Penang Art Society – Doing Art with Open Arms

Ch’ng Huck Theng, current president of the Penang Art Society.

Penang Art Society, established in 1953, is the oldest registered art society in the state, celebrating its 65th anniversary last August with an exhibition at the Penang State Art Gallery, where 160 pieces of art by its members went on display. It is today the largest registered art society in the country.

Mooted and encouraged by prominent Chinese artist Xu Beihong, a few local pioneers in Penang’s art community – including the society’s founding president, the late Loh Cheng Chuan – strove for the establishment of the society. It has grown to 600 members in 66 years, playing an important role in the development of art in Penang as well as in Malaysia.

Initially a society for Chinese artists, focusing on Chinese painting and calligraphy, Penang Art Society has now expanded to cover six different art forms – painting, calligraphy, poetry, music, photography and engraving – and has opened up its membership to artists from all ethnicities and nationalities as well as to non-artists who are interested in art, including art enthusiasts, art professionals, art collectors and supporters.

Penang Art Society's 65th anniversary last year was celebrated with an exhibition at the Penang State Art Gallery.

“Art is non-sensitive and borderless,” says current president, Ch’ng Huck Theng. “It can be a bridge to link the races – this is crucial in a multiracial country like Malaysia. Only through coming together with common themes or interests can we understand our differences and respect each other’s choices.”

Ch’ng endeavours to keep the society continuously relevant, especially with regards to trends and expectations in the art community. “One has to strike a balance in maintaining fairness and harmony among the groups without foregoing the society’s initial aim. Penang Art Society needs to continue to lead and keep a benchmark for others, and to inspire and elevate the demand and standards for creativity.

“In the short term, we need to find a proper home for the society so that members can gather, exhibit their work and interact. In the long term, I wish to groom the next generation so that they can eventually take over the leadership.” society in the 1970s, “Penang Art Society’s role in promoting particular forms of art has shifted to focus on connecting artists locally as well as internationally. Currently, the society plays a very important role in expanding the network between artists and relevant stakeholders within art circles in Penang, Malaysia as well as abroad, aiming for the globalisation of Malaysian art.

Officiating the 65th anniversary celebrations of Penang Art Society with Chong Eng.

“I wish to see Penang Art Society continue to bridge locals with the international art scene, bringing in prominent foreign artists to Penang to showcase their works so that locals have a chance to see how far the international art scene has grown and what artists in other countries have achieved.”

Lee Khai, the society’s legal advisor, says, “Penang Art Society is a very useful platform to promote art in various fields – including multifaceted creative industries with art at its core. Although it began as a Chinese-dominated society, Penang Art Society is recruiting more non-Chinese members recently, increasing membership from 200 to 600 within the past few years. I think we should be more inclusive so that we can be more relevant in the Malaysian multicultural art scene narrative.

Artwork on display at the 65th anniversary exhibition.

“In terms of membership, unlike many other art societies in the world, the entrance level for Penang Art Society is not high. With the growing number of members, it is timely for the society to set a standard in judging members’ works.”

Leading the photography group, Looi Toong Hong sees Penang Art Society as a platform for all artists in Penang to gather and celebrate the arts. “Although we are a small group within the society, we get together to exhibit our works and organise activities, such as travelling to Indonesia to take photos.”

Supporting them is Haryany Mohamad, the director cum curator of the Penang State Museum and Art Gallery. “We have about 10 different art groups and societies in Penang. Each society plays its role in creating platforms for their members to socialise internally and externally. I think it’s a positive thing to have multiple groups – there will be competition with each other, and that encourages them to perform better,” she says.

Artwork on display at the 65th anniversary exhibition.

“Every year, we offer them a space to exhibit their members’ works. Penang Art Society has always been proactive, performing consistently and professionally. I see an increasing number of members participating in its annual show held at our gallery. I am happy to witness the society continue to provide a platform for young and senior artists, as well as upcoming and established artists – it helps emerging artists learn what to do and how to do it, exposes them to the art market and assists them in networking as well.”

Indeed, connecting all relevant parties helps to promote effective stakeholder partnership, and goes towards the betterment of the development of art in Penang.

References: Zhong, Y. (2013), Sixty Years in a Blink of An Eye – A Great Six Decades: Penang Art Society, 60th Anniversary Celebration Penang Art Society, Penang Art Society, Malaysia: Penang.

Boey, T.S. (2018), 共生-多元-迈进 (Co-living; Diversity; Advancement) – 探析槟城艺术协会65年事迹发展的精神 (Analysing the spirit of the development for Penang Art Society through its activities happened the past 65 years), Penang Art Society 65th Anniversary Celebration, Penang Art Society, Malaysia: Penang

Nicole Chang is a PhD candidate at the Department of Development Planning and Management, School of Social Sciences, Universiti Sains Malaysia.

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