How this civic haven for contemporary art owes a debt of gratitude to the Thai Artists Network and its supporters
The Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (BACC), which opened in 2008, has become the surprising success story of the Bangkok art scene. Visit it any day of the week (except Monday) and you’ll see gaggles of people—locals, tourists, children and students—milling about contentedly viewing art or enjoying the space. It has the cool, light-filled ambience, and soft murmuration of visitors that any civic gallery around the world could wish for. A casual observer might assume this was all par for the course in a city such as this, but in fact, BACC’s existence today is a miracle of perseverance. That there is any kind of public art centre in downtown Bangkok is due to the great, great determination of the Thai Artists Network and its supporters.
In its modern era (the last 100 years or so), official Thai interest in the arts has been sporadic, or completely absent. There is a national gallery in Sanam Luang, but since it was first mooted in the late 20th century, if not before, the very idea of a municipal art gallery has received fragile or very little state support. How could an affluent metropolis such as Bangkok not have a representative art centre for its citizens, with publicly accessible exhibitions of local and international art and photography? The Thai Artists Network fought long and hard at every level to get the government to understand the vital importance of art to a society and its ‘intellectual development and creativity’.
The story of the BACC reflects the same recent narrative as elsewhere for the arts in Bangkok: setbacks after the stockmarket crash in 1997 followed by years of political upheaval. For the BACC, the situation was compounded by the 2001 appointment of Samak Sundaravej as Bangkok governor, a reactionary with no interest in art, let alone an art gallery for the people. In fact, his intention to have the land already set aside in Pathumwan used instead to build a commercial retail space was the very nadir of state philistinism and corporate narrow-mindedness.
It was not until the appointment of Apirak Kosayodhin as governor, in 2004, that the art centre was given the green light, with BACC finally opening four years later. A declaration was agreed between the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration and the Art and Culture Alliance, which summed up its perception of the value of art for Bangkok in the final statement: “BACC visualizes itself as a centre of cultural diversity for a sustainable social development.”
The building was designed by the regional architect firm Robert G. Boughey, with the specifications that it should “be modern in every respect but … should reference historic or generic Thai forms”. These are vaguely referenced in some sloping walls, slit windows here and there, and “curved profiles on certain roof elements and sun screens”. The finished building has 10 floors with the top three being the main galleries and part of the 4,000 sq.m of exhibition space. On five of the floors there are shops, a library, conference rooms, cafés and bookstores, and two further floors underground. But some argue the architecture leaves a lot to be desired. It bears a poor similarity to the spiraling Guggenheim in New York City, several design features could be improved, and it’s a crass case of “enter” through the giftshop, rather than “exit”.
However, these are truly churlish points when you remember the remarkable achievement of simply having anything as good as this. The gallery spaces are huge, with suitably high walls to show the biggest paintings, installations, and sculptures—if necessary—and there are powerful industrial lifts hidden at the back to bring up the works. The central atrium neatly unifies the whole space, and is crowned by a vast skylight that casts a holy glow down to the ground floor. And, most useful of all, it connects directly to the BTS skytrain at National Stadium.
The calibre of the BACC’s shows is often excellent, particularly when the centre hosts biennales, travelling exhibitions, and ‘blockbusters’ curated by the likes of Apinan Poshyananda. The most recent show—Sebastião Salgado: The World Through His Eyes—is a wonderful retrospective of the legendary Brazilian photographer, whose extraordinary social-documentary works fill the largest gallery. The exhibition drew steady crowds of visitors, and as one visitor said, “The success of this show at BACC is something we should all take heart from. BACC is the highlight of the Bangkok art scene, by no grand design but through happy accidents and interventions.”
By Ralph Kiggell