A foundation set up by Daim Zainuddin, the controversial twice finance minister during Mahathir’s tenure as premier, has signed an agreement with the Penang Development Corporation to set up the country’s largest art museum, to be known as Ilham Penang.
I don’t think the state government should have got into this agreement. No doubt the arts are important, but do we need to get involved with this entity in what I see as – how should I put it? – a public relations exercise for the Zainuddin ‘legacy’, apart from an arts initiative.
And do we need such a sprawling arts museum, which will cover 45,000 square feet? It will swallow 1.5 acres of the 5.5 acres of the Sia Boey area which could have been used to provide a larger green lung in the city. This is almost the size of football field, thus making it a large-scale property development project next to the already massively built up Komtar area. Wouldn’t a more modest gallery have sufficed? (I had warned about this massive property development plan in a blog post in 2012.)
This is the statement by the Penang Chief Minister:
We are here this morning, pleased to witness the official signing ceremony between the Penang Development Corporation (PDC) and Yayasan Haji Zainuddin to set up a new iconic art museum, Ilham Penang in Georgetown.
Penang is extremely excited with this new proposed development because every renowned international city in this world has within its walls a collection of iconic and illustrious art museums. We are also extremely enthusiastic because the ‘investment’ by Yayasan Haji Zainuddin will be a catalyst for culture-led urban regeneration in historical Georgetown.
The PDC has granted a 30+30 year lease on approximately 1.5 acres of land at the proposed 5.5 acre Penang Heritage Arts District to Yayasan Haji Zainuddin with the specific purpose of building the iconic art museum.
In return, Yayasan will invest at least RM30 million to build Ilham Penang and cover the cost of its operations and maintenance over the period of time. The art museum will have at least 45,000 square feet of gallery space which will be the largest of its kind in Malaysia.
In contrast, the National Visual Art Gallery in Kuala Lumpur is only built on 0.35 acre of land while the private Galeri Petronas and Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia have 21,600 and 14,700 square feet of gallery space respectively.
In addition to gallery space, the museum will offer a café and/or restaurant, a library, a 200-seat auditorium and art storage facilities. The museum will be free for school-going children while adults will only be charged at a nominal rate.
Ilham Penang, when completed, will certainly go a long way towards making Penang an international destination of choice and contribute immensely towards the Georgetown remaining as one of the most livable cities of the world.
More importantly, in the times of economic slowdown and uncertainty, Ilham Penang will be a catalyst for urban regeneration in Georgetown.
The London Tate Modern is the perfect example of how an art museum breathed new life into an important historical area of central London. In 15 years, London Southwark where the museum was located received millions of visitors annually. The number of people living in the area doubled, and thousands of new workers arrived as large and small businesses mushroomed. New hotels, cafés, shops and restaurants have also sprung up to cater for these new communities.
In addition, it should be highlighted that the best museums in the world are often privately run and owned museums, including Tate in London, Leeumm – Samsung Museum of Art in Korea, Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art in Paris, Francois Pinault Foundation in Venice and the Guggenheim in New York are all privately funded museums. We similarly believe that the Ilham model will be equally successful because the Trustees of Yayasan Zainuddin will be heavily incentivised to ensure that it succeeds, as it is their own money. And they have shown their desire to succeed by appointing one of the best art curators in the country today, Valentine Willie.
The privately run Museum model is fully in-line with the state’s principle that the we limit our role to a facilitator for the private sector. Hence we believe that the PDC-Yayasan Haji Zainuddin public-private partnership will give the project the greatest chance of success in Penang.
Ladies and gentlemen,
For the record, Sia Boey is the name for a locality within the heart of George Town and in Hokkien it means “Town’s End”, and was home to hundreds of local families in the trading business. In Malay, the area is known as Ujung Pasir.
For over 150 years, the mention of Sia Boey or Ujung Pasir brings back nostalgic memories of a bustling market filled with commercial and cultural activities – it was the showcase of Penang’s culture, heritage and commerce, at its best.
Therefore we are pleased that besides a RM30 million Ilham Penang, PDC will be investing an additional RM70 million to make Sia Boey, the Penang Heritage Arts District. In line with George Town’s World Heritage status, the dilapidated heritage shop houses will not be torn down but will be meticulously restored, to be occupied by art galleries, studios, schools and workspaces.
The Victorian Prangin Market will host flea markets and the best flavours of Penang street food. The Prangin Canal will be upgraded into a pristine water feature to complement a beautiful 2-acre public park dotted with stunning sculptures and installations, a unique open green space within George Town.
Our ambition isn’t only to make the Heritage Arts District the must-visit destination in Penang, the premier art district in Malaysia, but also in the whole of Southeast Asia. We want Penang to become the destination of choice for artists and art lovers, for locals and tourists in the region.
I am pleased to note that the arts and creative communities of Penang have given their full support for this event by setting up art stands showcasing the history and heritage of Penang.
In conjunction with today’s launch, there is a showcase of artworks produced by local artists, working in collaboration art societies and galleries such as The Penang Arts Society, Penang Chinese Brush Painting Art Society, Penang Oil Painting Society, Penang Water Colour Society, Urban Sketches Penang, Batek-Lah Collection, The Art Gallery Penang and Alyssa Khoo Gallery.
I would also like to thank the PDC team for putting together an exhibition which recorded the past of Sia Boey, the state it is today and the future it will become in an exhibition which will be held here for a week till 13th September 2015.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Today’s event bears testimony to Penang’s rich and diverse heritage, cultures, traditions and tantalising cuisine, which we must continue to nourish so that in our efforts to transform and develop Penang into an international city, we can still retain the ‘soul’ of Penang, with its unique old world charm.