A national blindside for contemporary art

A national blindside for contemporary art

Ten million baht was the sum that 81-year-old Waraporn Suravadi, the caretaker of the Bangkok Folk's Museum, needed to buy the plot of land next to her museum, which was to become the site of an eight-storey building. That construction project could potentially spoil the view and atmosphere of the museum -- a well-preserved war-era teak house that displays rare and valuable items dating back more than 100 years, to the reign of King Rama V.

Last Monday, after a period of just two weeks, Waraporn had managed to secure the sum through public fundraising and bought the land by contributing 30 million baht of her own.

It's good news not just for cultural enthusiasts and activists but for Bangkokians in general, as this is one of the few places left where people of several generations can learn about and appreciate the life of Bangkokians in the old days.

Waraporn did appeal for help from City Hall, but to no avail, and this miraculous turn of events, the outpouring of donations from the public, is no less than a slap in the face to the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration.

More importantly, the incident has also brought to mind a persistent issue that's part of the bigger picture -- the lack of a clear direction in art and culture, not just from the BMA, but on a national scale, from a government body like the Ministry of Culture.

That the project, like the Bangkok Folk's Museum, failed to get attention from the state is surprising, considering Thai authorities' usual soft spot for all things traditionally Thai. What this means for other cultural sectors, like contemporary and modern art, is that they're facing an even bigger challenge when it comes to seeking support from the government.

Still prevalent is the notion that "good art" has to be something that's traditionally Thai, and the way the state's cultural policy, which has doggedly clung to that very idea, has too many times proved detrimental to the development of Thai contemporary arts.

In the past few years, we have had more than a few such examples. Take last year's Photo Bangkok Festival, the country's first photography festival, which took place across the city with Thai and international artists participating. There was no support from the Office of Contemporary Art and Culture. Bangkok's first International Children's Theatre Festival, held earlier this year, was ironically supported by the Japan Foundation Bangkok and foreign embassies. Although the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre was also one of the sponsors, proper support from the government could have undoubtedly aided the festival even further.

Contemporary visual art is one of the areas that has been hit hard by the lack of visionary initiative on the government's part. We realised this a long time ago, but it's the recent opening of two major art spaces that really put things into perspective.

Late last year, Singapore launched its magnificent National Gallery, and the point is not only for us to see how much their government is willing to implement good infrastructure for cultural development. The gallery has established itself as the hub of Southeast Asian art, and though it may be a joy for others, it's sadness for Thais to see some of the works in their collection. A number of works by Thai masters in the modern era are displayed -- from Montien Boonma's famous installation work The Pleasure of Being, Crying, Dying And Eating up to Manit Sriwanichpoom's "Pink Man" series -- and it's such an irony that we have to travel all the way to Singapore just to look at pieces that originated here.

Likewise with the recently opened Maiiam Contemporary Art Museum -- where there's a rich private collection of Thai modern artworks by Kamin Lertchaiprasert, Chatchai Puipia, Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook, Navin Rawanchaikul, Natee Utarit, Vasan Sitthiket, Pinaree Sanpitak to Rirkrit Tiravanija -- we once again wonder why there's never been a project initiated by our state's cultural sector that aims at collecting these valuable works.

Collecting doesn't just mean we will have artworks in our national collection; it also means establishing a system in which Thai artists, especially the young and emerging, can sustain themselves. The right direction for government funding is key, and this, of course, applies to all fields in culture and the arts, be it theatre, film, music, design or fashion.

Singapore spent S$532 million (13.8 billion baht) on the development of its National Gallery. It seems like a lot of money, until we realise what all that can turn into. Thailand is by no means poor, but while having money is one thing, having the vision to spend it right is what we are yet to attain.


Kaona Pongpipat is a writer for the Life section of the Bangkok Post.

Kaona Pongpipat

Writer for the Life section

Kaona Pongpipat is a writer for the Life section of the Bangkok Post.

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