Bureaucrats and artists no bedfellows
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Bureaucrats and artists no bedfellows

Their sidewalks are crooked, pedestrian bridges poorly designed. When they go out and cut trees, people cry out in horror at the butchers' work. Their bike lanes seem to go nowhere and their sewage covers famously cause people to fall over, requiring hundreds of stitches.

If the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) can't do mundane jobs effectively, what credentials does it have that might convince the public it can manage the more intricate job of running a contemporary art and cultural centre?

Bangkok governor Aswin Kwanmuang admitted last Saturday that City Hall plans to reclaim management of the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (BACC) opposite MBK mall in the city centre.

Atiya Achakulwisut is a columnist, Bangkok Post.

The BACC is currently run by the BACC Foundation whose board of directors comprises prominent people from various professions.

It includes former Bangkok governor Apirak Kosayothin, Culture Ministry permanent secretary Apinan Poshyananda, artist Panya Wijinthanasan, Siam Paragon president Chandathip Chutrakul and Thai Beverage top executive Thapana Sirivadhanabhakdi.

Likewise, the foundation's executive committee is a mix of academics, business people and artists with former theatre arts lecturer Pawit Mahasarinand as director.

Pol Gen Aswin is listed as chairman of the centre's board of advisers.

The foundation was contracted by the BMA to run the art and culture centre for 10 years from 2011 to 2021. The contract which stipulates City Hall has to provide an annual budget of 40 million baht to the foundation still has three years to go.

According to an Isra News Agency's story, Pol Gen Aswin, who was appointed to the job by the military regime in Oct 2016, said he will need to study the contract to see if City Hall taking over the BACC would breach it.

In the same breath, however, he said if the BMA, through its Culture, Sports and Tourism Department does not get to manage the centre, the Bangkok Metropolitan Council may withhold its annual budget contribution.

Is that an offer or a threat?

While the current director Mr Pawit talked about how he wanted to link all genres of arts and culture together, and how he would turn the centre into a place of learning and inspiration, Pol Gen Aswin said there is no need for the BMA to come up with a vision or direction on how it will manage the BACC.

Still, the governor complained that the centre was poorly run because he saw students sitting on the floor for tutorial sessions, according to the news story.

He said he told his Culture, Sports and Tourism Department to buy 10 sets of chairs for each of the centre's floors, only to be told it could not do that because it's the foundation that runs the art centre.

Mr Aswin, who has chaired the centre's advisory board for two years, said it was only then when he knew the BMA had to contribute an annual budget to the BACC. He also reportedly claimed that the foundation ran the BACC at a loss.

Mr Pawit rejected the accusation, saying the foundation has managed to raise extra income from private donors and leases for shops and activities to cover its costs. In fact, the BMA failed to give the centre the 40-million-baht budget in 2009, 2010 and 2017.

Who should we trust? A governor who only cares about having chairs at the centre or the director who is chairman of the Silpathorn Award and National Artist Selection Committees in Performing Arts plus a member of the Southeast Asia Advisory Committee in Taiwan's Ministry of Culture?

In truth, the BACC may be far from being the robust and intellectually stimulating learning space it was envisioned to be but it is doing well under many physical and financial constraints. Many of its exhibitions are well-organised and thought-provoking. There may not be that many chairs but if youngsters are fine sitting on the floor, must this be forbidden?

The BMA's proposal to take over the BACC has been met with an uproar both from artists and the general public. A petition at change.org has attracted more than 12,000 supporters. An art and cultural space should be managed by those who are well-versed in these matters, not by city administrators, say people who are against the BMA's bid.

That the plaza in front of the BACC has often been used for political and anti-coup activities has also raised suspicions over the BMA's sudden need to be the protector of art and culture. Such a motive would be deplorable. But then again, what can be expected from people who can't build a decent bus stop but claim they're running a liveable city?

Atiya Achakulwisut

Columnist for the Bangkok Post

Atiya Achakulwisut is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.

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