When the government didn't interfere as protesters read poetry in front of the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (BACC) to rally against Premchai Karnasuta's killing of a protected black panther, it was a pleasant surprise. When they didn't obstruct Thai artist Vassan Sittiket's retrospective that included artworks criticising Thai society, things started to look even more hopeful. The BACC, about to celebrate its 10th anniversary, kept pushing the envelope, and the government didn't react like it normally would.
Yet, after a few weeks of wishful thinking, the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) opened up its jaws.
On May 11, junta-appointed Bangkok Governor Aswin Kwanmuang declared that the BMA planned to reclaim full management of the BACC and "develop" it into a co-working space. The decision was to be made the next day, with the reason being that the centre was poorly run due to the lack of tables and chairs for students to use. Sure.
Many people may not know, but the BACC has been run by an independent board called the BACC Foundation, whereby the board of directors and executive committee members are made up of leading Thai artists, academics and businessmen.
This prevents the government from interfering with any of the shows and activities -- especially in terms of censorship, propaganda and blatant corruption -- and allows the BACC to run as smoothly, independently and openly as any art centre in Thailand can. With the BACC Foundation's contract about to end in 2021, it would be fantastically naive to assume that the sudden urge to shift management was due to a lack of furniture.
Aswin also claimed that the BACC ran at a loss; that they've been mismanaging the 40-plus million baht the government provides every year. The BMA -- specifically, the Culture, Sports and Tourism Department -- he said, could manage the money in more appropriate ways.
Yet he conveniently seemed to forget that when the exact same department fully ran the BACC in 2008 and 2009, the centre was crippled with mismanagement. Look back at any news article about the BACC during those years and you'll find information on bureaucratic officials refusing to co-operate with artists, mishandled shows, and even delayed reimbursements for any advanced money that artists had to pay for their own exhibitions. Management was so bad that artists like Chumpon Apisuk threatened to pull out their shows if the independent BACC Foundation wasn't put in place, which it then was.
It also seemed to slip Aswin's mind that last year, when the BMA provided the centre with 45 million baht, the BACC, according to its director, Pawit Mahasarinand, made an additional 18.8 million baht from rent, 13 million baht from private donations and 5.3 million baht from other sources. Having a total income of 82.1 million baht and using 75.8 million for their exhibits and shows, where exactly is it running at a loss? Furthermore, why would the BMA care so much about the 40-some million baht when it's literally 0.05% of the overall annual budget of the BMA?
Although the governor scrapped his idea two days later due to a huge public backlash led by leading Thai artists like Vasan Sittiket and Manit Sriwanichapoom, he's still keeping quiet about whether or not he will provide the annual budget for 2018 and upcoming years. Now running on its savings and private donations alone, the BACC will simply have to figure out a way to keep the art centre running as independently as it can.
A public art centre ideally is a reflection of a country. The reflection may sometimes be ugly, but it's a reality we have to accept. In a democracy (yes, I realise we aren't exactly in one), there needs to be mirrors to keep the powers in check, and museums and art centres function as those mirrors. It allows people to have a voice and feel a sense of ownership of their own history and narrative. But once it's run by government bureaucrats, not only will it be riddled with corruption and mismanagement like what happened in 2008; there's only one big narrative they'd like to push. So if the government can't handle a bit of paint on canvas, then they really shouldn't be even thinking of running an art centre in the first place.
The BMA should really go back and do what they do best: chopping down lush trees for no reason, kicking out street-food vendors, not fixing broken pavements and turning Bangkok's streets into a cockroach-infested canal after every downpour.
Apipar Norapoompipat is a feature writer for the Life section of the Bangkok Post.
Apipar Norapoompipat is a features writer of the Life section of the Bangkok Post.