How the art scene persists amid a crisis that is very much cultural
As founding director of Bangkok's La Lanta Fine Art, Sukontip Prahanpap is now struggling with the impact of Covid-19, especially following the government's announcement that it will close down museums and other public spaces until the end of this month.
"Our gallery regularly participates in international art fairs to promote our artists' work to international audiences. With the recent escalation of Covid-19, all of the art fairs that were scheduled for spring and early summer have been postponed to autumn. Consequently, our programmes have to be adjusted to this new schedule. The postponement of the art fairs is having a major impact on my work," she said.
With the arrival of the novel coronavirus 2019 that has so far infected over 1,875 and killed 15 Thais, the country's art scene, once bustling and alive, has become a shadow of its former self. The practising of social distancing and spike in number of cases has dampened the enthusiasm of everyone to leave home and risk exposing themselves to the virus.
Sukontip admitted that the Covid-19 pandemic is uncharted territory and a unique situation for Thailand's, if not the world's, population, and each cultural institution has its own set of challenges.
Philanthropic painter Pairoj Pichetmetakul. (Photo by Panu Wiwattanapa)
"Apart from organising regular art exhibitions at our premises in Bangkok, our gallery also schedules a series of programmes to exhibit in international art fairs. When the fairs are not taking place, our artists lack exposure to exhibit their artwork. To manage this lack of exposure, we focus our attention on domestic art collectors as well as existing clients in our database. We are also spending more time on digital technology, making sure our current online platforms are operating effectively as well as exploring new ones in order to reach out to international clients."
The uncertain atmosphere at this time also has a direct impact on consumer spending. On the Thai art scene, some galleries have already announced temporary closures of around one-and-a-half months in the widespread effort to contain the virus. That means there are fewer activities in the art scene, with some shows being postponed or cancelled.
"The artists and galleries alike are feeling the impact of the standstill," Sukontip added. "The priority is for people to focus on staying safe and helping the containment effort. From a financial point of view, artists and galleries are going to find it a very challenging time and will need to manage costs carefully as well as be creative with limited resources. With stock markets in freefall, now may be a good time to view art as a viable alternative investment.''
Also affected by the gravity of Covid-19 is curator Nim Niyomsin, who was planning to have the month of March until June free so that she could explore other Asian countries' art landscapes, particularly Japan and Taiwan, as well as go back to the United Kingdom to see a potential art space.
Contemporary artist Imhathai Suwatthanasilp. (Photo courtesy of 1PROJECTS gallery)
"Covid-19 impacted my plan to explore international art markets, which was something I had planned for the next move of my career. I had to cancel all the trips. I also missed visiting one of my artists during her residency in Japan," she said.
"Moreover, it has affected the preparation of my next exhibition, which will happen in August, as one of my artists' work involves a collaboration with a very big group of people in a government compound, and everything is on lockdown at the moment. So we just have to wait and see. Luckily, none of my artists lives outside Thailand."
Covid-19, according to Nim, also has a huge financial impact on the sale of art, which had dipped drastically as the economy has taken a thrashing by the pandemic, forcing art collectors to be cautious of their spending.
"Many international art events, residencies and fairs are cancelled. That definitely affects the income of artists, curators and galleries. I know of galleries that even lost some money due to cancellations. For artists, it also means a loss of opportunities abroad, which could have been their big break," Nim said.
Echoing this sentiment was up-and-coming artist Imhathai Suwatthanasilp, who believed Thailand's art scene has been hard hit by the sharp decrease in number of collectors and visiting galleries since Covid-19 first surfaced. Above all, this also affects artists' incomes.
Imhathai -- who is known for using human hair as part of her art -- has been forced to adjust by using social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram in addition to starting her own website to keep collectors and enthusiasts updated on her works.
"I have all along featured my art in galleries, but did think to bring that experience online one day. I never really got started on making this happen in a serious manner, even though I always knew of its numerous benefits. I plan to use this crisis as an opportunity to do just that. My plan is to offer the audience a reality tour of my next exhibition online."
Imhathai, however, believed that the impact of Covid-19 could very well revolutionise the manner in which business is conducted in the art world. "We could be seeing collectors dealing directly with the artists, when it comes to the purchasing of work."
"I feel owners of art galleries are more impacted by Covid-19 than the artists themselves," she added.
Yet some artists could feel the impact more than others. Take Pairoj Pichetmetakul, for instance. Probably the first Thai artist to have been allowed to sketch and paint Rohingya refugees in settlements in Bangladesh, Pairoj said the government's "soft lockdown" barring him from public places is indeed one of the challenges he is encountering at the moment.
"The most salient part of the inspiration for my work is derived from my interaction with people around me and public areas," he said. "That means I need to have that one-on-one experience with people before I can draw. This is why I often visit crowded public areas in Bangkok to gather the material I need to work on my paintings.
"So the biggest impact Covid-19 has had on me is probably the inability I now face in being able to do just that. Social distancing, a measure required to stop the spread of this virus, has become the biggest barrier in my work, but I don't have a choice. Working at home, I am able to get information off the internet but it cannot replace the emotional inspiration I get from looking in the eyes of people I meet."
But on a bright note, Pairoj said the experience of spending large amounts of time alone had made him realise the need to look after himself, his loved ones and society.
"Kind gestures like purchasing facial masks for not just yourself and loved ones but also others if you can financially afford to do so is one way to show community support in these unprecedented times. We can also play a role in helping society heal by pooling our individual talents to support the needs we find today. As an artist, I can come up with creative ways to design face masks that don't just offer quality but also comfort."
Sukontip said the ongoing crisis can also be considered an opportunity for gallery owners to research alternative methods for reaching out to the art market, largely via digital channels, which makes clearer than ever the need to fortify their client databases to remain relevant.
As for Nim, while her plan to explore overseas art scenes has been scrapped, she chooses to remain emotionally strong by searching for local alternatives. "Unlike my initial plan to look for more opportunities outside Thailand, I am now looking inward. I spent the time that I was supposed to be on the go to search for new opportunities locally. I am now working on several small and quick art projects. Many are with new networks and galleries, those I have never worked with before.
"I also have more time to work on exhibition proposals, and on things such as archiving my exhibitions, systemising my artists' portfolios that I had put off because it was mundane. This is also a good time to pause to re-evaluate your life and career and plan for the future," she added.
Amid the crisis, Pairoj admitted that artists are now holding back on incurring additional expenses at this time by making do with the art tools they have. While they are waiting for the Covid-19 situation to get better before purchasing any new items for projects, Pairoj does have his own way out.
"To supplement my income, I plan to start selling cloth masks and begin an online food and drink business," said the artist.