Art space: the final frontier
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Art space: the final frontier

The Bangkok Art and Culture Centre is actually a lot cooler than you may imagine

SPECIAL REPORT
Art space: the final frontier
The centre welcomed 300,000 people in 2008 and 1.7 million last year, thanks to the introduction of a range of cultural activities. Now Bangkok governor Aswin Kwanmuang wants to reclaim management of the facility.

Out of the blue, Bangkok governor Aswin Kwanmuang recently floated the idea that City Hall should take over managing the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (BACC).

He said he wanted to add more tables and chairs for students because he has seen many of them sitting on the floor at the centre.

He also reported the centre telling him it couldn't purchase more chairs at his request because the facility is managed by the BACC's foundation, not the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA).

Following that incident, Pol Gen Aswin then said it would be a good idea for the BMA to take over its management given that the local administration already provides up to 40 million baht a year in funding to the BACC.

But he was immediately challenged by artists. Their opposition was powerful enough to make the governor post a message on his Facebook account saying he would not interfere with the BACC if that was what the public wanted.

With the issue stirring much debate in the capital, the Bangkok Post took the opportunity to have a coffee with Pawit Mahasarinand, director of the BACC, to find out more about the centre.

Mr Prawit, who was appointed its director in March, said he hadn't held the position long enough to be intimately acquainted with all of its visitors' needs and expectations, so he wanted to invite people to give feedback and suggest ways in which the experience could be improved.

"Everyone is always welcome to drop by, even if it's just for a coffee or to use one of our restrooms," he said.

Please tell us about the BACC's history

The BACC was built based on an investment of 509 million baht from the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA). It was inaugurated on July 29, 2008 when Apirak Kosayodhin was the governor of Bangkok. The nine-storey building also has a three-level basement -- one level houses a library and the other two serve as car parks. The BACC is managed by the BACC's foundation but a deputy Bangkok governor and the head of related BMA divisions are also on the management committee.

The BACC's income normally comes from donations received by the BACC's foundation, revenue gained by collecting rent from the space rented out to shops and activity organisers, and annual funding from the BMA.

Last year, for example, the BACC was given 45 million baht from the BMA. It earned 18.8 million baht from rent, 13 million baht in donations and another 5.3 million baht from all other sources. That meant the total income in 2017 was 82.2 million baht, while the total operational cosst were 75.8 million baht.

I also have a feeling that many people ... may think the BMA manages the BACC, which is a common misunderstanding. The BMA provides funding to the BACC because it owns the land on which the BACC is located.

Can you compare the BACC to other art centres in Bangkok?

One advantage the BACC has over other centres in town is its prime location. It is easily accessible, in the same area as Bangkok's major shopping centres. The location is a very short walk from the BTS Skytrain, so visitors don't have to drive there if they don't want to.

This makes it easier for visitors, either tourists visiting the nearby shopping centre who drop into the BACC, or those people who come here intending to take a look inside. After all, location isn't everything. What if the BACC's proposal is not good enough? Then it wouldn't be able to compete with other art exhibition halls.

We're actually not positioning the BACC as a place where only paintings are put on display. We have various arts and art events for visitors to choose from. We have performing arts, music, films, talk shows and so on.

Other than that, we have a variety of culture-based activities on offer and we would like visitors to try them as well. I always encourage people to widen their fields of interest in the arts and be open-minded to something new. Who knows? You may like it when you try it.

With more than two decades' experience as a teacher before I became the BACC director, I always apply the principle of "education first" in my job.

I expect to see a learning process across various branches of the arts. This is an era in which one artist can create various types of art at the same time. They could be a painter, filmmaker and dancer at the same time. The BACC works with various networks of artists from a range of fields and from all parts of the country. They come to us with a proposal as to how they want their work to be exhibited at the BACC, and when. The BACC then assesses the quality of the work proposed for exhibition and its worthiness to be presented to the BACC's visitors.

The rent imposed on shops inside the BACC is far cheaper than the rates offered at department stores in the same area because we are focusing more on shops with cool ideas, not ones that just intend to achieve maximum profits.

Apart from working with those networks, the BACC also cooperates with a network of art exhibition centres, for which it helps promote activities. This helps make it easier for art gallery visitors keep track of the latest information about art events around town and in the country.

How many visitors does the BACC get on a typical day?

Last year we recorded 1.7 million visitors, so that would average out at about 5,500 a day. Most of them are students and tourists.

Some people have observed that many Thais aren't that interested in the arts, so most visitors at art exhibitions and museums here are foreigners. Is that right?

My guess is that stems from the education system in which young students are normally taught to only learn drawing, painting and dancing without being guided to appreciate art. And when they grow up, most lose interest in drawing, painting and dancing.

Our education system also lacks a sense of connection between the arts and other disciplines, even though they are all linked. Art can be found everywhere, even in a scientific subject like botany, in which students are required to draw and paint pictures of plants.

I remember meeting a foreign teacher who took his students to see one of Shakespeare's plays. He was a history lecturer, actually. I also met a French teacher who took his French class to an art exhibition. With this difference in educational practice, it's no surprise to find that many Thai children love to visit a shopping mall, whereas they would feel awkward visiting an art gallery.

What would be an ideal solution to this problem?

An art exhibition hall should be made to feel lively and full of activities that appeal to visitors. It should also serve as a public forum where people feel encouraged to exchange ideas and thoughts about arts and culture in a democratic environment.

I would also hope that anyone who visits an art exhibition centre always learns something new. At the BACC, we have staff members ready to guide visitors around as they explore the different exhibitions. They don't have be a huge group to request this kind of assistance.

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