BMA must keep hands off art centre
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BMA must keep hands off art centre

The Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (BACC), a landmark cultural site in the capital, is celebrating its 10th anniversary, but with an uncertain future. The recent bid by Bangkok governor Aswin Kwanmuang to take back the centre's management is really not a good sign.

In a recent interview with local media, Pol Gen Aswin attempted to justify his ill-boding bid by citing various problems at the centre, which is partially supported by the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) due to its faltering balance sheet.

Under the plan, the governor wants to place the BACC under its Culture, Sports and Tourism Department. He even boasted of the BMA agency's ability to operate the centre "with transparency".

The suggestion sparked an outcry from both artists' groups and art lovers who are readying themselves for another battle.

In fact, this is not the first time the BACC has had to grapple with the ugly hands of the state. The struggle began even before the centre, a brainchild of then-Bangkok governor Bhichit Rattakul, came into existence. When veteran politician Samak Sundaravej replaced Mr Bhichit in 2000, he reimagined the centre, given its prime business location in Pathumwan district, as a shopping-mall-oriented project despite the plan receiving harsh criticism for his overtly commercial agenda.

The plan stalled under Mr Samak, and when his successor Apirak Kosayodhin reviewed the plan, he agreed to cut back the retail space in accordance with a petition from the artists.

The BMA under Mr Apirak finally started the BACC project with a 509-million-baht budget in 2005 in an endeavour to make Bangkok a city of culture.

However, when it was opened in 2008, the centre faced another hurdle as it found itself crippled under the tight control of the BMA, whose bureaucratic style of management did not fit well with the remit of the centre which requires flexibility and, more importantly, direction from those with knowledge of culture and art.

Only after a big fight in 2009 did the BMA agree to cede control, allowing the centre to operate under an independent foundation which is how the centre still operates today. It has become a city attraction, and hosts many events in addition to art exhibitions. It received about 1.7 million visitors last year while managing to pay for nearly half of its 79 million baht operation cost.

Under the agreement with the BMA, the foundation -- which changes the management board every two years -- has the right to run the centre for 10 years and there is still another three years remaining. If Pol Gen Aswin is serious with his take-back idea, the BMA would have to breach that agreement, something that will put the agency in legal hot water.

If that really happens, it means the centre will either go back to its bad old days -- operating under tight bureaucratic control -- or there will be changes in the elements of the foundation with intervention from Pol Gen Aswin. The latter is likely as the incumbent board has just completed its term, and the appointment of its replacement is pending. There are fears that Pol Gen Aswin could intervene at this stage, appointing people that will support his take-back idea. Either way, Pol Gen Aswin will face strong resistance.

More importantly, there are complaints that Pol Gen Aswin did not consult with the centre's management before making his reclamation bid. This has sparked fears that the BMA might want to enter into a fishy deal with newcomers.

Not to mention that both the BMA and Pol Gen Aswin have little, if any, experience in cultural management. The governor seems not to understand that culture is intangible and citing profit, or lack thereof, makes his proposal more than disputable.

But, as a full battle over BACC ownership looms, it's necessary that the BMA makes the issue public by providing all the facts and giving proceedings a necessary element of transparency. It's a must that the BMA verify its accusations and allow those involved to defend themselves before it makes any move.

The best way would be to organise a public debate which would allow the public and the artists themselves to contribute towards a more informed decision over the BACC's future.

In any case, the BMA must be aware that bureaucracy, and top-down administration with no channel for public participation, will only doom the BACC.

Moreover, Pol Gen Aswin must prepare to be upset by the fact that even though the BMA paid for the construction, and provides an annual subsidy, the agency has no ownership rights over the centre.

The BACC belongs to the public, not the governor nor the BMA. The centre must be operated under its original remit -- to be a place for the exhibition artistic expression and somewhere the public can visit to enrich themselves culturally. He has no excuse to ignore this fact.

If the BACC is to change hands, it must be for the better, not worse.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

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