Portrait of ERIC BOOTH.

Committed to the New

Eric Booth

Also available in:  Chinese

Having lived in Chiang Mai off and on over the past four years, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Eric Booth repeatedly at MAIIAM Contemporary Art Museum, which he founded in collaboration with his stepfather, Jean Michel Beurdeley, back in 2016, shortly after I first arrived in the city. Jovial and unpretentious, Booth has a passion for experimental art and progressive politics that is rivaled only by his enthusiasm for having a good time, as evidenced on the occasion when he booked a famous molam band to perform songs of the lively, northeastern Thai style at a MAIIAM exhibition opening, where I found myself one of three people dancing exuberantly in the front row, alongside Booth himself and the renowned curator Gridthiya “Jeab” Gaweewong. In January, I met up with Booth once more at MAIIAM, where we strolled through the galleries as he filled me in on how it all began. 

The son of William Booth, director of the Jim Thompson silk company, and the late Patsri Bunnag, one of Thailand’s first fashion models, Booth spent his youth in Paris, where his stepfather ran an antique showroom and collected work by Chinese expatriate artists such as painter and dancer Lalan and abstractionist Zao Wou-ki. Through spending time with Beurdeley and his step-aunt, a scholar of 1930s European art, Booth was immersed in the art world at a young age. Originally, he thought he would join his stepfather in the antique business, but after he graduated from Georgetown University with a BA in history, he visited his father in Bangkok in 1993, and fell in love with the buzzing energy of the Thai metropolis. The economy was booming and he found work providing stock tips to overseas investors—an occupation he maintained until the economic crash of 1997, after which he joined his father in running the Jim Thompson fashion label and cultural foundation.

During his early years in Bangkok, Booth was a frequent attendee of the endless parties in the city, and since his mother-in-law didn’t take kindly to him coming home at all hours of the morning, he moved to an apartment on Soi Langsuan. It was while living there that he met Jeab, striking up a friendship that lasts to this day. As he tells it, “Coming home at ten in the morning, I would always pass by this small gallery [Dialogue Gallery] and wait for the gallerist to come open it, and it was Jeab. So while all my friends went to sleep, I would spend hours chatting with her, learning about the Thai art scene.” At Jeab’s recommendation, Booth acquired a few works by Montien Boonma, initiating what would grow to become one of the most comprehensive collections of Thai contemporary art assembled to date.

The late Montien is renowned for his use of quotidian materials such as mud and medicinal herbs in his sculptures and installations, and was highly influential on successive generations of Thai artists. In the 1990s, although performance- and installation-based practices were emerging in Thailand, the appetites of collectors for such work was low, keeping prices affordable. This enabled Booth to acquire work from many of the trailblazing artists active at that time, such as the figurative painter Vasan Sitthiket, who stirred up controversy with his inflammatory depictions of corrupt monks and politicians, and Kosit Juntaratip, an early adopter of performance and process-based art. A particularly incendiary piece from Booth’s collection is Kosit’s mixed-media work Copulate With Love (1994), which the artist made by repeatedly ejaculating onto a canvas that was then mounted ironically in an ornate frame. Given the deeply entrenched preference for traditional modes of painting and sculpture within the conservative Thai art establishment, this gesture constituted a historic volley in the ideological battle between the old guard and the new. 

Other historically significant Thai artists in Booth’s collection include Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook, the provocative artist and writer who founded the multidisciplinary art department at Chiang Mai University, and the abstract painter Mit Jai Inn, a behind-the-scenes instigator of the Chiang Mai Social Installation, a festival of public performances and installations that temporarily put this small yet culturally vibrant northern Thai city on the global contemporary art circuit during its six editions throughout the 1990s. While by no means exhaustive, the collection makes a great resource for the student of Thai art, with each piece representing a story to unravel. 

Exterior view of MAIIAM Contemporary Art Museum, Chiang Mai. All images courtesy MAIIAM.

It was in 2014 that Booth and his stepfather had the idea to share the collection by building a private museum. Located outside the city center in the sleepy township of San Kamphaeng, MAIIAM was converted from a warehouse into a fully functional museum, with a bookstore, a cafe, and an arresting facade of glittering mirror segments. In addition to an upstairs gallery devoted to the permanent display of works from the collection, there are multiple galleries for temporary exhibitions and a film-screening room, all centered around a giant atrium used for performances and lectures. Setting up shop in Chiang Mai was a strategic move, in line with Booth’s egalitarian aspirations to redistribute cultural capital away from the center of power toward the margins. As he explains, “It’s just sad and boring that all the decisions are always made in Bangkok, for Bangkok. It’s so elitist and conservative. In the end, we decided to follow in the footsteps of the numerous artists, musicians, and authors who have moved to Chiang Mai over the past 30 years.” 

Other areas where Booth considered building MAIIAM included Patani, the southern border province where Malay-speaking Muslim separatists have been locked in a bloody struggle with the central Thai government for decades, and Isan, the impoverished northeastern region, which served as a refuge for communist guerrillas during the Cold War. Although they ultimately settled on Chiang Mai, Booth’s commitment to engage with the aforementioned regions can be seen in his programming choices at MAIIAM, which hosted the exhibition “Patani Semasa” in 2017, featuring 27 artists making work about life in the volatile southern provinces, and in his decision to launch a new art space in Khon Kaen, one of the main cities in Isan. 

The new space will bear the full name Manifesto by MAIELIE. Just as “MAIIAM” translates to “Brand New” in Thai, “MAIELIE” means “Brand New” in the Isan dialect, which draws from both Lao and Thai. Born out of the biennial event Khon Kaen Manifesto, initiated in 2018 by critic Thanom Chapakdee and a group of Isan-based artists with Booth’s support, MAIELIE is slated to open in late 2020. Unlike MAIIAM—which, with its gleaming facade, can be cold and intimidating for locals—MAIELIE is being constructed in a downtown storefront, intended as a warm, welcoming place for workshops about art, culture, and politics. At the same time, Booth is overseeing the construction of a 3,000-square-meter expansion for Bangkok’s Jim Thompson Art Center, the diverse programming of which will continue to be overseen by Jeab. And so, while Booth has already done plenty to support the Thai art scene over the years, he is just getting started.

SUBSCRIBE NOW to receive ArtAsiaPacific’s print editions, including the current issue with this article, for only USD 95 a year or USD 180 for two years.  

ORDER the print edition of the May/June 2020 issue, in which this article is printed, for USD 20.