on money and art

A recent visit to Bank Negara Museum and Gallery led me to think about the relationship between money and art within our national art institutions.

Recently, I was working on a project at Bank Negara Museum & Gallery. While literally waiting for paint to dry (my humble task that day), I decided to walk around the museum, which I’d never visited before. As I made my way through its halls that day and as I began to get deeper into the project that week, I started becoming more cynical about the purpose of art and its institutions. 

When I first arrived at BNMAG, I was duly amazed by how stunning it looks from the outside, all well-kept lawns and black tiered fountains and glass facades. In the middle of the museum is a spiral staircase, much like the one at Balai, which is supposed to be like the one at the Guggenheim?, and so from the third floor where I worked, I could lean over the banister and survey portions of the floors below. The first and second floors are the dedicated “museum” sections of the place:  there is a section on the history of islamic finance, a section on the history of money, and a section on the history of the bank. The third floor is the space dedicated to temporary art exhibitions.

I skipped the first floor because I’m not interested. On the second floor, there was an exhibition showing the collection of Tun Ismail Mohamed Ali, the first governor of Bank Negara. The exhibition space dedicated to Tun Ismail is split into half: half the space showed his collection, and the other half showed a tiny museum of his life. 

One of the first works displayed was a reproduction of a mural by Syed Ahmad Jamal, commissioned for the Bank Negara headquarters. It was a beautiful piece of design that utilised a nice black-silver-gold colour scheme. And though it was a reproduction, the print didn’t turn out half bad. I was reminded of another set of murals commissioned for a bank: the four murals on the exterior of the OCBC bank next to Masjid Jamek LRT station. Like those, the piece by S.A.J shows clearly the conditions of its commission. It’s beautiful, but it’s boring. It’s beautiful, but it’s commissioned by a bank. Like those, the metaphoric and expressionistic possibilities of art are hijacked by the shallowness of profit. I was struck by how poor art becomes when called to the impossible task of beautifying the circulation of capital. 

I continued through the gallery. The collection of works is fine. The show had no curation, and no point for curation. He bought art. Here is the art that he bought. It’s not that I am opposed to the practice of art collection—if this man had been my friend, and I’d met him at his home, and he’d walked me through his art collection, I wouldn’t have minded. What I minded, here, is how clearly the whole exhibition served to flaunt a single individual’s wealth, subsequently making the bank look good by association. What I minded was that a building calling itself an art institution would put the art of various talented artists in the base service of glamorising the collector who bought their work.

The art collection moved into a small museum of his life. On one of the walls was a big questionnaire-style poster detailing the specificities of his life. His skin colour: “sun-browned.” Another wall was dedicated to a yearly timeline of his life and achievements. There was a vitrine of his possessions and a replica of his study. Above the vitrine, there was a mosaic of lightboxes with bite-sized facts about the man himself. He liked dark colours and enjoyed western classical music. 

The various fun facts I learned about Tun Ismail Ali

I’m irritated at the shallowness of what art has become, especially on an institutional level, but the practice, while uniquely shallow on BNMAG’s part, is not exactly uncommon in the art world, nor is it a uniquely “Malaysian” failure. All over the world, the money that is financing art institutions is coming from big petroleum companies (such as Petronas), banks, or otherwise exploitative organisations. I brought this up with a friend, who argued that art being financed by banks and corporations have nothing to do with the quality of a gallery, since this practice is a given in the art world. The Tate was financed by BP; the Whitney Museum is chaired by the CEO of an arms company; the Met, Guggenheim, and the National Portrait Gallery in London were sponsored by the pharmaceutical Sackler family, accused of creating the opioid crisis in America; and what about Saadiyat Island being built out in Abu Dhabi, a city infamous for its brutal labour practices? These big boys are considered exciting and dynamic art destinations that set a standard followed by many other, smaller art institutions and galleries the world over. So the only conclusion left to be made seems to be that Malaysians are just shit at giving a shit, but (call me naive), it’s a conclusion I’m still holding out on making.

Do the Tate, Whitney, the Met, the plutocrats of Abu Dhabi, etc., etc., genuinely care about art more than we do, or are they just more experienced in beautifying their money trail? The failure of Malaysia to live up to its own delusions of grandeur has always been an area of interest in my writing. Under the influence of corporations and capital, art is reduced to a “high-brow” medium for either flaunting or obscuring one’s wealth.The Tun Ismail Ali “exhibition” has made me think our art institutions suffer from the former, but the latter is equally sinister. Malaysians are more crass, but in being so, the rift created by art and the money that finances it becomes clearer to see.

Advantages of Owning Your Own Art Museum, Guerrilla Girls, 2016 

Malaysian money is uncultured and new and Asian and therefore excited to show off. We’re not like our European colonisers who have a history of art. Because of this, galleries such as Bank Negara’s are not properly curated or project managed, because the point of art, for us, is still a way to show off wealth. We haven’t reached the point of development yet where we’ve manipulated ourselves to believe that the point of art is to change people’s minds, or broaden horizons, or whatever. A museum and gallery is simply what is done when one is a bank or corporation: everyone in the West seems to have them. So the gallery staff are either not properly trained to care, or have been conditioned into indifference. The artworks suffer under bad lighting and uneven walls unfit for a gallery. Artists are outsourced to line the walls in the same way that a contractor might be outsourced to paint them. The spaces end up having only the semblance of a gallery while being soulless and creatively, intellectually malnourished, like any child of wealth.

But it makes me upset, also, to buy into the ready tirade against the government and our national art institutions. Is the inefficiency and callousness of BNMAG a result of Malaysianness, or is it because it’s literally a gallery operated by a bank? Or put it another way, can you really expect anything more from galleries that are either constructed or majorly subsidised by banks and corporations, even if they hire “proper” staff who have a “background in arts”? Or put it another way: can the combination of art with exploitative capital power ever produce anything meaningful?

In Malaysia, donating an artwork to a national art institution is considered significant enough to warrant a tax deduction

Collectors can get a tax deduction by donating art to national art institutions, but the public fails to gain anything from their contribution when minimal effort is put into setting up the exhibitions or into enlightening the public on art. With the Tun Ismail Ali collection, we do not contemplate anything except for the fact of this single person’s career and his taste in art. When collectors donate their art collections, the public is afforded the chance to look at a work that would have otherwise remained in private view, but the possibilities of art are still limited to what one can gain by only looking at it. In Malaysia, these possibilities are hijacked by poor arts management, which is where my grief as a Project Manager arises, but I also don’t think art becomes better by producing better exhibitions. Producing sleek, interesting, and internationally-renown exhibitions is not the only way that an entity with a lot of fucking money can show its concern for the arts, if indeed they are truly invested.

Right now, I’m thinking about the Federal Art Project, a project under the Works Progress Administration that was created in Depression-era America. You would think that, given the current climate where the National Endowment for the Arts is facing termination under Trump’s America, surely a desperate, Depression-era America would have been even more likely to cut funding to the arts. And yet the Federal Art Project received 7% of funding from the WPA and continued to provide employment to artists, because it considered art production a legitimate field of work like any other. Under the Federal Art Project, artists were hired to create murals, paintings, and sculptures for public spaces and government buildings, along with being incentivised to painstakingly document an Index of American Design. From 1935 to 1943, over a hundred community art centres were set up to train young artists; the only costs these centres had to bear were material fees. Some of the artists supported by the Federal Art Project were Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko.

Poster for the Harlem Community Art Center, New York City, 1938 

Going back to the question of whether banks and corporations can ever work meaningfully with art and artists, I think we need to look beyond the success of exhibitions if we want to gauge amount of care. Sure, BP sponsors the Tate and they still put on stunning, globally-anticipated exhibitions, so why can’t Petronas Gallery or BNMAG be better? But to dilute care for the arts to the sleekness of an exhibition neglects to realise that this superficiality is the same factor that probably drove Bank Negara and Petronas to set up evidently pointless galleries in the first place.

Corporate sponsorship of the arts looks good. It allows corporations to have their names associated with something highbrow and cultured; it is an attraction that mystifies and distracts from the essentially base, exploitative, and frankly boring activities of capitalism at work. The difference between our Malaysian art institutions and Euro-American art institutions is that Malaysian art institutions don’t try hard enough to look good. The new money slipped out and revealed its coarse hometown accent.

Right now, all over the world but especially in Malaysia, accepting corporate funding for the arts is one of the best forms of funding available, if you’re lucky enough to get it. Many artists rely on corporate commissions and patronage. In Malaysia, the consequences of this seems to be that art suffers from a lack of care from being reduced to a vehicle for flaunting wealth. We suffer from commissions that produce boring art and do not exhaust the full capacities of artists. Gallery exhibitions and public programmes that are executed as formalities rather than out of any real interest. On a wider scale, the consequence is that we are always stuck in a contradiction where art fails to reflect the world we live in. The domain of art is relegated to the domain of looking, but not necessarily impacting: the domain of art fairs, biennales, galleries, ever glossier and exciting “shows”.

In an article for The Guardian, Michelle Wright puts forward a fear that if one becomes too involved with tracing and subsequently protesting the money that funds the arts, then our art institutions will start to die out. Corporate funding is already on the wane, as corporations turn to funding services they consider more obviously beneficial to the public, like charities, education, or health services, where its members aren’t encouraged so much to ~express themselves~. I understand. I obviously understand, and I obviously want all the people passionate in the arts—artists, curators, and the other people like me who work for them—to continue having the funding to do what they love. But I’m not sure how long art can live within the contradiction before artists and the general public just become tired and cynical of what art can achieve. The argument against not making things “political” is the argument that art for art’s sake is possible—is the only art possible—and I’m just not sure how tenable this argument is. If you can’t stop people from trying to express themselves, then there are two options for deadening the noise: you can censor them, or you can disempower the institutions in which they express themselves, make these places irrelevant to the general public’s daily lives, so that the force of their art stops short at the eyes and does no further damage. This is art for art’s sake, incapable of meaning.

I think the Federal Art Project was getting at something, even if it had to be forcefully born out of desperation. It’s possible for art to be transformed into something a bit more democratic and meaningful, especially if we have the faith to believe in its capacity to be so. I just want to think a bit more complexly about art, and money, and exploitation. Of what art can do beyond just looking good and enabling a screen for money to disappear. 

In writing this piece, I aimed to consider the ways that corporate galleries fail art in Malaysia, but I also wanted to go a bit deeper and question the involvement of exploitative and oppressive industries within the arts on a wider scale. To blame the failures of Bank Negara Museum and Gallery on Malaysianness and the government doesn’t go far enough, for me, in interrogating the role of banks and corporations in the arts. It doesn’t do enough to answer to the gap between what art relies on, and what art purports to achieve.

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