Covid-19 Exclusives: Will the Market for Art Ever be the Same Again?

loading Kim Ng's installation work at the ongoing Rimbun Dahan artist's residency in Kuang.

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BRICK-AND-MORTAR art galleries are hugely impacted by the novel coronavirus pandemic because of the lockdown and the consequent economic crunch.

Poster of Wei-Ling Galleries' webinar, What Makes ART Powerful?

A few galleries had reported zilch sales since the Movement Control Order (MCO) on March 18, and which has since been extended four times till June 9. KL’s Segaris Art Centre chief executive officer Nizam Rahmat says that sales had been down by more than 50%, which, however, is still not that bad since galleries are struggling to devise strategies to stay viable and relevant. News that the reputed Chan+Hori Gallery at Gillman Barracks in Singapore had shuttered on June 30 is no salve.

Galeri Seni Mutiara’s manager-cum-artist Koay Soo Kau says his gallery in Armenian Street, Penang, had remained closed a few days after the opening of Murals Now And Then by Cavern Hoo Chee Few in March. He had then shelved subsequent exhibitions as he was busy preparing for the Pulo Pulo exhibition of northern artists scheduled at the National Art Gallery, KL, in April, involving 57 artists but which had been postponed indefinitely. Even a proposed show by Thai artist Subin Muangchan has been shelved.

His gallery has publicised its events online, complete with e-catalogues, but Koay, 74, plans to sit it out until his gallery doors can open again. Being a one-man show by dint of his passion to help fellow artists, he has no worker to pay, but he still needs to pay the monthly rentals.

“I spent the MCO period painting and restoring some of my old paintings,” he says.

Gallerist and restaurateur Vincent Tai, owner of the Dai-Ichi Art Space and Arte Restaurant in Penang, has been fine-tuning the food packaging and delivery at his restaurant since the cordon sanitaire. “I will skip doing physical gallery for a while, and do housekeeping and collections database (inventory) instead,” he says, adding that he is looking at the right platform, with flexibility and control to increase its online presence.

The 1st Prize painting by savant artist ArtJamila (Wan Jamila Wan Shaiful Bahri) in the Asian frontliners-themed poster competition organised by Artdialogo Asia. Well-wishers made cakes with edible image of ArtJamila's winning work to send to frontliners at the KL General Hospital and Sungai Buloh Hospital, on occasion of International Nurses Day.

Nizam, also an artist, reports that Segaris, with its umbrella representation of students mainly from Universiti Teknologi MARA spanning several generations, had ceased operations temporarily at its premises at MAP Publika in KL.

“Even under the conditional MCO, the footfall is low,” he says. “We are relying on our usual pool of collectors, but cannot reach out to new potential buyers.”

He says Segaris is strategising its penetration in social media like Instagram with more postings and interactions. “You will see growth in your fanbase by 15% to 20% based on the algorithm,” he explains.

With the stampede into online business, most galleries feel the need to do more than just publicising its exhibitions. They have adopted the PIE mantra, i.e. Promotion, Information and Education, as they need to create more awareness of artists, especially the emerging ones, and knowledge and understanding of art.

The established Wei-Ling Galleries, which has outlets in Brickfields and Mid-Valley Gardens (rooftop), ran a YouTube series plugging its portfolio of artists on its Facebook page. It also midwifed the Ivan Lam Charity Art Lottery, and its first webinar, What Makes ART Powerful?, with filmmaker Saw Teong Hin, Indonesian artist Dadang Christanto and Malaysia’s Yau Bee Ling (May 10). Wei-Ling Galleries is the only gallery with its own stable of artists. Three decades ago, Art Salon, now defunct, tried to buttonhole its artists, at least only for KL exhibitions, but failed.

Wei-Ling says that her galleries will still eventually run exhibitions when people mobility is eased but via appointments only, and of course with protocols like staggered viewings.

Galleries like G-13 and Artemis, the two most visible local outfits promoting artists in art fairs abroad, have increasingly turned to the internet as its exhibition platform.

Some say that with the proliferation of individual artists hogging the online platform to sell their works, they might dispense with the art-gallery system.

The husband-and-wife proprietors of Artemis, S. Jamal Al-Idrus and UC Loh, had on May 15 launched the Copenhagen-based Amir Zainorin’s COVID Surreality photoworks exhibition ( and also its online store. It was to have taken part in Art Moments in Jakarta, which has been postponed to a later date not yet firmed up.

G13’s May online showcase is Unseen Conn3Xion focusing on three artists namely Fadilah Karim, Shafiq Nordin and the Philippines’ Winner Jumalon (

A screenshot of the virtual 3D exhibition hosted by Patrice Vallette's Vallette Gallery in KL.

Art Moments and Art Jakarta have both been postponed, while SG Art, Singapore’s newly vaunted flagship fair, is postponed yet again for another year.

In Malaysia the giant casualties of Covid-19 are the KL Biennale (the second to be organised by the National Art Gallery), and the International Art Expo Malaysia (AEM), which would have its 14th edition.

The Henry Butcher Art Auctioneers will see its second auction for the year at a later date in August. Auctions are still a viable entity but more stringent vetting of lots is called for, if they are to entice collectors and investors to loosen their purse-strings in these trying times. At its first fully-online auction on March 15, it chalked up a creditable 58% success in sales topping RM2, 306, 952.

While online exhibitions are the new normal, or “abnormal”, Nizam stresses that nothing beats the personal approach in the “act of viewing and buying art, based on experiential values, like engagement with artists/collectors, gauging dimensions, (and) scrutinising tactile qualities.”

To that end, Frenchman Patrice Vallette of Vallette Gallery in KL, came up with a 3D virtual exhibition of Lim Kim Hai’s Harmony exhibition, which ran its course until the MCO. Access its site,, to find eye-friendly navigation of space, zoom-in to art works, and icons or tabs embedded with information.

Bayu Utomo Radjikin, a stalwart of the artist’s cooperative Matahati and art-repreneur of HOM Art Trans, also agrees that virtual exhibitions lack the impact of the real McCoy, and stresses that creating a strong mobile content is essential. HOM is known for its multi-pronged promotion of emerging young artists in exhibitions at home and abroad, residencies, competitions (MEA Award) and archival support. The MCO has, however, stymied all its plans.


A work by Faridah Karim in G13's online exhibition, Unseen Conn3xion.

With art sales grinding slower still, Bayu expects artworks under RM10,000 to be easier to sell, what with cash-strapped buyers looking for bargains. During the mid-1980s recession, gallerist and later, printmaker Rahime Harun (1954-2008) said that he pulled through the hard times with the sale of art prints of various artists.

With the Malaysian Department of Statistics putting unemployment rate at 3.9 per cent, highest in a decade, with a potential of spiralling to 13%, the adage, “Cash Is King”, will prevail. The bigger boys will be folding their arms but can be tempted if exceptional or museum-quality works by gilt-edged artists are compelled onto the market, via auctions or private sale.

For artists not represented by galleries, cyberspace has become their selfie playground for their artworks, whether it be independent or as a series.

Those teaching art will also have to devise online modules, maybe with Zoom app, to conduct classes, like Angeloh Gaik Choo (regularly) and Renee Moi (one-off tutorials, of painting flowers). Ditto, artists doing portrait commissions, with “live” sessions via video of the portraited.

Some say that with the proliferation of individual artists hogging the online platform to sell their works, they might dispense with the art-gallery system. But these are mostly the artists in the periphery of the real art market, and they are unlikely to usurp the role of galleries since they are not represented by them, anyway.

Morning No. 16, a work by Lok Kerk Hwang, which won merit award in the 50th Louisiana Watercolor Society, with e-catalogue.

Good galleries have a track record coupled with their professional experience, a loyal clientele base and network, and know all the ins and outs in the Art of the Big Sell. As China’s leading contemporary artist Zhang Xiao-gang once told me on the sidelines of Art Basel Hong Kong: “Once, I toyed with the idea of circumventing the gallery system. But I found that the sale of my works is best left to the professionals, while I concentrate on producing works.”

Artists also crave media publicity as an official record of their exhibitions, even if virtual, and how this dualism evolves bears watching since the print media are migrating towards e-paper, especially with distribution collapse in a protracted lockdown. The lockdown in Japan has even crippled the popular manga, Golgo 13 (about an assassin), 52 years into the latter’s existence.

Corporations can play an important role in buying more works by local artists, and thus start or augment their own collection.

Two artists are taking part in residences smack in the middle of the MCO – Kim Ng at the Hijjases’ Rimbun Dahan, Selangor, and Chang Yoong Chia at Goethe-Institut’s AIR in Leipzig, Germany (

On an ironic note, with the trend of romancing the digital platform, it’s a marvel that the Digital Collage of Ismail Zain (1930-1991) and the electronic contraptions of Hasnul J. Saidon and Niranjan Rajah from the 1980s to the peep of the New Millennium, were only animated in conventional art-gallery ambience. One must ask: Will there ever be a summer for digital-based art?

Ooi Kok Chuen, art-writer and journalist, is the author of MAHSURI: A Legend Reborn (Ooi Peeps Publishing), an adult contemporary fantasy “movel” (a novel conceived as a mock movie) spun from a local legend.

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