In an era of state cutbacks in culture, it is not unusual for a public art institute to be short of money. But the situation that Thailand’s biggest public art gallery finds itself in is unusual, and extreme.
On September 26, the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre’s director, Pawit Mahasarinand, received a “final demand” from the water department that said the BACC had two months of unpaid bills and was about to have its supply cut off.
“Coincidentally, that was the day we were holding a press conference about how the sudden withdrawal of government funding was putting our future in jeopardy,” Pawit says. “A lot of people’s reaction was that it was ridiculous. How can a government-owned building get its water cut off?”
It should have been a good year for the BACC, often described as Thailand’s Guggenheim Museum because of the dramatic spiral walkway connecting the upper floors. The nine-storey art centre, which includes galleries, performance spaces and a library, is celebrating its 10th anniversary – it drew a record 1.8 million visitors over the past year – and it is playing host to Bangkok’s first major international art biennale.
On October 17, a huge crowd gathered at the centre for the Bangkok Art Biennale’s opening ceremony, which featured performance artist Marina Abramovic, with works by 25 out of the 75 artists taking part in the multivenue biennale on display around them. Choi Jeong-hwa’s giant Basket Tower (2018) hung all the way down the central atrium.
“People may come in now and think the situation is normal. It’s my job to make them think so,” Pawit says in his office, away from the hubbub of the VIP opening. “But without the [Bangkok Art Biennale], I wouldn’t have had the money to create any exhibitions here and people wouldn’t be coming.”
It all started in July last year. The military junta-appointed city council was combing through the books of the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration and checking for faults, Pawit says, adding, “They said the contract between the BACC and the city did not specify that the city has to support the centre at all.” Then in May, Bangkok’s junta-appointed governor, Aswin Kwanmuang, said he wanted to take back the building that houses the BACC and turn it into a co-working space.
That prompted a #SaveBACC social-media campaign and a Change.org petition that gathered more than 25,000 signatures. Naowarat Pongpaiboon, Thailand’s national artist, sent a poem to Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha urging him to intervene.
“The governor dropped the plan but there is still no money coming in and we are stuck,” Pawit says.
Until last year, the city government handed the BACC an annual lump sum of 40 million baht (HK$9.5 million) to 45 million baht, which constituted the bulk of its funding. But for the financial year beginning October 1, 2017, the government changed its practice. Instead of granting the lump sum set aside for the BACC, it asked the centre to apply for reimbursements for each expenditure.
“But they didn’t reimburse us for anything,” Pawit says. “The city just paid for our water and electricity even though the contract said it wasn’t supposed to pay for our bills directly. And then they stopped around two months ago. That’s why we had the notice from the water authorities.”
This financial year, the budget didn’t even mention the BACC.
But why? The Thai economy grew 4.5 per cent in the first half of 2018, the strongest pace in years. And Thailand seems keen to promote arts and culture. Four international contemporary-art events were launched this year and a number of major art galleries and design centres are being built by the federal government in the capital.
Perhaps it has something to do with the BACC being a hub for protesters of all stripes and political colours, Pawit says. In 2014, the BACC plaza became a gathering place for protesters during the tense months leading up to the ousting of prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra. It has also provided a venue in which non-governmental organisations raise issues that are “not very pleasant to the military government”, he adds. And there may have been art that is seen as too provocative.
“There are always people who say art should not be political but art cannot avoid politics,” Pawit continues. “People have an opinion about things and express it through art. It is important for any democratic society to give space to that and I want to keep it that way.”
In the mean time, all he can do is wait. The junta has now appointed three generals to an advisory team to help end the stand-off. It is supposed to be picking out a new board of directors, which will then begin negotiations about money with the city government.
“The money is running out,” Pawit says. “We do have some income from renting out retail spaces, and sponsorship. But we will need to find new ways to survive if we don’t come to an agreement with the government.”