Nor Azmi Sulong: BE industry to me is something that I would like to cherish 10 Aug, 2020


The third edition of ArtEDecor was slated to be held in March 2020 at MECC, which has now been postponed indefinitely given the prolonged RMCO. A CSR project created to showcase and support local artists, ArtEDecor is the brainchild of business events industry veteran and leader, Nor Azmi Sulong.

While many of us in the industry might know him as the Managing Director of Antara Event Management, Nor Azmi has channelled his passion for local art by not only founding ArtEDecor, but also curating the show.

We recently sat down with Nor Azmi, who has 30 years of industry experience under his belt to find out his motivation behind creating ArtEDecor, the need for such an exhibition in Malaysia, and his insights into business events.

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In the Malaysian context, we often associate the word “art” with “art gallery” or museum”, not an art exhibition such as ArtEDecor. Are you rivalling art galleries with your show? 

No, I am not. The art industry is predominantly controlled by the galleries and auction houses. Globally, this is how the art market has been monopolised. Art galleries and auction houses are limited to the established artist, and many potential artists struggle to find the opportunity to showcase their works. ArtEDecor provides a platform to bring together artists and exhibits, to nurture their creativity to be recognized globally.

We want to promote Malaysian art and artists in the international platform. There are many non-professional artists and new emerging artists whose creativity needs to be showcased. ArtEDecor was created in response to this; to bring more new and budding artists to the scene, to grow alongside the established artists.

How is ArtEDecor different from other shows in Malaysia, namely the ones organised in or by art galleries?

ArtEDecor is the first-of-its-kind in Malaysia. Prior to the show, existing expos only target the galleries, and with that, the artists’ artwork is part of the galleries’ exhibit. Galleries will only choose the artists that benefit them and aren’t able to open the space to other artists. They deal with the artwork on behalf of the artists and take a commission cut from the sales.

ArtEDecor deals directly with the artists – they are the exhibitors and they pay for the space rental for the exhibition. They create their own galleries at the show, promote and sell themselves. Any sales generated belongs to them and we as the organisers don’t take any additional commission.

That is interesting to note. Is that why you decided to have the show in a convention centre instead of the conventional route via art galleries?

We created a platform as any Professional Exhibition Organiser would do to create an exhibition of international standards as we believe the creative industry in Malaysia has as much potential as those globally. We have so many Malaysian artists that are already established on an international level.

We have artists that are sought after by international collectors. Art galleries are sometimes small, and artists are then not able to showcase their whole range of work and creativity. We need a bigger space. In the case of normal expos, or invitations to showcase at a gallery, the artists are only allowed a few pieces, and not many are able to produce a solo exhibition, as that kind of exhibition requires a lot of artwork for display and is costly for the artists to organize themselves.

With ArtEDecor, they can have their own galleries and bring more artwork to display and show to the potential collectors. We will curate the venue to be of the same standard with any other international art expo, and the venue plays an important role to uplift its prestige. Recognition for this valuable art is the reason that such a bustling event, although still at its infancy stage, should be in the convention centre as it adds to the event’s value and image.

We were told that you visit all the exhibiting artists at their homes. Is this true?

Yes, I do. First of all, for most artists, their studio is at home. Most of their work is there. If you meet them somewhere else, you are not able to visualize their creativity. They cannot bring all of it to the meeting and there isn’t the same visual impact if you see the artwork just by looking at their portfolio, which is normally on their handphone or their social media accounts. Not only do I want to learn about their works, but I also want to understand them as an artist.

Some artists can work in different mediums; seeing their workplace helps me in getting to know the artists, the hardships and their ‘life-story’. This would make anyone understand more about the artwork they produce. We only see the successful artists, but we need to understand their struggle to understand why they chose to be artists. It helps me in visualizing their future, and how the show can support them and the industry.

I want to bring forward their lives for the community to understand, appreciate and support the creative art industry.

ArtEDecor 2020 has been postponed twice and moved from MATRADE Exhibition and Convention Centre (MECC) to World Trade Centre Kuala Lumpur (WTCKL). Why the decision to change the venue? Will you still be looking to put on the show when the time is right?

Earlier, the event was scheduled for March at MECC, which was later postponed to July at WTCKL. However, with the COVID-19 pandemic and prolonged MCO, it is no longer possible to do it in July. We hope to be able to revive the event as soon as possible as the artists have been affected. We need to go on as art is highly relevant to any country and is part of everyday life.

We are moving the show to WTCKL as we are able to get a better hall with the proper ambience for an art show – large and with a very high ceiling. As the show is not only about creative art, we will also bring in performers from the batch of current artists, as they are versatile and multi-talented.

Knowing what motivates event organisers, we simply have to ask you this question: does your show have an extraordinary income stream?

Rephrase ‘extraordinary’ income. Laughs.

Income stream for any exhibition is unpredictable. It is more than what you see. Some events are about sale and revenue to organisers and less about community building. We took the initiative to start ArtEDecor as a CSR project. We only charge the rate affordable for emerging local artists to participate.

Having said that, even for the artists, it is not entirely about money. Artists have all this while relied on the art galleries to be in any exhibition. They partake by placing the artwork and will only pay to the gallery if the artwork is sold. They pay high commissions with hardly any risk to it. At the same time, they are also unsatisfied if more artwork is sold as more commission is to be paid to the gallery. This business module only works if both parties agree but in the long run, the relationship will sour as artists move on and the gallery looks for other artists.

We used our module where if artists can promote and sell their artwork, the income should belong to them. However, the cost of doing business is still there, which is the renting of the space for the event. We set-up the space just like their own gallery, and we promote and advertise to bring visitors and buyers to the event. They sell what they have, and the negotiation is between the artists and the buyers.

We give the artists this platform in the hopes that more of them will be given a better opportunity. We also hope more corporate sponsors will support the show – not for us the organiser, but for the purchasing of our local art and to continue supporting the arts industry.

We want the show to get bigger and better in the future so that we can bring more international buyers to come, and prepare our artists for international art shows.

You have been in the Malaysian business events industry for a long time since your PWTC days. How has the landscape of BE, particularly the exhibition segment, changed over the decades?

I started my career in the industry as an organiser almost 30 years ago before going into venue management. In those days, there were only a handful of organisers around with only a few shows, mostly concentrated in Kuala Lumpur. Most regional shows were in Singapore. Now, most of the shows in Malaysia have gained regional status, with a few internationally-acknowledged as global events.

It is a challenging market; competition is there but the market is mature enough to make choices. BE contributes billions of ringgit to the country’s economy. A lot of local shows have been bought over by international companies, proof of the confidence in Malaysia’s sustainability for BE. The maturity of our industry and BE events has helped streamline the industry practice and build the confidence of foreign participants and visitors.

In your experience, has the governance of the industry affected your business, particularly pivotal stakeholders like MATRADE, MyCEB, MACEOS and so on?

For my art show, we have very good support from the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture (MOTAC) and its agencies, and the National Visual Art Gallery. Since ArtEDecor’s inception, we have established good cohesiveness to build the art industry in Malaysia and help the local artists.

As for MATRADE, the national trade promotion agency, their role is very relevant in assisting Malaysian companies in trade opportunities, especially those that are export-related. Facilities for providing Market Development Grant (MDG) help trade shows and to a certain extent Malaysian companies. However, the module needs to be updated for MATRADE for it to take a more frontal role to promote BE; like how they organise MIHAS and such shows.

MyCEB’s role does not directly promote BE – it supports the convention industry more than trade exhibitions. They have not updated their role since Tourism Malaysia had a convention bureau department. I have not considered MyCEB to be a supportive agency for BE to move forward, as there are no efforts from them to make themselves an accelerator of the industry. I would like to be proven wrong on this matter.

I have been actively involved in MACEOS for almost 20 years, with a gap of 10 years, when I was not in the country. The initial struggles we had were having a small number of members and with little government support. It gives us the sense of satisfaction that MACEOS today has grown tremendously, and much of their work has brought the maturity of BE to Malaysia.

MACEOS is always industry-first, be it a benefit for the member or not, we do it for all. I hope more support will be put forward by the government since BE has contributed billions of ringgit, not only to the industry but also to the Malaysian economy.

I am passionate about MACEOS and I hope that one day MACEOS’ establishment will be more permanent so more work can be done to improve the BE industry. As of now, we need to recover our economy from this pandemic.

Let MACEOS and BE be the frontliners for our economic building. Collaboration with MATRADE could accelerate the trade and our market.

How would you like to see the industry change in the next 10 years?

I hope to see more second-generation taking over the industry as younger minds are needed for BE to continue to be relevant. Currently, there are not many, and the main characters are still the pioneers of the industry.

This is an industry that has high employment within the service industry as the long hours and high industry standard leads to so much employee turnover.

The industry is very mature, and thus I look forward to see less competition for the same types of event as it dilutes the market.

It does not mean that there should not be any competition, but event organisers must create their own relevance to be in business. Doing exhibitions is not for a quick income; the more successful you are, the more difficult the events get because most events must build up their respective industries, especially trade events.

I would like to see more government-led or organised events like MAHA, MIHAS, etc. as their role is different from other exhibitions.

Thank you for sharing your insights. Before we end, we hope you can tell us something personal that you would like us to share with the readers of Business Events Matters.

Education is voluntary charity. What you learn will not take away what you know. Be open in what you do.

I take these words to mean that I will not short-cut when making any proposals or advising anyone. I enjoy teaching and seeing the learning process. With this, we build up our experience and our networks that we need to rely on later when doing any job, especially events.

Trust and reliability are what make the difference in our industry as there are many who claim to be experts. BE is always a gig economy, and now the term comes back especially during this pandemic. We outsource the work to a better person, and so we are all better off.

Personally, this BE industry to me is something that I would like to cherish, the reward is about seeing other people become successful because of you and your works. That is why, at all times, professionalism is to be maintained at all cost because you and your work, will make the difference.