Size Does Matter

Two thousand and seven, for a businessman and arts collector like myself, was noteworthy arts-wise because of two interesting, uncommon and comparable art exhibitions — “Art For Grabs” organized by The Annexe, Central Market, and “Art Around RM1,000” organised by Valentine Willie Fine Arts (VWFA).

The Annexe programme director Pang Khee Teik, who was the main mover behind “Art for Grabs”, was ecstatic over the exhibition’s success.

“We had for sale really affordable art which anyone with a modest income could hope to acquire, especially since the prices of most items were capped at RM100.”

The pricing of RM100 and below is indeed attractive to first timers who are out to own their very first piece of art, and for those who have tight budgets. Sure, there are bound to be examples of kitsch thrown in masquerading as art but then there are those who maintain that kitsch is an art form in itself, so who am I to argue?

I asked Pang point blank; what sort of art was available at RM100? “My photographs,” came the reply.

He continues: “But seriously, you could get small-ish paintings or sculptures. At that price, what matters most is aesthetics, not exclusivity or rarity.”

Pricing factors

But this brings to mind a recent Christmas dinner conversation I had with a “listed” Malaysian artist (let’s call him M to avoid annoying the commercial galleries which promote his paintings).

M was not very happy with the way commercial galleries priced his art: “Some of my best paintings were under-priced because they were smaller in size. It was almost as if they were pricing everything by the square foot and not by complexity, materials used, intrinsic quality or aesthetics, which should have been the proper criteria for pricing. I completely disagree with this horrible practice which is found in most galleries in KL.”

VWFA’s “Art Around RM 1,000” was actually eclipsed by an exhibition of one of their regular artists’ paintings. The VWFA management spent more time taking me to meet the artist concerned and explaining his paintings to me rather than focusing on the “poorer” cousin, “Art Around RM 1,000”.

What about “Art Around RM 1,000”? The 60-odd items on display were shunted to a small side room and that gave me the distinct impression that VWFA did not believe that there was any worthwhile art in that price range. I noted that the exhibits were priced between RM300 and RM1,800. I expected art to be priced between RM700 and RM1,300 but the RM1,500 variance took me completely by surprise.

The pricing also seemed to be dictated by size, but in any event, that is the yardstick employed by VWFA as confirmed by one of their staff. Like Godzilla and King Kong, size does matter to galleries!

K, another well-known artist friend had this to say: “It is ridiculous to buy art from galleries. Come buy from me at my home. I can give any serious collector 40% off the gallery RRP (recommended retail price) and for my friends I can do a 50% discount or maybe a little more. I have almost withdrawn most of my paintings from galleries and prefer to deal with my customers directly.”

Ouch! Round One goes to The Annexe.

Priced for whom?

To quote the upbeat Pang: “From the response, we hope to make this a quarterly event in 2008. The public loved the event as it was extremely accessible and no one felt out of place.”

Just as local galleries could be accused of over-pricing art, could The Annexe now be accused of promoting under-priced art?

I seriously doubt it. Most Malaysian artists have a hard time getting people to buy their works. “Art For Grabs” is thus a fantastic platform for artists. And it is not just artwork but the entire experience of visiting an art gallery which is made available to the public, where “Art for Grabs” is concerned.  Having a flea market atmosphere helps a lot! How many of you walk into sterile commercial galleries on an impulse? Most people I know are uncomfortable about doing so as they feel they would not be able to afford the art displayed there. Don’t let’s start on the subtle snobbishness they are likely to encounter there.

The commercial galleries, by virtue of their being business concerns, only have the bottom-line in mind and so, they seldom take a chance on an unknown artist. The same goes for artforms — such as photography and abstract art — which suffer from a low public perception of the skill level required to produce works of these genres; few local galleries dare to promote them.

One could say that all these “alienated” artists and artworks have stand a better chance at being displayed and being collected at an artspace like The Annexe. At the very least, artist and artwork will get more of the much-needed exposure to the public. And who knows, collectors may begin to notice them and start to seriously collect their works. And in time, this higher demand will drive up the artworks’ prices and the artists’ income.

By contrast, commercial galleries would be the least interested in promoting affordable art for the masses, for reasons already stated or implied above. So, to all who wish to attend the next Art For Grabs: good hunting!


First Published: 31.12.2007 on Kakiseni

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