Malaysia is rich in traditional arts and handicrafts like batik, songket, rattan weaving, and Nyonya beading, amongst many others. We have an abundance of talent for contemporary art, with the likes of Red Hong Yi taking the medium of mixed media to the next level and Anniketyni Madian reinterpreting the East Malaysian pua kumbu (a ceremonial cloth used by the Iban people of Sarawak) into her sculptural works.
As our nation experiences political, social and cultural changes, the world of art translates them into ideas. For that reason, our galleries are metaphorically the heart of Malaysian past, present, and future! And we’re all here to witness it together.
What better way to explore Malaysian stories than to take a mindful stroll in these downtown Kuala Lumpur (KL) galleries? Once you’re done making a day to explore them, take your art-fuelled adventure a little further and visit these other amazing galleries in KL.
WITHIN DOWNTOWN KL
1. Kuala Lumpur City Gallery
This may be a popular tourist spot, but you’ll soon find that it’s quite the gem, even for regulars who frequent KL. Formerly the Government Printing Office completed back in 1899, the premises was converted into a gallery in 2012. At the front of Kuala Lumpur City Gallery, you’ll find the iconic ‘I love KL’ sculpture that implores you for a we-fie.
Inside this heritage building, you’ll find a gallery containing photos, maps, and sculptures of old KL. But, the leading showcase is the stunning, colossal scale model of KL that comes with an audio-visual presentation. Stop for delectable pastries and desserts at the KLCG Confectionery & Bakery downstairs after your visit.
Address: Dataran Merdeka, 27, Jalan Raja, 50050 Kuala Lumpur
Contact: +603 2698 3333
2. Bank Negara Malaysia Museum & Art Gallery
Ever wondered how money came about? Well, you’re about to find out here at the Bank Negara Malaysia Museum & Art Gallery. The different spaces feature six permanent galleries and dive into the history of the Malaysian economy, finance, and Bank Negara’s role from pre-independence days until now.
Many interactive exhibits await you and a Children’s Gallery to keep the little ones entertained. They can even make their own banknotes! Not to worry about the older ones, as there are many spots for OOTD opportunities, like the RM1million tunnel and the Nautilus staircase!
Address: Sasana Kijang, 2, Jalan Dato Onn, 50480 Kuala Lumpur
Contact: +603 9179 2784
3. Art House Gallery Museum of Ethnic Arts
Although it labels itself as a museum, this gallery claims to be the first privately-owned museum for Malaysian ethnic artworks. Here you’ll find ethnic pieces from all across Malaysia and some Indonesian pieces that share similarities with Bornean artwork. Most of the pieces are privately sourced by the antique and art collector, Leonard Yiu.
You will find sculptures, ceramics, paintings, embroidered tapestries, carved boxes, doors, and many other curious things. Some of the pieces displayed are for sale, except for the antiques and artefacts from Borneo. Psst, this unique space is even listed on Lonely Planet, under top choice for antiques!
Address: Lot 3.04 & 3.05, Level 2, Annexe Building, Central Market, 10, Jalan Hang Kasturi, 50050 Kuala Lumpur
Contact: +6012 388 6868
4. The Back Room KL
Located in The Zhongshan Building, The Back Room is an intimate gallery that showcases art from emerging and alternative artists. We think it apt that it is located in one of downtown KL’s creative hubs, which sprouted from a Think City urban rejuvenation project.
The exhibitions here will excite, invigorate, inspire, and provoke your being — the kind of energy emerging artists bring. The Back Room KL is constantly looking for new, exciting projects that support creatives, whether you’re an artist or a curator. Take a tour around the Zhongshan building later for coffee or browse for books and vinyl records.
Address: 80A, Jalan Rotan, Kampung Attap, 50460 Kuala Lumpur
Contact: +6016 660 2585
5. Lostgens’ Artspace
The Lostgen’s collective is established by a group of artists who independently manage this space. They are seen as an edgy and experimental space and champion art and projects that challenge mainstream culture. In the bustling and constantly changing city of KL, the Lostgens’ Artspace serves as a platform for art that engages dialogue on mainstream culture, social norms and activism.
Address: 8C, Jalan Panggong, 50000 Kuala Lumpur
Contact: +6019 683 8397
BEYOND DOWNTOWN KL
6. UR-MU (Urban Museum)
This quirky museum is located in the residential area of Bukit Bintang features a curation of privately-owned eclectic artworks. That alone sets it apart from other art museums. In its essence, UR-MU embodies the people of Southeast Asia, the culture, their hopes and dreams, and their quirks.
All these concepts are packed into 10 themed rooms for you to explore. We had the chance to explore these rooms ourselves, and it was a great morning of art for us. UR-MU is a must-visit on your art museum list, especially if you have an hour to spare for a quick detour.
Tickets are not sold at the museum — but they can be purchased online, here. Photos are welcome, but kindly refrain from flash photography to preserve the artworks.
Insider tip: For some experiential art, take a peek at the holes in the wall of the staircases — we won’t tell you what you’ll find, you’ll just have to see it for yourself.
Address: 3, Jalan Bedara, Bukit Bintang, 50200 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Contact: +603-2110 3004
7. Ilham Gallery
As you walk towards Ilham Tower, you’ll be greeted by one of Ai Wei Wei’s public sculptural artworks. The Divina Proportione (2015) is the first permanent public sculptural work of Ai Wei Wei’s to be installed in Southeast Asia.
Aiming to serve and engage a wide range of patrons, Ilham gallery’s exhibits range from the historical to the modern. Take your time exploring the presentations as they cover two floors of the 58-storey Ilham Tower. The gallery also has a gift shop with carefully selected items sourced from artisans and designers across the country.
Hot tip: If you’re planning a date and you both like art, it’s a great place to start as you can walk to the nearby LINC KL for food afterwards.
Address: Levels 3 and 5, Ilham Tower, 8, Lorong Binjai, 50450 Kuala Lumpur
Contact: +603 2181 3003
8. Malaysia Cartoon & Comic House
If you’re a fan of The Kampung Boy comics by the esteemed Malaysian cartoonist Lat, this gallery is where you should go. Known as the Ruman Kartun dan Komik Malaysia (RKKM) in Bahasa Malaysia, this building is located in KL’s Perdana Botanical Gardens.
Surrounded by greenery, the gallery features over 500 works from local cartoonists like Lat, Jaafar Taib, Dinie Juri, Rossem Gayour, and Lambok. The works in the exhibit are original and were collected from the cartoonists themselves. Walk through the history of cartoons and comics in Malaysia as you see the works change from monochrome to colour.
Address: Taman Botani Perdana, 50480 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Contact: +6012 667 0620
9. Balai Seni Negara (National Art Gallery)
Ah, our national art gallery, the place to visit for a true immersion of our local art scene. The exhibitions are constantly changing, so it’s worth visiting once a month. It’s a quiet respite in the middle of our busy city, although some exhibits might be more popular on weekends than others.
One of the more popular exhibitions is the annual art competition held by Balai Seni Negara, called Bakat Muda Sezaman (loosely translated as ‘contemporary young talents’). The art competition is open to all Malaysian youth aged 35 years and below. Winning works will stand a chance to take home cash prizes and have their works exhibited at the gallery.
Address: No 2, Jalan Temerloh, Titiwangsa, 53200 Kuala Lumpur
Contact: +603 4026 7000
10. Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia
Did you know that Malaysia’s Islamic Arts Museum is the largest Islamic art museum in Southeast Asia? It houses more than 10,000 artefacts and has an extensive collection of Islamic art books. The artefacts here range from coins, jewellery, textiles, armoury, architecture models, and pieces from India, China, Thailand, Sumatra, Java, Sulawesi, and the southern Philippines.
There are 12 galleries, some divided by geographic origins and some displayed by type. The galleries are not divided by physical walls in an open plan interior, harmoniously blending into each other. Marvel at the intricate domes crafted by Uzbekistan craftsmen in the museum’s interior, and be humbled as you leave the building.
Address: Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia, Jalan Lembah Perdana, 50480 Kuala Lumpur
Contact: +603 2092 7070 or +603 2274 2020
Editor’s note: This article was originally published on 27 May 2022 and has been updated to include more locations.