With hordes of skilled young artists emerging from its colleges, Thailand should be home to a thriving contemporary art scene. But experts in the industry say government neglect has ensured the kingdom is the Asian art world’s best-kept secret.
"Thailand produces about 2,000 artists every year from art institutions. Where are those artists’ works? The government isn’t recognising their work," fumes art activist Chumpon Apisuk.
Chumpon is spearheading a popular campaign to push for the construction of the nation’s only contemporary art centre. Slated to be built in a prime location in downtown Bangkok, city authorities have now controversially altered the plans.
The Bangkok Metropolitan Art Centre was a pet project of the capital’s previous governor, the progressive Bhichit Rattakul, who envisioned a publicly funded but independent centre for modern art.
His conservative successor, Samak Sundaravej, says the 300 million baht (7.4 million dollar) price-tag is too high, and without consultation is pushing ahead with an alternative plan to build a shopping mall on the site.
The art museum will be a mere attachment — a prospect that appalls art lovers who want the matter settled by the country’s administrative court.
"We’re suing the government, including the prime minister, the minister of the interior and the governor of Bangkok for neglecting the voice of the arts and the arts community," says Chumpon.
Numthong Sea-Tang, who runs the respected Numthong gallery, says a multi-faceted centre is a vital part of educating people about art — which is necessary if artists are to build an audience in Thailand.
"We have the National Gallery but nothing for modern art," he says, rattling off a slew of Thai historical periods whose art is represented at the dusty institution.
"But this century, everything has changed. When you talk about Thai contemporary art from 10 years ago — there’s nothing there. The government hasn’t supported it. How are people going to be educated?"
Numthong says artists currently have to wait up to two years to show their work in temporary exhibitions at the National Gallery or at Silpakorn University, which boasts the country’s most prestigious fine arts faculty.
"In terms of support, Thailand is not a good place to be. Singapore and Malaysia are better than here because they have foundations for artists and government support," says performance and installation artist Jakraphun Thanateeranon.
"The people who work in the government are traditionalists, conservative."
Industry insiders accuse the government of shying away from promoting Thailand as a centre for contemporary art preferring to peddle an image of a traditional land where the arts and crafts of yesteryear are still obediently churned out.
"The TAT (Tourism Authority of Thailand) always promotes Thailand as a land of handicrafts, traditional sculptures and antiques, but they have never promoted Thailand as a country of contemporary art," says Jorn Middelborg, the Norwegian managing director of Thavibu gallery which represents Thai, Vietnamese and Myanmar artists.
Despite the difficulties, Thailand does have a vibrant and diverse artistic scene, thanks to its abundance of homegrown talent, he says.
"There are a lot of things going on and there is a variety and diversity among Thai contemporary paintings that I find exciting."
American gallery manager Ernest Lee, who represents some 25 young Thai artists, agrees.
"What I’ve seen here in Bangkok is fascinating and rather diverse. I think that from my experiences, and what I’ve seen … I find Bangkok and Thailand to be the best-kept secret in Southeast Asia for art," he says.
"But (the art scene) has always been stuck in its own little compartment. It’s always been here, it’s been here for the last 50 years but it’s been hidden, more hidden than it should be."
Yaovanee Nirandara, Thailand’s representative for Christie’s auction house, says the international market for Thai contemporary paintings is relatively static, but the auction house is doing its bit to promote them.
"We like to promote them because old (artworks) are more and more difficult to find. We like to promote new artists, the good ones, and we’ve had quite a good response."
While artists complain that a lack of commercial support is hindering their careers, gallery owners say the artists must help themselves by becoming more business-minded.
"Artists here are in a dreamworld. It’s very nice, but they don’t recognise the gallery system," says Chatvichai Promadhattavedi, who was director of the groundbreaking but now defunct Bhirasri Institute of Modern Art for 12 years.
"If I were someone in power I would see to it that the gallery system develops. There have been serious galleries but they have not been able to survive," he says.
Chatvichai is also critical of the lack of infrastructure in place to promote contemporary art and culture in Thailand more generally.
"There is no infrastructure, no genuine art circle, no audience," he says.
"Society is losing quite a lot by not focusing on culture. Here business and government people have not realised that culture, design and art can be part of industry."