This seems particularly appropriate as Pago-Pago has been declared a "national heritage". In which case, as this is not the name of a painting but a series of paintings, it is a cause for concern that many have ended up in private or foreign collections which are not accessible to Malaysians. So, while an open, liberal policy may have boosted art tourism, we may yet rue the fact that buying artworks in Malaysia is tax- and hassle-free.