By Siriwat Pokrajen
(1,180 words, 6-minute read)
Anyone following the news about the Thai art scene must have already known about all the rough storms the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (BACC) has been sailing through in the past couple of years. First, there was the announcement that the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) would cut all funding to the BACC starting from October 2017 (Fiscal Year 2018). One year later, the BMA mooted and promptly scrapped plans to manage the centre and turn it into a co-working space, following a public outcry. The latest in a string of bad publicity for the centre is the recent dismissal of its director, Pawit Mahasarinand, effective 1 October, just 1.5 years into what was understood to be a four-year appointment.
“Probably like most people, I’m still in shock,” shares Pawit, speaking to me over the phone. For the first time in his life, the former director of the embattled art centre finds himself unemployed following the decision of the board of the BACC Foundation not to “renew his contract”. He had left his teaching position of 25 years in Chulalongkorn University for this appointment in March last year.
The latest turbulence in the fate of what’s supposed to be Bangkok’s premier publicly funded art centre became known to the public in late September. In an open letter to the media, Pawit reported his dismissal and claimed that it was due to the dissatisfaction of the BACC board with his public remarks on the budget cut by the city government. Also mentioned in the letter were the board’s offer for Pawit to resign for things to “look better”, which he declined, as well as his request for the board to reveal his performance report.
“It’s like a student getting kicked out of school because the headmaster says he has flunked,” Pawit says to me. “The student has the right to know his evaluation and the scores he got. Now it’s been over 30 days [since being informed about the evaluation] and I haven’t seen my report.” He also notes that the Administrative Court has the power to order the disclosure of his performance report, though he hopes that things wouldn’t go that far. He isn’t alone in demanding transparency from the BACC board. On October 9, a group of Thai citizens issued a petition to the BACC with more than 1,500 signatures demanding the public release of the performance evaluation report. The Bangkok Post noted that BACC foundation secretary Chatvichai Promadhattavedi rejected the demand, on the grounds that the report was a private matter.
The BACC issued a public statement on 11 October 2019, published in Thai here, stating that there had been three performance evaluations held during Pawit’s tenure, and that at least for the first two, suggestions for improvements had been made known to him. The third performance evaluation was done on 20 August. On 31 August the BACC Foundation informed Pawit of the evaluation results and of the non-renewal of his contract, specifying 30 September as his last day of duty. The statement noted that Pawit had acknowledged the results and the non-renewal of his contract with a signature, but on 24 September, went on to reject the agreed proposal and issue a letter to end his duty on 30 September 2019. The BACC also said in the statement that the Board had met in early October resolving to invite Pawit “for explanation and to acknowledge the details of his evaluation… as soon as possible”, though no date for this was specified.
“I know my performance wasn’t perfect,” says Pawit about his brief stint at the helm of the BACC. “There are so many problems. I did my best at damage control and the damage has been under control to a certain extent.” Pointing to achievements such as the exhibition Tian Tian Xiang Shang: Arts is Learning Learning is Arts earlier this year being fully sponsored by the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office in Bangkok, Pawit notes that the embattled arts centre “is now in a much better condition than when I came in”.
From Pawit’s point of view, the true reason for his dismissal has to do with his comments to the press on the art centre’s ongoing turmoil. Since taking up the position, Pawit has been known to be outspoken, and in Oct 2018 he brandished the BACC’s unpaid utilities bill after BMA cut off 80 million baht in funding, as 250 black-clad artists and supporters held protest signs saying things like “Hands Off Our Art Space” and “Get Out”.
“I was standing between two groups of people,” says Pawit, acknowledging that neither group would be totally happy with his actions. “On one side, the board wanted me to be quiet and negotiate. On the other side, the artists wanted me to go all in and be open about my criticisms. I chose to stay in the middle and speak out about certain things that the public needed to know. They should know what the problems are because it’s their tax money that the BACC has been spending.”
The funding cut was enacted after Pol.Gen. Aswin Kwanmuang, Bangkok’s current governor, pointed out that the BMA is not obligated to pay for the BACC’s operations, according to a contract between them. He was appointed to the office by the previous military government in October 2016, eight years after the centre opened in 2008. To date, the BMA has not provided any funding for three fiscal years. More worrying was the BMA’s failure to establish a strong board to support the existence and free management of the BACC – the BACC Foundation had no board members for 15 months since Pawit took office in March 2018. Five out of six members of the selection committee for the board were selected by the BMA, three of whom were officers in the rank of a general. The current board was only appointed in May this year.
Asked what his frustrations may be right now, Pawit laughs before pointing to how political things became at the art centre. The history of the BACC has been rife with politics. Its establishment came after a long and hard-won victory by the Thai art community, one that took continued public campaigning for over a decade and four Bangkok governors before the art centre finally opened its doors in 2008.
The bigger question is whether it is possible to have a publicly funded art centre, or simply general support to the arts, that doesn’t hinge on the political will of a government or an individual politician. So far, the hopes of the Thai art community seem to rest on getting a new governor from the next elections. But if history is any indication, such hopes could be misplaced. As the BACC looks for a new director, perhaps the more practical question moving forward would be how to design its administration to ensure more transparency and efficiency. Surely, the public deserves at least that.
Siriwat Pokrajen is Documentation Officer at SEAMEO SPAFA (Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization Regional Centre for Archaeology and Fine Arts) and a regional representative of the Mekong Cultural Hub.