The Arts

The Health of the Thai Art Scene

01 Mar 2021

Gridthiya Gaweewong’s passion has always been the arts. She graduated with a master’s in art administration at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her curatorial experience began in 1996 when she teamed up with established artists such as Montien Boonma and Kamol Phaosavasdi to co-found Project 304, an alternative art space near Samsen train station to promote contemporary art. Since 2006 she has been with Jim Thompson, now as its artistic director, organising on average three exhibitions a year.

She shares her overview of the art scene in Thailand.

Please give us a review of the Thai art scene, its health and its direction

The art scene today is quite vibrant and dynamic, despite the Covid-19 outbreak which has been raging since early 2020.  Right after the lockdown, many institutions. artists and collectives strived to survive as a result of the disruptions. Instead of surrendering, they found ways to continue their artistic activities both online and on the ground. In the last quarter of the year, many planned art projects went ahead despite the pandemic, such as the Bangkok Art Biennale, and many exhibitions opened at galleries in and around the capital. Outside of Bangkok, more art projects and small institutions emerged, such as Khon Kaen Manifesto and Ubon Agenda and MAI-ELIE in Khon Kaen. In Chiang Mai too, namely Navin Rawanchaikul’s exhibition to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Montien Boonma’s passing, and a new global art exhibition at MAIIAM Contemporary Art Museum curated by Cosmin Costinas. This kind of energy reminds me of the 1990’s local art scene, which saw the Chiang Mai Social Installation taking place in the north and the opening of alternative spaces in Bangkok, even as an economic crisis started to spread around the country and the region. Art and cultural activities became stronger and more vibrant, all going against the socio-political-economic recession. This was repeated during the recent social movement when students and the public started to protest against the government. In this instance, some pro-democracy artists from many disciplines worked closely with the students’ movement. This is quite phenomenal and shows that the art scene is healthy and moving in the right direction. Indeed, Patrick Flores, the Philippines curator, used this as inspiration for his Singapore Biennale 2019 edition.

However, the future is hard to predict not least because cases of COVID-19 recently resurfaced across Thailand at the start of 2021. Many institutions’ plans and projects are on hold, have been postponed or even cancelled. Many spaces will close temporarily, institutions face financial challenges and artists will find it’s harder to survive. It is likely to be more difficult than in 2020 for us to sustain ourselves. Only major, well-funded, institutions will be okay. Private institutions, like our museums, will suffer tremendously since there will not be any public subsidies. Those that will struggle most will be artists and independent projects. On the bright side, some ecological projects are planned for the North and there are rumours of major private museums and spaces being built in Chiang Mai. I also heard there will be another major event in the Deep South of the country plus an art festival in Loei in Thailand’s northeast. The decentralization process of artistic practices is continuing to grow too.

How do you see the growth of galleries, the business of art, and how they will survive and thrive?

When the economy and political situation undergoes a downturn, art and culture tend to boom. This phenomenon has been seen globally in the past. However, the COVID-19 outbreak happened so suddenly that no one was prepared to deal with this crisis. On a global scale, many museums and international exhibitions have had to rethink their strategies in order to survive; some were able to turn to online events while others had no idea how to deal with this change.

Many collectives among both artists and institutions have emerged, among them Pars (Pathumwan Art Routes), a collective of art spaces, galleries and museums around the Pathumwan area, the Thailand Art Ecosystem, as well as the Surviving and Fighting COVID-19 Arts Alliance. Some online projects have been initiated. We at Jim Thompson Art Center collaborated with the Hong Gah Art Museum, Taipei, to launch an Online Residency Art Exchange Programme with Taiwanese artists, funded by the Ministry of Culture, Taiwan. On a personal basis, I'm working with my curator friend, Nato Thompson, from the US, to launch an online initiative called The Alternative Art School. Many online lectures and discussion programmes have been arranged and conducted by museums regionally, and globally, that share experiences of how to deal with the crisis.

In Thailand, some galleries have closed temporarily, but on the other hand, new small galleries and private and public museums are emerging in and outside of Bangkok. At Jim Thompson Art Center, our new building will be ready around June 2021. However, some public institutions like BACC are still in danger of losing ground and the authority to self-govern. BACC’s future is still uncertain, as is that of  private museums and art centres like ourselves since our income depends on tourism, which shows no sign of recovering in the near future. I can only speak for the non-profit art institutions and independent art projects, which I find are actively engaging with the community and trying their best to survive. I cannot comment on commercial galleries but was quite surprised to see that 100 Tonson Gallery moved from being a for-profit gallery to a non-profit while Numthong Gallery shifted to a ‘project space’.

Is there a platform for artists in Thailand and what does their future growth and success look like?

Artists in Thailand have had many more platforms to show and shine since the early 1990s at the local, regional and international levels. Even though some of the international platforms are on hold or postponed, they still have access to those channels. Over the last decades, local infrastructure has grown at a slow pace. However, there are now more independent art spaces, commercial galleries, private museums and art festivals, biennales and these have become the spaces to incubate, nurture and promote artists locally. Regionally, the networks between artists have grown and institutional exchanges have taken place with the support of international institutions like the Goethe Institut, the Ministry of Culture Taiwan, Japan Foundation and so on.

How do artists have to adjust for the future? Is there hope for the future of art in Thailand?

I see the future as quite bleak and uncertain. I think that not only artists but we all have to learn how to be more flexible or, as Bruce Lee said, ‘be like water’ to deal with this uncertainty. That said, I believe there’s hope for the future. Without hope, it’s hard for us to live and move on.

What is needed from the government sector, the private sector, the public?)

I had high expectations that the state would enhance and assume its responsibility to subsidise art and cultural activities. This was actually written in our constitution. But how the state interprets art and culture is quite problematic, because they tend to see only traditional art, heritage and archaeological sites, and overlook contemporary art and living artists. The state should support art and cultural activities because not only can they use this to promote tourism, but also to nurture and develop the art scene to reach a high level of excellence. It’s not fair for the arts community to be taken advantage of without gaining substantial dividends or support from this kind of campaign. Therefore, we are plan to propose to the government that an art council be created to act as the agency to nurture, incubate, support and promote art and culture that not only serves the national economic agenda but also promotes the excellence of artistic practice itself.

I understand that it’s difficult to ask the private sector for a favour as they too have been hard hit by this current COVID situation.However, I would like to propose to the state that it amends the law by allowing tax deductions from private companies and individuals supporting art. Changing this law would be of mutual benefit to all sectors, both private and the arts community, given the ‘little help’ from state regulations.

Another point that I feel is equally important for artistic practice relates to freedom of expression. There remain taboos and restrictions that limit our performance and prevent us from expressing ourselves publicly, with some artists arrested by the state authority. It’s hard for artists and academia to develop our critical and analytical thinking. This is not healthy at all.  

What things have an influence on the arts other than society and politics?

In recent years, politics has been an important factor that has affected us all, especially in the art community and the younger generation.  Some artists have worked closely with the students and free youth movement in organizing mob fests and fringe programmes along with the demonstrations. I find this platform ground-breaking. It allowed artists and non-artists to perform and use ‘artistic activities’  to express their ideas and political agenda.  

 What would you most like to see happen in the art circle in Thailand?

I would like to see, in fact, the dream of, having a better art ecosystem, in terms of public participation. We need better infrastructure and more developed and visionary cultural policies. For example, Thai contemporary art deserves to be given public subsidies through sustainable policies and funding.

For institutions, we should be more inclusive and engage with wider audiences, not only focus on the art community.

And on the individual level, we have to be less nationalistic and expand our perception and awareness of socially engaged arts at many levels – locally, regionally and globally. 

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