Dec 19 2011

Thailand’s floods take toll on artists and galleries

by Brian Mertens

Jirapat Tatsanasomboon, I Will Survive!, 2011, acrylic on canvas, 100 × 130 cm. 

Thailand’s most devastating floods in more than half a century, which resulted in at least 693 deaths and USD 41 billion in damage, also wreaked havoc in art and culture. As waters overflowed the banks of rivers and canals in some 50 of the nation’s 77 provinces from July through November, the inundation swamped artists’ studios and forced many galleries, museums and film productions to suspend operations. The floods were especially destructive to cultural sites such as the UNESCO World Heritage Park in the ancient capital of Ayutthaya.

Among the dozens of artists whose homes or studios were affected, are Navin Rawanchaikul, Somsak Raksuwan and Panya Vijinthansarn. Vasan Sitthiket, who produces his feisty figurative political paintings at his studio in the riverside province of Nakhon Sawan, north of Bangkok, was forced to evacuate his art works by boat, losing some in the process, according to Jorn Middleborg, managing director of the Thavibu Gallery, which represents the artist. Veteran editor and photographer Niwat Kongpian lost his archive of tens of thousands of books as well as magazines and photos accumulated over three decades, according to Dr. Apinan Poshyananda, director of the Department of Cultural Promotion at the Ministry of Culture.

Unlike manufacturers, arts practitioners and institutions are not covered by the government’s $1.5 billion in flood rehabilitation aid, despite a policy in recent years to support the development of the country’s creative industries. With this gap in mind, Apinan and other officials at the Ministry of Culture have been compiling a list of artists, filmmakers, writers and other creatives who suffered losses from the floods, in order to estimate the extent of the damage. “It’s hard to persuade these government committees to see losses in terms of individual artists, because they look at big factories and whole industries. But at least if we have these numbers, they can be aware,” Apinan said.

Most galleries and museums were spared from direct damage because they are located within central Bangkok, which was protected from floodwaters. Thavibu Gallery, for example, is located on the third floor of a mall on Silom Road, a major thoroughfare that stayed completely dry. Yet, according to Middleborg, the gallery saw a 50 percent decline in visitors, because about half of his gallery’s visitors are travelers from abroad, who have avoided Bangkok in droves during the floods. Thavibu’s sales to regular customers and via the internet have partly compensated for this decline in visitors. However, the gallery has been more strongly impacted by the eurozone economic crisis in the past five months which reversed an upturn during the first half of the year. “It’s a global market, and our sales depend on the global economy,” noted Middleborg.

Other galleries eluded floodwaters but had to close temporarily. One was the Ardel Gallery of Modern Art, run by artist and curator Thavorn Ko-Udomvit. Although the gallery itself was not inundated, floods in the surrounding neighborhood, which is outside the city center, forced it to shut for three weeks in November.

The yet-to-open Thai Contemporary Art Museum stands on a plot of raised ground, which protected it from the waters that swamped its environs on Rangsit Road, near the old Don Muang Airport. Yet that private institution’s launch, originally scheduled for December, has been postponed to 2012, when conditions are expected to have returned to normal.

Less fortunate was another Bangkok private institution, the Museum of Museums. It suffered heavy damage to its structure and collection, which comprises artifacts of Thai popular and folk culture.

The few areas still inundated as of mid-December, mostly around the outskirts of Bangkok, are expected to be flood-free by the New Year.