This essay will discuss the roles of The Mekong Art and Culture Project, the formal gathering of eight leading art institutions in the Mekong Sub-Region. We will start with an introduction of current situations and parameters of art institutions in this region, then we will introduce the background, aims and objectives of The Mekong Art and Culture Project. Lastly, one of the project activities, the Curatorship and Exhibition Project, will be introduced as an experimental model of re-investigating, re-strategizing art institutions’ roles and foreseeing our direction within the multiple regional contexts.
Situations and Parameters
Art institutions in the Mekong Sub-Region can be seen as taking the form of museum and art school, in particular. Art schools in this region tend to play a more significant role than museums in reinforcing and promoting the development of arts, especially contemporary art. The mission of art institutions in Mekong Sub-Region countries prioritizes educating and producing human resources or workers in the art field. The ability to initiate an extended social mission, beyond providing formal education, is limited, due to inadequate resources and unaccommodating policies where such organizations must comply with state demands. Most art institutions fail to genuinely act as a medium between art and public, let alone criticize social and political contexts.
Let us look at the situation in the West. Studies has shown that educational institutions are constructed not only for career preparation in the creative industries, but also in order to assist society to achieve wider goals — improving indicators of health, crime, employment and education.  Thus, western governments continuously support and build art institutions with the aim to create a dialogue and to reduce the gap between arts/artists and society. In addition to art schools, numerous museums, theatres, galleries and other kinds of performance venues can be found in most cities or towns, providing informal and hospitable spaces for artists to convey the messages of their artworks and to connect with their audiences.
The prime culture of most national museums or galleries in the Mekong Sub-Region derives from that of the West. As Keith Wallace states, ‘The cultivation of the museum and its influence upon the experience of art, including contemporary art, is more of a Western construct.’  Thus, the primary task of most national museums in this region is similar to that of museums in the West. The task is to collect and preserve traditional arts and masterpieces of pioneering or heritage artists. Examples of museums adopting this task include The National Museum and Gallery Bangkok, Lao National Museum, The National Museum in Phnom Penh, and The Fine Art Museum in Hanoi.
Problems arise here in the Mekong Sub-Region: there is no ‘culture of the museum’ embedded in the society, and art schools and/or local governments fail to introduce the importance of museums to wider society. A Thai case study is a useful discussion point. Traditionally, the Buddhist temple has been a community centre that is inseparable from life, from birth to death. The temple can function as both educational place and a space of entertainment during festivals. The temple is also an artistic space and public space that is open to all people. When local governments introduce the museum into such a society, they appear as a construction whose concept is not widely and clearly identified. The public fails to distinguish and treat the museum as of similar efficiency as the temple. As a consequence, the museum along with its contextualization stands estranged in the midst of the public’s doubt and ignorance.
Under these circumstances, non-governmental art institutions and alternative art spaces emerge and take on the mission to increase the level of social engagement and create forums to re-vitalize the role of contemporary art in society. Examples of these include The Land Foundation in Chiang Mai, Reyum Institute of Arts and Culture in Phnom Penh and a little blah blah (albb) in Ho Chi Minh City. The Land Foundation encourages local audiences and nearby residents to carry out experimental activities and organize discussions touching upon a variety of art and non-art topics. Reyum aims to encourage an exchange of ideas with the public through public events and research projects. Additionally, it has an art school for local underprivileged children. Lastly, albb was initiated to promote contemporary art practice in Vietnam. It organizes education programs on a regular basis. The programs include talks, workshops and residencies. It could be said that these non-governmental art institutions are working effectively to improve certain indicators of quality of living.
The reinvigorating effort of smaller, contemporary or NGO-sponsored art institutions in the Mekong sub region in the last decade has created a ‘wake up call’ for conventional art institutions, particularly government-funded art colleges. Their managements have realized that there is a need to readjust their positioning and enhance institutions’ resources capacity beyond the academic, if they are to maintain the historical role of mentoring and developing each country’s creative talents.
"… As an art institution, we have realized that academic and creative knowledge must co-exist and together they must face the turn of the 21st century …Silpakorn University focuses on the development of creative thinking and interdisciplinary knowledge. Also, we are aware of current situations, especially the change in the Asia Pacific region … " 
Capacity building and knowledge exchanges through collaborations among art colleges in the region are the primary methods used for strengthening the role of art institutions and contemporary art. Within in the last five years, there have been increasing numbers of seminars, workshops, academic exchange programs, as well as travelling exhibitions between art institutions. Although there is a minimum level of direct public engagement at this stage, the events result in the promotion of mutual evaluation, understanding and in widening the horizon of contemporary art in the region.
Roles of The Mekong Art & Culture Project
The Mekong Art & Culture Project is the continuation of the successful collaboration program, funded by Rockefeller Foundation, between the College of Arts, Hue University, Vietnam, and the Faculty of Painting, Sculpture and Graphic Arts (PSG), Silpakorn University, Thailand, since 2003. The program aims to facilitate exchanges of scholarly information and resources between the two institutions through a variety of activities including printmaking, lacquer and silk-painting workshops. With positive feedback and outcomes after three-years of work (2003–2006), the project was restructured to extend the collaborations and create greater impact through increasing the number of partners.
In order to maximize the value and impact of creative collaborations among this increased number of art institutions, The Mekong Art & Culture Project undertakes a decentralizing approach, facilitating the diagnosis of the problems that hinder contemporary art development and training in the region and embracing partners’ sharing of possible approaches and strategies in the search for solutions.
Brainstorming discussions among eight leading art institutions from Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand took place in Bangkok in April 2006, allowing partners to assess and understand the dissimilarities and approaches to development between themselves. The discussion arrived at the consensus that all partner institutions currently have similar problems — a lack of people who are equipped with knowledge of art theory, art criticism, curatorial practice, and art research. Stronger and closer cross-border collaborations could help to diminish the shortfall.
By the end of the meeting, a set of activities were developed as a tool for delivery. They include: MFA scholarships, visiting lecturers, workshops, art camps, the Curatorship and Exhibition Project, and research and/or seminar awards. It is crucial to note that these activities were designed and decided by all participating art institutions. By engaging with all participants’ demands and needs, the group was able to devise a formula to benefit everyone. The open, collaborative and non-centric method of the meeting was fundamental to giving each art institution a stake in advancing art and cultural life in the Mekong sub-region.
Despite the fact that the activities are designed to accommodate the needs of capacity building goals for art institutions, the partners agreed that the activities’ benefits should not be too strictly limited. The general public and the wider arts community in the Mekong region should also have opportunities to participate. Therefore, regional activities are being planned to include not only the participating institutions, but also a wide spectrum of other creative individuals, groups and organizations. This aspect is most apparent in the Curatorship and Exhibition Project, which aims to promote curatorship skills and knowledge to any interested individual or parties. The result of allowing communities to be involved with such a valuable learning experience is proving to be a new stepping stone for art institutions in the region, creating better understanding and bridging the gap between art and the public.
The Mekong Art and Culture Project officially commenced in August 2006. In the past year, the project’s operation has been independent and active. This is partly due to a fact that the project is not principally funded by any governmental organization in the region. Therefore, it is not compulsory to comply with any bureaucratic regulations, apart from regularly updating the principal and other sponsors with project results. Even though the project has complete independence to carry out its activities, it is committed to self-evaluation and to measuring its performance. Such self-criticism is not only useful in providing strong arguments for continuing investment and funding in the project (outside the formal program), but also in looking at the precise way in which partners realize the potential of the project implementer and other partners; a process that can provide models for future projects.
The project has set up a constructive methodology and strategy to evaluate the impact of the activities at three different levels: individual, partnership and society. In addition, internal evaluation is conducted immediately after an activity takes place. With this system, the level of operation efficiency increases, enabling us to foresee problems and tackle them on time.
Case Study: Curatorship and Exhibition Activity
Curatorial practice is considered to be one of the vital skill mechanisms in achieving the aims of The Mekong Art and Culture Project — namely to expand and encourage contemporary arts and culture within the region.
This component comprises two parts: curatorial workshops and a travelling exhibition. The workshop was a four-day intensive curatorial workshop given by professional curators Dr Petra Reichensperger (Germany) and Naoko Usuki (Japan), held in four cities —— Bangkok, Vientiane, Hue, and Phnom Phen — during March and April 2007. The workshops were filled to capacity, with over forty participants in each city. The attendees, from varying multicultural backgrounds, included artists, gallery operators, students, lecturers, and senior officers from cultural organizations and creative industries. At the end of the workshops, one participant from each venue was selected as curator for the travelling exhibition to follow.
The appointed curators have been asked to curate a travelling exhibition by applying the knowledge and skills gained during the curatorial workshops. The main aim is to promote learning practices and collaboration across borders through the curatorial process of contemporary art exhibitions.
After substantial discussions on the context of the Mekong sub-region culture and environment, the curators agreed to take on a unified exhibition concept of ‘Underlying’, plus individual interpretations of sub themes, and to each choose artists and exhibition venues in their respective countries. The activity is ongoing and the exhibition is currently scheduled to start travelling to four countries from February 2008.
It is believed this exhibition is the first event in the region that aims at educating participants and encouraging them to apply recently developed curatorial knowledge in real-world practice. With this ‘learning by doing’ method, we are convinced that the participants will intrinsically understand many vital issues, such as censorship and local sensitivities, which they could never experience in a workshop.
Curatorship and Exhibition Activity is set up not only to raise awareness of contemporary art among communities (outside art institutions), the exhibition working process and curatorial workshop also depict the significance of critical thinking through the articulation of the curatorial process. The project encourages dialogue between the curators to examine different aspects of culture and identity, thereby stimulating a platform for social criticism.
By employing this non-centric approach, the project enables the curators to work autonomously and independently in developing content and collaborating with partners from both inside and outside institutions. With minimum guidance and support from the project team, we intend to avoid influencing and manipulating ideas that the curators have developed from their different cultural contexts.
Lastly, throughout the process of self-evaluation, the project has received positive feedback from the co-organized art spaces and considerable interest from media, verifying that this kind of undertaking is an eagerly awaited debut for the region.
In sum, the learning process of these activities has proven to be a unique role for an art institution and its development in the region, through collaboration between inside and outside physical institutions, building networking, and strengthening ability on social criticism.
Originally, art education institutions in the Mekong Sub-Region complied with state policy, educating and producing people who could address the shortage of workers in creative industries. While concentrating on the country’s economic conditions, art schools failed to communicate with local people. The submissive role of art schools has contributed to the unfortunate consequence of a wider gap between the public and art, especially contemporary art.
Stirred by the effort and hard work of non-governmental and NGO-sponsored institutions in bridging this gap, art schools have re-examined their given roles and, recently, have shown more initiative and been proactive, for example, in organizing creative and education activities among art schools viewed as art communities sharing the same region. However, the level of direct engagement in the local community is still minimum. This is partly due to pressure from state policy, forcing art schools to stabilize their position while constantly trying to accommodate the changes taking place in art and in their relationship with society.
The Mekong Art and Culture Project is a two-year project. One of the expected outcomes is a model showing how the collaboration among member art institutions in the same region can benefit not only the institutions themselves, but also wider society. Although this expectation may only be gradually revealed in the short term, our work suggests that the project has discreetly laid out new infrastructure and crafted a model that has rarely been employed in this region before. The collaboration and learning processes in all activities, especially the Curatorship and Exhibition Project, are not just being embarked upon to reach stated objectives, rather, the project embraces multiple art and non-art communities, and thoroughly inserts other ingredients in multiple contexts: social/audiences engagement and self-criticism, which are crucial for maximizing and sustaining results.
The Mekong Art & Culture Project could only purpose a new model, which alleviates some of the pressure, as an experimental mechanism for art institutions to strengthen their abilities. A complete evolution, when institutions can grow and engage many audiences, while withstanding the many external traditional pressures, will only be possible if the efforts started by The Mekong Art & Culture Project are implemented in the long term.
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1.Somrak Sila, ‘Art Appreciation and Cultural Policy in Thailand’, unpublished MA thesis, University of London, 2006.
2.Keith Wallace, ‘Public Engagement in Contemporary Art’, in Public Art In(ter)vention,Fly with Me to Another World Project, Lamphun, 2006, p. 57.
3. Phatyos Buddhacharoen & Ark Fongsmut, ‘Preface’, in The OVERSEAS International Art Project, Faculty of Painting Sculpture and Graphic.
- Mon, 1 Oct 2007