The Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (BACC) at the bustling Patumwan intersection, where popular culture and consumerism converge, was a long time in the planning. Three consecutive city governors spent nearly a decade wrestling with ideas and blueprints.
But how to make its operation sustainable could be an even more difficult undertaking.
Marking its 10th anniversary next Saturday, the centre is facing fresh challenges in budget shortfalls and the possibility that City Hall will take control of its operation. And this comes at a time when the centre’s role is shifting – from art gallery to more socially involved meeting place with activities suitable for anyone and everyone.
The BACC Foundation is currently negotiating with the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) to retain management control and secure municipal funding.
The BMA gave the foundation between Bt40 million and Bt60 million every year for the past 10 years, but this year cut the amount way back. Bangkok Governor Aswin Khwanmuang has suggested that the BMA take over management and turn the centre into a co-working space, infuriating art fans.
City Council has set up a committee looking at the non-profit BACC Foundation’s management style and transparency in keeping the books.
Committee members paid an initial visit to the centre on July 10 and found no indication of graft. They wondered, though, whether a municipal regulation introduced last year means the BMA’s Office of Culture, Sports and Tourism should be funding the centre.
“The council is pleased to support the foundation in running the art centre,” committee chairman Kamron Komomsupakit told The Nation Weekend.
“The law does in fact allow the BMA to provide a support budget to the foundation, but it must submit its budget proposals to the Office of Culture, Sports and Tourism for approval,” he said.
Pawit Mahasarinand, the centre’s director, was pleased with the outcome of the visit.
“The committee suggested that our directors meet with the BMA office as soon as possible to find ways to amend our contract so that council can approve the support budget legitimately,” he said.
“Council made this very suggestion when it declined to approve our 2018 support budget last year and instead sent it to the BMA office. But nothing has happened in the past 12 months in terms of our contract.”
The BMA’s failure to contribute to the centre’s funding this year has left it struggling financially, but it still has helpful supporters. Among them is the Thai affiliate of multinational conglomerate B Grimm, which recently hosted an exhibition and sale of artworks, raising about Bt4 million for the centre.
The Bangkok art scene is robust, with more than 100 galleries and other venues and some 15,000 artists living here, plus thousands of people working at cultural institutions. But government support is hard to come by. Unlike many big cities, Bangkok’s art centres and museums generally do without cash injections from the municipality or central government.
“All art institutions need to be subsidised and the government needs to be the one doing it,” said Chalida Uabumrungjit, deputy director of the Thai Film Archive. “They can’t survive only through fundraising and sponsorships. We have to convince the BMA to see the benefit of having an art centre in the city.”
Sansern Milindasuta, who chairs the BACC executive committee, conceded that the centre’s fundraising this year had fallen short of needs. “We still need support from City Hall, and it’s the BMA’s role to maintain this city-based centre.”
Pawit said the centre still planned to cooperate with educational institutions in hosting activities.
“Next year’s programmes will be varied and look at a broad range of issues,” he said. “They will not only serve art lovers but also include activities for the disabled, schoolchildren and the elderly, as well as LGBT people.”
And the centre has a new cash-conscious slogan – “The less we spend, the longer we stay.”
“We’re looking for more partners to help us stage various events,” Pawit said. “It’s a different model of work, but the more, the merrier.
“Last year, 1.7 million people visited the centre, of whom 35 per cent were students. The attendance figures for the fiscal year ending June 30 reached 849,163, a 13-per-cent increase from the same period a year earlier.”
More foreigners are expected to visit this year with the inaugural Bangkok Art Biennale beginning in November and continuing into February. The Bt150-million festival of contemporary art will have 75 artists from 33 countries displaying their work at a dozen venues, including the BACC.
“Expanding the audience is important for any cultural institution because it justifies its existence,” Chalida said. “The BACC has the benefit of being right in the city centre, making it easy to share the art with the general public. BACC need to be confident in emphasising that art is important for everyone. In return, people will have faith and support the BACC.”
Long-term sustainable management will be the linchpin, though.
“We’ve studied many cultural institutions in Thailand and overseas, like the Thailand Creative Design Centre and the Singapore Art Museum,” Pawit said. “We all agree that the PPP model [public-private partnership] is best suited to the BACC. Otherwise, the government or an academic institution or private owners would be running it.
“Once the foundation and the Office of Culture, Sports and Tourism solve the contract issue, I’m certain that City Council will approve a support budget for us and the PPP will resume.”