A grumble from the governor revealed how much we love this great art space
Two weeks after floating a test balloon to gauge opinion about City Hall taking over management of the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (BACC), Aswin Kwanmuang must be acutely aware how wrongheaded the idea was.
Bangkok’s governor had paid another of his infrequent visits to the centre and came away grumbling about young students sprawled around the floor doing their homework. He began publicly toying with the notion of taking control of the BACC – which the city owns but does manage – to “maximise” use of such a property, which enjoys a prime location downtown. He proposed turning part of it into one of those “co-working spaces” that have become trendy, and even offered a few dozen worktables.
Aswin apparently believes that empty space inside and in front of a building in the heart of the Pathumwan intersection is a waste and only contributes to the financial burden that the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration must carry. For that he came in for a grilling on the social media and in the real world.
He soon discovered how much the public loves the only public space provided by the BMA in this prime area – and he made the correct decision to back off.
However, the lesson was not fully learned, because Aswin also decided to suspend the city’s annual budget allocation to the BACC, a relatively meagre Bt40 million.
Most big cities don’t give a second thought to subsidising local culture – it’s accepted that artistic expression is an essential element in society, from which everyone benefits and learns.
In Germany, where I’m currently researching urban development as part of the International Journalists’ Programme, the federal and state governments financially support public museums. There are five of them on Museum Island in the heart of Berlin and 12 more elsewhere in the city, all managed by the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation.
Governments do the same in Munich, whose public museums appear on many tourists’ bucket list. The funding enables them to drop the price of admission on Sundays to just one euro (Bt37).
If he were to visit these public museums, Aswin might be surprised. Most are in prime locations and most maintain vast amounts of empty space as part of the design. There are no co-working spaces.
A quick search online reveals just how lucky the Germans are to have their local and federal governments backing the museums financially.
The Berlin mayor’s Cultural Funding Report for 2014 indicated that funding from the city’s senate has steadily increased, from 21.4 million euros in 2011 to 22.2 million in 2012 and 23 million in 2013. That money has gone to all forms of art, ranging from theatre, dance, music and the fine arts to the opera, which in itself is not inexpensive.
Berlin’s official policy names art, culture and the creative community among its key resources. There are an estimated 20,000 professional artists working in the capital, and more than 160,000 people employed in the cultural and creative economy. These facts are partially why Berlin can proudly bill itself as “the place to be” in the world of contemporary art.
Meanwhile back in Bangkok, strenuous efforts are underway to establish a digital economy and “Thailand 4.0”, which is supposed to entail a “creative economy” as well, but government officials seem uncaring about that aspect. Late last month the BMA erased an important chapter in the city’s history by evicting the last dozen residents of the Mahakan Fort community from their homes along an ancient fortress wall. Venerable homes were torn down so the area could be turned into a park. Then the governor proposed turning the city’s only public cultural centre into just another commercial facility.
Is Bangkok gradually becoming another factory churning out reproductions of “Thainess” – those old-fashioned outfits that are fun for a moment but which no one actually wears in real life today? The BMA’s idea of art was perhaps best signified by its Bt39.5-million “Bangkok Light of Happiness”, which illuminated one locale for a month a few years ago.
The BMA doesn’t know much about art (or elegance), but it knows what it likes. The result is bad choices and blunders. The Culture, Sports and Tourism Department under the BMA notes that the city spent Bt58 million on two children’s museums in Chatuchak and Thung Kru, but Bt15 million of that went to CCTV cameras and Bt28 million on landscaping. It spent Bt296 million on conservation in creating the admittedly much-appreciated Bangkok Library on Ratchadamnoen Avenue, but only Bt5 million on books for its shelves.
The children’s museums have proved to be failures, while the library has become yet another co-working space. The BACC can do without the BMA treatment.