Datuk Gary Thanasan, Founder of KL Lifestyle Art Space

Datuk Gary Thanasan, Founder of KL Lifestyle Art Space

Art galleries can be fascinating places where you can encounter various amazing works of art, some of which may not seem like much, but it takes a keen eye and an open mind to understand the intentions and perspectives of the artist in their masterpieces. We interview Datuk Gary Thanasan, the Founder and CEO of KL Lifestyle Art Space, to get to know Datuk Gary and have a bit of perspective on what art should mean to Malaysians.

FlyKLIA: Hi Datuk Gary, could you give us an introduction about yourself?

Datuk Gary: I’m a typical city boy, born in Old Klang Road, lived most of my life in PJ (Petaling Jaya). I went to Sri Petaling School, a primary school in PJ and attended secondary school at Bukit Bintang Boys School which was located right across the road from my primary school.  Loved music all my life and I’m still a huge music fan.

I started an event management company at the age of 18 which gave me a chance to raise some money to further my education in England. I studied broadcast journalism in South East Essex College of Art and Technology in Southend, England in the late ’80s and returned home in 1994.

I went for my first television audition with TV3 that same year and was given the opportunity to interview Sheila Majid and Zainal Abidin on a show called “In Person with…”; the hosts before me were Mahadzir Lokman and Raymond Teoh. Within a couple of weeks after my television debut, I was asked to host a music chart show for RTM 2 and the other shows just came along after that. I also worked on radio for some years too; this was all between 1994 till about the year 2000.  Strangely, I started doing television first and then moved on to radio; typically, one would start with radio and then branch into television, but mine was the total reverse.

Lingo, the game show, was my last and longest-running programme on television. We recorded a total of 360 episodes and it was the one I enjoyed most. Towards the end of my career as a TV presenter, I decided to get into publishing and start a magazine, and in fact, funny enough, the first magazine I published was for Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA). The magazine was called KLIA Times and I published it between 2003 and 2005. In 2006, I went on to buy a title which came up for sale, a city magazine called KL Lifestyle; and I still publish that magazine till this very day.

FlyKLIA: When did you get interested in art?

Datuk Gary: My interest in art started when I was studying in England and [at the time] would have never thought that I would someday get into the business of dealing in art.  As a student in England, I bought a lot of prints and had put them up in my rented room. I had always enjoyed visits to the various museums and bought prints as souvenirs and eventually had them hung in our family home upon my return to Malaysia.

When I bought my first house in 1995, I framed almost all remaining prints and displayed them around the entire house. When I sold the house some years later, the buyer of the house requested that I leave all the prints as it was on the walls when I moved out and so I did exactly that.

I was exposed to Malaysian art when I owned a little bar and restaurant in Jalan Tangsi in Kuala Lumpur in early 1999. I was in partnership at this bar called Charlie’s Place which was formerly known as the Langkawi Yacht Club. Whilst running Charlie’s Place, I frequently walked around Galeri Tangsi, a gallery within the same building premise of my bar. I thoroughly enjoyed walking around the gallery and looked forward to checking out the artworks they had on display during the various exhibitions hosted. This is where I started recognising names and styles of the various established Malaysian artists.  And it was during this period that I came across some beautiful masterpieces by Khalil Ibrahim. Unfortunately, I couldn’t really afford to buy them from the gallery but managed to buy a couple of his artworks from a close friend instead.

Once I moved to my second home, I decided to look into upgrading my collection of prints to more of these “real art pieces” with focus primarily on Malaysian artists.  I acquired a few more art pieces to fill up the walls at home, not so much into starting a collection per se, just dressing up the walls at home.

My interest in the art business came precisely on 8 August 2010 after attending an art auction in Petaling Jaya. The auction house had sold RM 2.6 million in one afternoon from a sale of 80-odd lots of paintings they had up for sale.  So, I sat there, and I watched and absorbed the entire auction which took about three hours to complete and right after the auction was over, I thought to myself, “My god, it looks like a lot of fun doing art auctions! I could do this and it seems quite easy to put together.” On the very next day, I sat down with my General Manager, Lydia Teoh, and said to her, “You know what? Let’s open an art gallery and get into art auctions,” and she was quite baffled and stunned; she said, “A gallery?” I said, “Yes, we are going to open a gallery, like, tomorrow… Please look for a location for us to open a gallery in a shopping centre, because then you have ready traffic moving around as potential customers.” We decided on calling it KL Lifestyle Art Space (KLAS) riding on the name of our publication, KL Lifestyle. Within a month or so, we secured a lot on the ground floor of Tropicana City Mall [currently known as 3 Damansara]. We took up the lease and opened our first gallery in late 2010. The rest, I would say, is history.

FlyKLIA: What was something you learned after entering the art business?

Datuk Gary: The first thing I noticed when I got into the art business was the disparity in prices between the young artists and the masters or the senior artists. I didn’t understand why some of the young artists were priced a lot higher than the very established and well-collected senior artists, so I said, “Hey, something is going wrong here, let’s see if we can do something to correct this whole scenario.” So we came in and started educating people on the importance of the senior artists, and hoping that they will lead the way and pave the path for the younger artists, so we started doing that very actively in the early days, kind of “correcting” or redirecting the market, or making the market understand the difference between the younger artists and the senior artists and also the background of the seniors and how established they’ve become and how much they needed to be recognised further for their contribution in the early days.

Some of these very “underpriced” senior artists were widely collected by the major Malaysian museums and institutions including some major Southeast Asian and international museums too. So, this is where we embarked on educating the public with these relevant names who needed a little push before they fall into oblivion. Part of the education in art was made possible with a permanent section we had dedicated to art in our magazine, KL Lifestyle. It was undoubtedly a great platform and the local media publicity we received aided our objective to educate Malaysians.

FlyKLIA: What do you see in art pieces and your preference in art?

Datuk Gary: I find being around art very therapeutic and it has a very calming effect on me. Art has always had that effect on me since my days visiting museums in England as a student.  

I’m a bit biased with my personal collection; I tend to collect a lot of senior artists and masters. My philosophy in collecting art changed after I got into the business. I only collected artists who are older than me. I’m into seniors and the masters, very much into established names. In the early days, maybe I had a mixed bag of works, a small collection of artworks by the younger artist and the older ones. Over the past few years, I went through a phase of spring cleaning and managed to upgrade my personal collection to more established names.

FlyKLIA: What determines the value of art?

Datuk Gary: Determining their value is a very good question: How do we determine their value?

Secondary sales of artwork in the active art auction scene in Malaysia since 2010 gave better clarity on the value of art pieces and a better understanding of names which were sought after. This is important, as this is how you can determine prices: there were four auction houses operating between 2010 and 2020 and the art auction results of these four auction houses selling over 10,000 artworks over those ten years became a benchmark for the respective artists, a great point of reference before one decides to buy an artwork.

It’s like last transacted price for a particular artist, like how you see properties, how you have last transacted price of a house in Damansara Heights or in Petaling Jaya or in Seri Kembangan, and then you see over time whether it’s going up or going down, so enough paintings by respected artists have been sold, and now you can see who are the ones who are really sought after, you can do a price check and see who are the ones on the way up, who are the ones on the way down.

The art auctions have actually helped the art market in a lot of ways, because now people can actually go back and check prices before deciding to make a purchase, especially when you go to an art gallery, before making a purchase you can now check back to see if you’re paying too much for a work by an artist, whether you’re being undercharged, overcharged, or whether it is fairly priced.

KLAS was the second art auction house established in Malaysia. We saw the entry of two other auction houses, The Edge and Masterpiece, and this saw the number of collectors and appreciation of art grow exponentially. The vibrant auction scene helped collectors understand the buying trend and gave an idea of names one should look out for. The Edge and Masterpiece ceased operations in 2018 and 2019 respectively.

FlyKLIA: Do art prices always go up?

Datuk Gary: That’s a perception by most first-time art buyers, they think that all paintings will surely go up in price over time. It doesn’t work in that manner in most cases. Prices for artworks by an artist will only rise over time if you buy the right name at the right price. Like properties, stocks and bonds, art can increase in value. If an up-and-coming artist goes on to having a successful career, the value of their work will undoubtedly rise as the demand for their artworks increase. The price is also determined by the artist’s exhibition history, sales history (i.e prices transacted in auctions, gallery sales, etc.), career level, and dimension of artwork.

FlyKLIA: Of all the art pieces that you have seen which is your favourite, and why?

Datuk Gary: My most favourite piece is Pantai Melawati by Khalil Ibrahim, and I bought the painting more than a decade ago… I am actually looking at it while talking to you now. I like the composition of the artwork and the strokes and vibrancy of the colours used by the artist. It’s a semi-abstract painting from the most popular and sought after “East Coast Series” by Khalil Ibrahim.

FlyKLIA: How did you happen to purchase this art piece?

Datuk Gary: I saw it displayed on the window of a gallery and knew immediately that I had to own it. I immediately inspected the painting to ensure it was in good condition, negotiated the prices and got it delivered to my home on that very same evening.

FlyKLIA: What are some of the names you like collecting?

Datuk Gary: I do have some artworks by Khalil Ibrahim, Yusof Ghani, Latiff Mohidin, Datuk Syed Ahmad Jamal, Awang Damit Ahmad, to name a few in my personal collection. They are all mostly established names.

FlyKLIA: Can you tell us more about KL Lifestyle Magazine and why you have decided to venture into this business?

Datuk Gary: I got into the publishing business in 2003 with a friend from the media, Datuk Ahiruddin Atan @ Rocky Bru, who was my partner in the business. We published KLIA Times for the Kuala Lumpur International Airport for about three years. KLIA Times was a brilliant airport magazine but only had a presence in KLIA.

In 2006, I decided on starting a city magazine with the hope of reaching a bigger audience and having better presence in the Klang Valley. Ideally a magazine we could also sell at the newsstand and book stores. The initial plan was to start a new magazine or title but fortunately for us, an agent approached and informed us on the sale of KL Lifestyle, a city magazine published by Monorail. We made an offer to buy the magazine which was duly accepted and that’s when we took over the title. We totally revamped the magazine to make it relevant for the city dwellers and we’ve been publishing it for over a decade and a half now.

FlyKLIA: What is your favourite travel destination and why?

Datuk Gary: Locally, I love the beach. Any place at all with a nice beach. Top of my list locally would be Langkawi and Penang. In Langkawi, the Andaman, and whilst in Penang, it has always been Ferringhi.  We typically stay in the same hotel, like recently when the MCO was lifted and state borders were opened in December, we spent two weeks in Penang, and thankfully we managed to get to stay in the same resort in Penang, the Rasa Sayang Hotel.

My favourite travel destination overseas would be Bali. It is such a serene and beautiful island. My children love Bali too and again… they have a lot of nice beaches. We found the island to be very safe to travel around. The kids are always quite happy to be wandering around in the villages sometimes on their own. We love the people of Bali with their wide smiles and accommodating spirit, the rich culture, and most importantly the landscape which shifts flawlessly from beautiful beaches to lush jungles. The terraced hills of Bali are a sight to behold!

FlyKLIA: What was your most meaningful moment together with your family?

Datuk Gary: My most memorable times are when we are travelling, because I work 24/7, and the only time I typically take off and really do nothing (and almost vegetate) is usually in December. This is probably a time when I try not to work at all, maybe just reply emails. We spend a lot of quality time together as a family in December until the first week of January every year.

FlyKLIA: What’s the New Norm for you?

Datuk Gary: Frankly, it’s been tough. The pandemic has been a real test on our sanity. Really looking forward to some normalcy in our lives. Currently with no lockdown, with a softer CMCO, we’re able to go out to the malls, go out for a meal occasionally which is really nice.

The rollout of the vaccinations I hope will speed up and hopefully if they can roll out for the different age groups ASAP, I think we can at least also see some normalcy in the way we live.

In terms of the gallery, I’m glad we are allowed to welcome visitors and hold auctions with a live audience again. Of course, with social distancing in place and adhering to all the SOP’s set by the Ministry of Health.

FlyKLIA: Do they need to make appointments when they come in?

Datuk Gary: There is no need to make an appointment at the moment to visit the gallery but you will be required to wear a mask and scan the MySejahtera code.

FlyKLIA: Do you have a message you want to share with all our FlyKLIA members?

Datuk Gary: We just opened an exhibition on the 28th of April that will end on 30 May 2021. The show is called Octogenarian: a mini exhibition by three of the most important living Malaysian masters, showcasing a selection of rare and important artworks by Yeoh Jin Leng (92), Cheong Lai Tong (89) and most importantly, Abdul Latiff Mohidin (80).

These three living maestros are distinctive in the abstract expressionist and gestural abstract artistic style, having honed and developed their passion internationally and are the first batch of foreign-trained artists in Malaysia. We look forward to welcoming you to the exhibition.

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