Bangkok Art and Cultural Centre

The brilliant idea to create a city art centre at the bustling Pathumwan intersection in Bangkok, where contemporary art, popular culture and consumerism converge, is long in the making. After an eight-year wait for the establishment of the Bangkok Art and Cultural Centre, city Governor Apirak Kosayodhin officially declared on August 19, 2005 that the nation's first international-standard art centre will definitely be built.

Apirak signed an agreement with nine representatives of arts and culture, including artist Pichai Niran, writer Suchart Sawasri, theatre pioneer Sodsai Phanthumkomol and architect Thanit Kiti-amphon. The Bt430-million (US10.5million) centre will be located at the Pathumwan intersection (opposite Siam Discovery Centre) and should be finished by the end of next year. The agreement confirmed the collaboration between the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration and the People's Network for the Bangkok Art and Cultural Centre, which has lobbied for the project for years.

"It's time to give light to this on-again-off-again project," Apirak said. He made the announcement in Benjasiri Park at an event attended by 500 people from the arts and culture. The city chose a design by architects Robert G Boughey and Associates. The 11-storey centre will have a floor plan of 23,203 square metres and will house a melting pot of all types of art. The bidding process for construction hit a snag last month when firms said the cost would exceed Bt430 million (US10.5million) - the lowest bid was Bt560 million (US13.7million). A second round of bidding will be held by the end of the month.

Movement for Making Dream of having the City Art Centre Comes True

'Art Vote' is the latest attempt to give Bangkok a world-class showcase for contemporary Thai culture. "Do you want Bangkok to have an arts centre?" a young activist carrying a ballot box asked passers-bys at Pathumwan intersection. "If so, vote 'yes' for the construction of the long-dreamt-of art and cultural centre.'' Kullaya Kassakul, a young member of the People's Network for the Bangkok Art and Cultural Centre, has been campaigning for "Art Vote" in August 2004, where the city art centre was earmarked to be build eight years ago. The small park has been temporarily turned into an interactive art space. The thrust of the campaign was to encourage the new Bangkok governor, who would be elected afterwards, to finally get around to building the centre. The art advocates' well-organised move to publicly secure a commitment from Bangkok governor candidates was a rare phenomenon locally, although such a practice is common in other cou ntries. Despite sharing common interests, members of different sectors of Thai society rarely unite to confront election candidates with their demands.

All week long, art and cultural activities have been staged at the sites, where organisers turned three shipping containers into impromptu gallery spaces showcasing almost 100 reproductions of works by major artists, plus paintings and photographs by established and emerging artists. Fashion shows by young designers, live electronic music and exhibitions on architecture and product design were the highlights of the activities. Organisers had hoped to ultimately secure 50,000 votes of support for the centre, which was abandoned after a highly publicised dispute between city governor Samak Sundaravej and art groups over how to develop the project.

"Why do we have to fight for an art and cultural centre - the government must invest in it," says Chumpol Apisuk, a co-founder of the People's Network for the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre. Art and society are intricately intertwined, both influencing each other in myriad ways. When a society is healthy, its art and culture is rich. Museums and art centres are landmarks symbolising this wealth - just look at New York, London, Milan, Paris, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Singapore. But what's wrong with us?

Compared to other Asian countries, the contemporary-art scene in Thailand is very exciting both for local art lovers and international curators. Many Thai artists are invited to exhibit their work at international art festivals and their masterpieces are in the collections of museums around the world, instead of being our own heritage for future generations. Unfortunately we don't really have an international-standard contemporary arts centre in Thailand that can be used as a cultural space for artistic expression and education - and delight - of the general public. Unlike Western countries or some Asian countries such as Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong, Thailand with its one-year-old Culture Ministry has just started to think about supporting its own modern art and culture. But any serious government action really should have been done a lot earlier.

The art centre was initiated in 1996 when Bhichit Rattakul was governor. The project received great support from Kraisak Chonhavan, Bhichit's adviser at the time. A group of artists led by Chumpol Apisuk, Manit Sriwanichpoom and Vasan Sitthiket along with academics proposed building an arts centre. After four years of anticipation, the first phase of the project, the BMA Contemporary Art Centre, looked set to be constructed. It was designed during the Bhichit administration. However, no construction contract was signed with the winning bidder, Building 33 Co. This procedural gap allowed Bhichit's successor, Samak, to claim the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration did not have the funds for the project.

During Samak's four-year term, artist groups fought a losing battle to get the centre back on track. The fight between the government and artists was about saving the winning design - by Robert G Boughey & Associates - and giving the capital a cultural epicentre, instead of turning the land into a car park. Led by art activist Vasan Sitthiket, demonstrations have been employed as the main strategy. Positive tools such as art and cultural events have also been used to gain more public support. Last year, one day before the election day, the network once again united to push its cause.

"If we don't take this opportunity, when are we going to have an art and cultural centre?" Chumpol asked. Over the years, the network has honed it skills, and is now a much stronger and smarter movement. Its members directly approached the media and public by accompanying governor candidates while they campaigned throughout the city. The "Art Vote" cleverly imitates the governor election. The network has also grown. At first, it was limited to long-time cultural activists such as the Artists Networks for Supporting the Bangkok Art Centre, some academics and art lovers. But now the network comprises the fresh faces of the young generation. Joining in the fight are the group We Think, the Makhampom Theatre Troupe, independent artists and civic organisations such as Bangkok Forum and the Baan Krua community, which successfully fought against the planned construction of an expressway through its community.

"Instead of spending their leisure time in shopping centres around here, we need an alternative place like an arts centre to educate our young generation, especially the Baan Krua community," comments Sarote Phaksumlee, Baan Krua community leader. The latest movement was very innovative, positive and active due to the youth influence. "At first we were worried about the negative look of senior art protesters," says Kullaya, a member of We Think, which staged an innovative fund-raising fashion show for Aids sufferers at Hua Lamphong railway station in July 2004. "But after we learned about their movement's strategy, we now understand," she adds. "We share the same goal - having the city's first arts centre so we can stop moving around when we hold art and cultural activities."

Even if the project is not realized, the eight-year movement has proven that the city has strong and vibrant supporters for contemporary art and culture. 

Editorial disclaimer - The opinions and views expressed in the Perspectives column do not necessarily reflect those of the Asia Art Archive, staff, sponsors and partners.




Thu, 1 Sep 2005

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