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Bangkok now needs its own multi-genre arts festival

The number of arts venues in Bangkok - galleries, playhouses, and multi-purpose venues - has risen significantly in the past few years, consequently so has the number of arts events.

And yet, one cannot categorically state that the arts are prospering here in the City of Angels. That's partly because the concept of the arts being for everyone has not yet been brought to its full fruition. When it comes to this "a" word, many Bangkokians - artists, audiences, patrons, supporters, and scholars - seem oftentimes to associate it in both theory and practice with an "e" word - elitism, that is - socially, economically, and educationally.

Last month, Bangkok arts lovers were blessed with two multi-genre and multi-venue cultural festivals, namely "La fête: French Cultural Festival" and "Italian Festival 2008: A Celebration of the Italian Way of Life in Bangkok". Apart from exhibiting contemporary works from both countries, or what we usually do not get to see the rest of the year, both month-long festivals showed promising signs of collaboration between foreign and Thai artists, as well as a mix of expat and Thai audiences.

Besides, the fact that many events were either free to attend or reasonably priced and that they were held at various spots along the MRT and BTS lines, including such easily accessible places as major department stores downtown, helped bolster support. That is to say, we did not have to make much of an extra effort, budget- and travel-wise, to enjoy these works.

In fact, extra effort needs to be put now into overcoming our biases and taking risks. Despite the multi-genre nature of these festivals, most of us stuck to the venues and types of performances with which we were already familiar. Movie buffs went to the film festival component held at a famous cinema; classical music and dance aficionados attended symphony concerts and dance performances at Thailand Cultural Centre; and little less. I usually arrived at the latter venue about an hour ahead of curtain time to make sure there was a parking space. As such, during these festivals, I wish I had better options open for me to kill time, like a relevant visual arts exhibition to browse at my leisure, rather than chatting and socialising.

The festival organiser could have further pitched in by holding more than one event genre at one single venue on one day. It may sound like a buffet, but with the fuel price rising indefinitely as it is, we need to see as many selections as possible before making a decision and without feeling overstuffed. And this has already happened - not at an arts centre, but at a shopping centre which has both movie houses and open areas for concerts and visual arts exhibitions, as well as other commercial distractions.

And now that we have seen two good examples from our French and Italian counterparts, what are we going to do?

We have Bangkok's International Dance and Music Festival, the Bangkok Theatre Festival, the Bangkok Fringe Festival and two jazz festivals, in addition to other festivities and celebrations year-round. Perhaps, with the opening of the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (BACC), run by the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration, we can - and have every right to - hope for the first Bangkok Arts Festival soon, or even leaping ahead by adding "international" after the city's name right away. After all, the centre was built to serve as a multipurpose venue that can hold a variety of arts and cultural events and would serve effectively as a centre for the city's first multi-genre arts festival. The BACC, we have been told, will not prioritise one discipline of the arts over others, and will open its doors to people from all walks of life.

One reason we need another festival is that two major trends in contemporary arts are: a movement towards the interdisciplinary and another towards the intercultural- and what we are doing seem to be running in the opposite direction.

This kind of arts festival - provided that it is well-directed - would show how various disciplines of the arts can interact with one another and break down barriers among artists and audiences, as well as encourage collaboration and crossovers. Held in a country rich with its own cultural heritage and one that has opened its arms to foreign cultures for centuries, this arts festival could also show how the traditional and the modern, the local and the foreign, the Asian and the European/American, as well as new trends like classical/contemporary, are all pieces of the puzzle that need to be put together to form one complete picture of the contemporary arts in Thailand. And this is not for tourism purposes. It is first and foremost for the residents of Bangkok.

Of course, this will never be possible without financial and administrative support from government agencies and corporations. And then the mass media should take notice, and while still mentally spoon-feeding us with entertainment, start delighting and challenging us with the arts once in a while. When it comes to the arts, what most mass media outlets have been highlighting of late is what they think the audience is interested to know more about, usually events with high PR budgets. For example, at the moment, they have been successful in making Bangkokians believe that there are only two theatre events next month. Indeed, there remains a long journey ahead, and if we are on the right track, we will reach our destination one day. Let's make sure first that we all agree on where that is.

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