Thailand’s universities and their galleries have played a major role in developing the country’s art scene, and serve as fascinating contrasts to the commercial world of Bangkok and Chiang Mai’s privately owned galleries. Much more than student-run spaces, the galleries at Slipakorn, Chulalongkorn, Chiang Mai and Bangkok University are cultural hubs featuring works by prominent artists from Thailand and abroad.
Art is a fundamental part of Thailand’s cultural and social identity. A core subject on the national curriculum, and a way to get to know the country’s rich history, it is universally perceived as a natural element of Thai education. However, the importance of teaching art and giving a platform to present art to the public is recognised beyond the domain of compulsory education; a number of universities also treat art studies as a serious part of their curricula and are active in promoting the arts in their own galleries and exhibition spaces.
For many centuries, education in Thailand took place at home, in the temple or at the palace. Parents passed on social values and traditions to their children, teaching them skills they would need for their profession, equally passed on from one generation to the next. In the temples, monks took over this responsibility and taught boys to read and write, immersing them in Buddhist scriptures and wisdom. In turn, these Buddhist beliefs and literature inspired craftsmen to produce art, which – at the time – was seen as practical, rather than purely aesthetic or decorative for its own sake. Even the more intricately decorated objects in the royal palaces or temples, which later gained the status of classical Thai art, were initially produced with a religious or everyday purpose in mind.
In the 19th century, Thailand’s education system underwent a process of modernisation, heavily influenced by the West, as a result of developing politics and stronger trade relations with Europe and the US. King Mongkut (Rama IV. 1851-1868) and his successors obliged teachers to instruct the royal students in English; later, the public was taught a selection of special subjects. In 1921, education became compulsory for all.
Thailand’s most important governmental institution for education and cultural affairs is the Ministry of Education; one of its departments coordinates and develops all cultural activities that happen under the Thai government’s auspices. As a result, a number of public as well as private cultural centres have been founded by the Ministry to guarantee general access to culture.
As public institutions, universities play an important role in disseminating and exhibiting Thai and international works of art. More specifically, as Chiang Mai and Bangkok are certainly Thailand’s hubs of cultural and artistic activity, their respective universities take the lead in showing works of historic and contemporary value, and contribute to Thailand’s booming art scene.
King Chulalongkorn’s successful government introduced a number of much-needed reforms, one of which was an increased amount of support given to the educational system. The king founded a school in 1871 within the grand palace compound; 11 years later, it became a study space for government officials. His son King Vajiravudh (Rama VI. 1910-1925) remembered his father’s intention to create an institution for higher education, and so established a school, where the extended curriculum included fields such as law, international relations, engineering or medicine. In 1917, he this school became Chulalongkorn University, in honour of his father. Today’s curriculum features a highly appraised programme for applied and fine arts, and the university prides itself on its thriving cultural scene, enlivened by the works of professors and students alike.
The university’s art centre is located on the seventh floor of the campus-based Centre of Academic Resources. The gallery’s goal is to exhibit much more than traditional fine art works and media, such as painting, sculpture or photography; their special interests lie in more experimental, innovative ideas realised through multi-disciplinary practices. In addition to well-known national and international artists, the gallery also shows works by the university’s academic staff and art professors. Jamjuree Art Gallery, a smaller space on the same campus, has a similar vision, but focuses on student-produced works.
Pradit Tungprasartwong’s Confrontation: Three Elements of Life is on show at the Centre of Academic Resources from 21 December 2013 until 8 February 2014.
In the 1920s, King Chulalongkorn sent for the Italian artist Corrado Feroci to work as sculptor in the Fine Arts Department of the government’s headquarters. Feroci was assigned to teach government-employed craftsmen about western techniques and the craft of sculpture, with a view to building monuments for the country’s capital. The artist grew so attached to Thailand and its culture that he became a Thai national, taking on the name of Silpa Bhirasri. He extended his classes, began to teach members of the public and, finally, set up the School of Fine Arts. He brought the premises of academic art to Thailand, teaching his students to work from nature, all the while encouraging them to keep learning about Thai art. In 1943, Bhirasri’s school evolved into Silpakorn University.
At the beginning, only two subjects – painting and sculpture – were offered. With time, more programmes were included: in addition to painting and sculpture, students could immerse themselves in architecture, archaeology and the decorative arts. Nowadays, the university comprises the faculties of Art and Design, Music, Science and Technology, among others.
Silparkorn University’s art centre is located in the heart of the campus, in former royal buildings. It presents contemporary art by a range of international artists, as well as examination works prepared by its students, and the works of art tutors and professors. While temporary exhibitions are a regular fixture, the gallery is home to many other artistic activities and major events: among them are the National Art Exhibition, the Exhibition of Contemporary Art by Young Artists, and the National Ceramic Art Exhibition, all highlights on Thailand’s cultural calendar.
Established in 1962, Bangkok University is the oldest private university in Thailand.
The University Gallery, BUG, opened in 2006 with the intention of exhibiting student- and staff-produced works. Each year, BUG organises six exhibitions accompanied by lectures, seminars, art projects and workshops, to ensure that an informative background complements the art on display. One of the most interesting recent exhibitions, Sweet Nightmare, included works by artists such as Arin Rungjang, Dusadee Huntrakul, Jaitip Jaidee, Kornkrit Jianpinidnan, Santi Lawrachawee and Thanarat Siripidej. Through conceptual mixed media installations, the artists delivered a profound insight into their personal stories.
Bangkok University’s Rangsit Campus is home to the Southeast Asian Ceramics Museum, which offers an unmatched insight into the way ancient ceramics were made in Southeast Asia. The museum, which is also a research and training facility, shows the artistic considerations and history of pottery, as well as the process of pottery preservation.
Chiang Mai does not have the same metropolitan character that Bangkok is so well known for, but it still manages to present a solid choice of cultural activities for art lovers. Set in a modern, Thai-designed building, the Chiang Mai University Art Museum opened in 1998. As northern Thailand’s principal cultural organisation, the museum covers exhibitions on contemporary art from Thailand and abroad with a great dose of energy and enthusiasm. An annual highlight is the international festival, which represents the museum as a centre for education and culture with an international outlook.
Located inside the university is also the gallery of the Faculty of Fine Arts, where photography, painting, sculpture and design cross paths in collections by students and art tutors.
The Pin Mala Art Hall, also known as the Chiang Mai University Archives, is located opposite the Central Library on campus. The exhibition space documents the university’s development through the years, illustrating aptly the changes in artistic trends and movements witnessed by the university.