Bank Negara Museum in Malaysia houses a large and eclectic private collection.
After fifty years of collecting artwork, Bank Negara Malaysia (BNM) continues to nurture local artists and young talents as well as play a vital role in stimulating the Malaysian art market. The Bank Negara Museum and Art Gallery, which opened to the public in May 2012, holds the collection’s 2,000 works.
Art collection gets new home
For the past fifty years, Bank Negara Malaysia has upheld its mission to be a continuing patron of the arts. This is accomplished by nurturing new talents and supporting established artists in Malaysia. Bank Negara’s second governor, Tun Ismail Ali, began the collection in 1962. Ismail was a strong supporter of Malaysian artists and he encouraged local financial institutions to collect art.
In May 2012, the private collection moved to its new home, BNM’s Sasana Kijang building in Kuala Lumpur. Surrounded by lush greenery and famous memorials of Malaysia’s past prime ministers, the new BNM museum consists of three art gallery spaces that house the permanent art collection as well as temporary exhibits.
BNM’s private collection to date includes 2,000 pieces of art, the majority of which are paintings and sculptures by Malaysian artists and a few ASEAN artists. Some key pieces in the collection are
- Beach Beauty, Mohd Hossein Enas, 1961
- Rubber Tapper, Yee Chin Ming, 1960
- Warrior, Mohd Taquddin Bahro
- Sembahyang, Yong Look Lam, 1996
- Siri Catur IV, Zulkifli Yusof, 1989
- “Construction Series: The Living Space of the Materialist Dwellers”, Choy Chun Wei, 2003
- Snow Landscape or Car Parking, Ibrahim Hussein, 1963
- Banjir Kuala Lumpur, Hossein Enas, 1971
- Storm Riders, Mad Anuar Ismail, 1990
- Demon, Latiff Mohidin, 1965
How best to represent a nation?
According to Museums and Gallery Director, Lucien de Guise, the BNM collection focuses on what is representative of the country at the time. Acquiring new artworks is a continuous, democratic process: the BNM Museum and Gallery listens to the suggestions of anyone who has a passion for art and the direction of the collection. Says de Guise,
It could be a security guard, it could be somebody like the deputy governor or the governor. If people have a suggestion, we will listen to it and do a bit of our own research and take it from there. So its an inclusive process.
Some artworks in the collection have been acquired through international auction houses, which is an important strategy for the gallery, as de Guise elaborates,
There are some individuals who don’t have much confidence in auction houses, especially as they are quite a new phenomenon in Malaysia, but it does create a bit of a transparency in the market which is useful, and we’re quite happy to participate in the auction scene. … That’s quite fair because part of what the bank wants to do, as well as the gallery, is to stimulate the art market.
A small percentage of the artworks in the collection were donated by the artists that made them.
New media art not included
There is, however, a gap in the BNM collection: a lack of contemporary art pieces that use new technology as a media. The challenges associated with these works has resulted in BNM opting out on collecting such works. According to de Guise,
To some extent we would not be doing the nation a service if we bought things that the public tends to instinctively dislike. We tend to look at works that people will enjoy and understand. We are not out to shock; we don’t want to seem as excessively avant garde. We want to be representative of what is being created in the country [and] that might occasionally exclude some sectors.
Public exhibition key to engagement
Celebration of five decades of art
To celebrate fifty years of their collection, BNM presented to the public its art collection through the exhibition “Then and Now: 50th Anniversary of the Bank Negara Malaysia“, which ran from March to September 2012.
Displayed according to decades, the artworks chosen, which were all by Malaysian artists, were thought by the curators to represent art production at that time.
- Hossein Enas
- Yee Chin Ming
- Nik Zainal Abidin
- Zainal Awang
- Wong Nai Chin
- Tay Mo Leong
- Ismail Latiff
- M. Zain
- Abdullah Abu Hassan
- Din Omar
- Ramlan Abdullah
- Jalaini Abu Hassan
The gallery also hosts numerous temporary exhibitions each year.
From insects to Austrian art
A highlight in 2012 was “Serangga” by Latiff Mohidin. After a five year absence from the Malaysian art scene, Mohidin, one of Malaysia’s most prominent artists for the past six decades, returned with a solo exhibition at BNM in November 2012. Composed of 33 mixed media pieces on Tibetan paper, Serangga explored the world of insects, which were illustrations for the translated version of Johann Wolfgang’s von Goethe’s Faust. Mohidin was one of the first artists collected by Bank Negara. Since then, several more artworks have been added to the collection, including the acclaimed “Pago-Pago” series (circa 1964 to 1969).
Another temporary exhibition, held in November 2012, was “Two Worlds: Different Points of Viewing”, which commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of diplomatic affiliation between Malaysia and Austria. The exhibition showcased works by four contemporary artists from Malayasia and six from Austria, among them Aminah Abu Rahman, Nasir Baharuddin, Charlotte Wiesmann and Erich Spindler.
Not just about artists: collectors important, too
Aside from collecting works by local established and master artists, BNM is also aiming to step up their engagement with Malaysia’s emerging artists.
Buying for enjoyment, not investment
In May 2012, BNM gallery held a selling exhibition of artworks by some of the best students from thirty Malaysian art schools. To ensure the art was affordable for new collectors, all the works had their price capped at RMB3,000, although most sold for around RMB1,000. Entitled “Anonymous”, the art exhibition was part of an initiative to make local art accessible and affordable, as well as to promote and stimulate the Malaysian art industry.
The gallery will continue to expand on this project in the years to come, as there was a lot of interest from the public. As de Guise states, there is too much of a gulf between people going to IKEA and buying a poster and the very small numbers of serious collectors that go to auctions and galleries.
We like to have some middle ground there. The public discovered that [there is] a very un-intimidating atmosphere at our new gallery space. There was no pressure and we tried to make it as pleasant as possible, just so that they could see that it was possible that they can buy art at a reasonable price, not as an investment, just as something preferable to a mass produced print.
Exhibition at early age
Occasionally, as a way of providing exposure for students living outside of Kuala Lumpur, the gallery shows artwork by artists who are still at secondary school. As de Guise explains,
We have seen a lot of talent shown in the art departments of secondary schools. One of my dreams is to approach every single secondary school, whether it’s local or international, every one that has an art department, and try and encourage young talent, as young as 13 or 14. One suspects when one is in quite remote parts of Malaysia that [students] have very little access to an audience or anyone that might take an interest in their work. We could perhaps stimulate their interests a bit and perhaps even their own families will take them more seriously if their works can be included in an art show here or somewhere similar to here.
Collection stays with bank
BNM will continue to engage younger artists as well as collecting historical works, with no major changes in direction expected in the near future. As de Guise notes,
I think the emphasis here is not to include what is important but what is relevant, useful or appealing, and I think that that is something that the public can identify with because this is reflective of the public.
As for their collection, Tan Sri Zeti Akhtar, the governor of Bank Negara, stated at a 2012 press conference held during the launch of the “Two Worlds” exhibition that all the artworks will be part of the permanent collection for life and will never be sold.
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