ALTHOUGH Bangkok Governor Aswin Kwanmuang has withdrawn his controversial proposal that the city take over management of the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (BACC), considerable doubt still hangs over the facility’s future.
The Bangkok Metropolitan Administration, which owns the building and the site, has indicated it will allow the non-profit BACC Foundation to run the centre until its current contract expires in 2021, but Aswin has offered no guarantees about what happens then.
And the foundation, for the first time, received no funding at all from the city this year, leaving it with only Bt20 million – insufficient to continue operations through next year should the city fail to provide support again.
Aswin has assigned the Office of Culture, Sport and Tourism to discuss further funding with the centre’s directors, but the budget has been a grave concern for the last three years, for both the foundation and the Artists Network for a Free BACC.
BACC director Pawit Mahasarinand, who is also The Nation’s theatre critic, suggests the budgeting crisis runs deeper than do worries about a city take-over.
“Now that people including Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, who appointed the governor, have voiced their opposition online to the BMA’s proposal to immediately take over the BACC … isn’t it time to change the campaign hashtag from #freebacc to #savebacc?” he asked.
“The fact most people don’t know yet is that in this fiscal year ending on September 30, our budget is with the BMA’s Office of Culture, Sports and Tourism. We’re past mid-May now and we haven’t been able to get anything, except for covering electricity and water, invoices for which are being sent directly to the BMA.”
Pawit said the centre is currently operating on “savings” from the past 10 years, but that money is disappearing fast “because we want to keep all activities running as planned. We’d like everyone to feel that, notwithstanding this problem, it’s still #yourbacc.”
Since it opened in 2008, the Bt509-million culture centre has been a platform for sharing creative ideas. “It’s a public centre where people from all walks of life can enjoy freedom of expression,” said Artists Network leader Chumpol Apisuk. “The BMA doesn’t understand that its role is to support and fund the centre.”
His group – backed by more than 500 other artists and civil society activists – lobbied Prayut last week over the centre’s future. Many of those participating in the effort were the same people who had pushed previous Bangkok governors to get the long-promised, long-delayed facility finally built. Planning began in 1994, but political shifts spanning the terms of three governors meant it wasn’t finished until 2008.
Since it’s an art centre, people directly involved in the arts question the management skills of the BMA bureaucrats. The Artists Network has suggested the foundation press Aswin for long-term solutions regarding management.
The group also has three other requests, Chumpol said.
“We’ve asked the BMA to extend the foundation’s contract to manage the centre immediately without any conditions, to ensure sustainable management by resolving legal difficulties in funding, and to let us help the governor select members for the BACC board and committees.” Pawit noted that the Singapore Art Museum had total expenses last year equivalent to Bt466.9 million and the government covered Bt296.4 million (63 per cent) of that. The BACC spent Bt75.8 million last year and received Bt45 million from the city (59 per cent).
And yet more people visit the BACC every year than the Singapore museum, thanks in large part to its greater variety in programmes, ranging from dance, theatre and music to film and literature. “Last year 1.7 million people visited the art centre, of whom 35 per cent were students,” Pawit said.
He suggested a new model for its management. “It’s universally known that PPP – public-private partnership – is the way forward for cultural management, because it means more efficiency and transparency and more independence from political influence or even interference.”
Local artists, connoisseurs and private firms have contributed money to help keep the centre going. Among them are Natee Utarit, history professor Neungreudee Lohapon and B-Grimm Co. There’ll also be a 10th-anniversary “#yourbacc” campaign with fundraising events and discussions on the centre’s fate.
“The BACC belongs to the people of all of Thailand, so a keyword for the anniversary is ‘inclusiveness’, and #yourbacc reflects this,” Pawit said.
“We’ll address issues we haven’t. We’ll make sure that those who haven’t visited BACC do so and come back again soon. We’ll take risks, artistically, with more interdisciplinary works. We’ll make sure visitors step out of their comfort zones and experience arts in genres they’re not yet familiar with. We’ll prove that the foundation’s contract is worth extending.”