BANGKOK, THAILAND — The idea for the Thai Art Archives grew out of a conversation Gregory Galligan had with two art professors from Bangkok’s Silpakorn University back in 2007. They told Mr. Galligan — at the time a New York-based art critic and curator — that the country lacked a proper modern and contemporary art archive.
Their example was Montien Boonma, an internationally respected Thai artist who was 47 years old when he died of cancer in 2000. His sketchbooks, photographs and library were still being kept in the family home, looked after by his son but not organized.
“He was a good example of why they felt an archive was needed,” said Mr. Galligan, sitting in the archive’s offices at the Bangkok Art and Cultural Center. “So we were founded in many ways on the case of Montien Boonma.”
“Montien Boonma: Unbuilt/Rare Works,” at the Jim Thompson Art Center in Bangkok runs until July 31. It is a culmination of work that the archive has focused on since Mr. Galligan and his Thai-born wife, Patri Vienravi, an architect, moved to Bangkok to found the archives in 2010. The goal over the next year is to raise an endowment to make the archive a Thai nonprofit foundation.
“The archives were founded on the notion that I would get this up and running and build it so it will be fully Thai staffed,” said Mr. Galligan, who co-curated the exhibition with Gridthiya Gaweewong, the art center’s artistic director. “I am setting a pattern in place, but like every great archive or museum, you have a staff that makes decisions and these things grow and diversify.”
Mr. Galligan is one of several expats (or farangs, as foreigners are called in Thailand) who are involved in the city’s vibrant contemporary art landscape, which in many ways is very accepting and welcoming but there are some constraints, including censorship and a fragmented art scene that at times can be insular. Often, exhibitions focused on international artists do not receive coverage in the Thai art press. “Farangs play a very important role in the image of what goes on here,” said Pier Luigi Tazzi, an Italian curator who splits his time between Thailand, Italy and France. “They are still connected to their own countries so these links are still very attractive in terms of communication.”
Expats have long been involved in the city’s artistic scene. Corrado Feroci, an Italian-born sculptor who took on the Thai name Sipla Bhirasri during World War II, is considered to be the father of Thai modern art, in part because of his founding of Silpakorn University, considered one of the leading fine arts school in Thailand. Jim Thompson, the Delaware-born designer credited with revitalizing Thailand’s silk industry, collected historic artwork from Thailand (as well as from Burma and Laos). Even before he disappeared in 1967 while on holiday in Malaysia, his Thai-style house and art collection were open to the public; the art center is an annex on the grounds of the property, which is one of the most visited tourist spots in Bangkok.
In the 1970s, a group of Thais and expats founded the Bhirasri Institute of Modern Art, with works donated by both Thais and foreigners. After the death of the chairwoman (who also owned the building), the institute closed in 1988 and the art works are now kept in storage.
Chatvichai Promadhattavedi, who served as the institute’s director, stated that its demise was the inspiration for the setting up of the Bangkok Art and Culture Center.
“BIMA shows how locals and internationals have been involved in building up the art infrastructure in Bangkok for generations,” said Ms. Gaweewong, who studied art management at the Art Institute of Chicago.
In the 1980s, the Visual Dhamma gallery — owned by the Austrian Alfred Pawlin — was one of the first expat-run galleries to promote both Thai and international artists. And Mr. Pawlin is credited with helping to propel Mr. Montien onto the international stage.
Starting in the mid-1990s, the commercial gallery scene in Bangkok has flourished. 338 Oida, which opened in November 2012, is owned by Rene Feddersen, a Thai-born collector of Anglo-Indian and German parentage. The gallery represents both Thai artists, including Mit Jai Inn and Chitti Kasemkitvatana, as well international artists like Achim Kubinski and Dennis Balk, a Bangkok-based American.
“Places like Thailand and Malaysia are starting to get more attention in the art world,” Mr. Feddersen said. “That is the reason that I shifted from collecting to starting a gallery because I think that interest is really growing.”
Jorn Middelborg, who is Norwegian, came to Bangkok 19 years ago for a job with Unesco. His gallery Thavibu (an acronym for Thailand, Vietnam, Burma), begun in 1998, was the first Thai gallery to sell works internationally over the Internet. Bangkok is, he said, “an inspiring environment” for international artists to work.
Chris Wise, an American photographer, agrees. He and his Thai wife, Somrak Sila, opened the (mostly) noncommercial gallery and cafe, WTF (Wonderful Thai Friendship), three years ago. “Bangkok is a great opportunity to try stuff and the pain of failure is not as great as it would be in other places,” said Mr. Wise. “Expats are coming here, not to teach English, which was the route before, but to maybe start a graphic design business or be a graffiti artist. And they are making Thai friends and pulling them along, exposing them to stuff in their own country.”
That exposure to the city’s art scene has also been helped along by the Bangkok Art Map, which was founded by Steven Pettifor, a Brit who moved to Thailand in the mid-1990s. The bilingual map lists events, exhibitions and openings across the city each month.
“In the years I have been involved in the art scene here, I have seen more and more committed international people who bring with them a professionalism from their part of the art world they work in,” said Mr. Pettifor, who co-curated the Thai pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2011. “The quality of Western artists who are based here has also become more varied. ”
Varsha Nair is one such person. An Indian artist, she says that the city inspires her creativity.
“When I moved here, it freed me up in a very big way,” she said. “Things happen more organically. I found it wonderful to be in that environment, it really fed me as an artist.” Chris Coles, an American painter who worked in film production in Hollywood, agrees. It is, he said a great city for an artist to live in in part because it is cheaper than New York, Hong Kong or London. “You have Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, and every ethnicity on earth, with constantly wacky and weird collisions of first and third world,” Mr. Coles said. “It is a visual gold mine.”
There are, of course, constraints as well. Many expats and Thais alike complain that the art scene is fragmented and can be insular. Some of the national institutions tend to work only with Thai-trained artists and curators and are not inclusive of foreigners or even Thais who studied abroad. Some Thai collectors shy away from buying at expat-owned galleries, and art criticism is still in fledgling stages.
“When I first came here, you could not really criticize an art exhibition as it was seen as culturally offensive with this whole culture of shame,” said Brian Curtin, an Irish art critic who runs the curatorial program at the American-owned H Gallery. “Shows were examined more through a moral code than art criticism.”
There are also censorship issues; people have been imprisoned for pushing artistic boundaries, especially when it comes to criticism of the Thai royal family. Expats and Thais admit privately to self-censorship when works or exhibitions might be seen as going too far.
But some artists have begun to explore controversial subjects.
“I think there has been great work done to nudge and push those boundaries,” said Bow Wasinondh, a British-trained Thai curator. “Art that is being done now is to propel questioning.”
Bangkok, said the British artist David M. Mitchell, who spends part of the year in Bangkok, could be one of Asia’s major art centers. “And lots of people are trying to allow that to happen.”
1st photo from Thavibu Gallery, 2nd from Bangkok Art and Culture Center, 3rd, interior of 338 Oida