A veteran in the Thai art scene
By Ian Tee
Numthong Sae-Tang has been a major proponent of Thai contemporary art since the 1980s, even before he opened his eponymous gallery in 1997. Beginning from humble origins in a small rented room, Numthong Gallery has earned its reputation as one of the leading galleries in Southeast Asia. Seminal figures in Thai contemporary art, such as Somboon Homtientong, Montien Boonma, Natee Utarit, Pinaree Sanpitak and Michael Shaowanasai, are among the artists Numthong has worked with. Today, he is focused on supporting a younger generation of Thai artists and organising exhibitions that strike intergenerational dialogue.
We speak to the veteran Thai gallerist ahead of the reopening of his space in Bangkok. In this interview, Numthong speaks about his gallery's beginnings and development over the last 22 years, as well as his passion for nurturing emerging artists.
I'd like to begin this interview at the beginning. Could you describe what the Thai art scene was like when you started Numthong Gallery in 1997?
I've been involved in the scene for a long time before opening Numthong Gallery. I was working at the Bhirasri Institute of Modern Art (BIMA) in the 1980s and that was where I met many artists and learnt about modern art. Outside of galleries, it was places like the Goethe-Institut, British Council or Alliance Française which had spaces for the arts and for exhibitions.
After BIMA closed in 1988, I worked for two galleries and learnt about the business. The first was called Masterpiece and I was there for eight months before the gallery closed. In 1991, I met a collector who asked me to run his gallery named Dialogue which also shut its doors because it wasn't making enough money.
Frustrated, I decided to do something on my own. I rented a room in a condominium on Thoetdamri Road. In the beginning, it was not a gallery but an art studio where I brought clients to view and select works. I knew many artists and helped organise their shows. That room later became Numthong Gallery in 1997.
The six artists you featured in the gallery's inaugural show are now key figures in Thai contemporary art: Niti Wattuya, Montien Boonma, Chatchai Puipia, Kamin Lertchaiprasert, Vasan Sitthiket and Natee Utarit. What attracted you to their works? And were you already working with them before 1997?
I was attracted to their individuality, which was expressed through the different styles and techniques in their works. Individuality was the keyword that led to the first exhibition ‘Conversing Contemporary’ which was organised in 1997.
Yes, I had worked with all of them before 1997. The first show I organised for Niti Wattuya was in 1981 and we have worked together regularly since. In fact, Niti's last solo show at Numthong was in 2018, titled 'Darken Star'.
I started working with Chatchai, Montien and Kamin in 1985, while the first show I did for Natee was in 1994.
How has Numthong Gallery's role in the Thai art scene developed over the last 22 years?
In addition to presenting quality exhibitions, we also paid a lot of attention towards educating people about contemporary art. This is done through arranging press interviews with artists on television, magazine or online platforms. We have also supported printed materials such as catalogues, posters and postcards for exhibitions. These efforts are undertaken in hopes of generating awareness of art in Thai society.
Numthong Gallery has offered opportunities for young curators to develop their skills and realise their proposals. The space has also been open to young Thai artists for exhibitions and collaborations with international artists or curators. This extends from our residency programme for international artists and we also help Thai artists to coordinate theirs in other countries. I believe it is important for the younger generation to learn from and work with these art professionals from abroad.
The gallery continues to support individual projects by many artists.
The gallery is currently closed for renovation since February. What can visitors expect when it reopens?
We will reopen under the name ‘Numthong Art Space’ in the fourth quarter of 2019. Instead of just focusing on exhibitions, the space will support a variety of art-related activities such as workshops, events and talks.
There will also be a gallery collection and library that are open to visitors.
What differences are there between what the gallery shows and your own personal art collection?
The gallery exhibits artworks that have touched with me which I can sell. Whereas the ones in my personal art collection are pieces that I love regardless of its price, artist’s reputation or skill.
What more can be done to support a young artist in Thailand today?
In order to encourage young artists to continue practising, patronage from private collectors, museums and companies is very important. I also think that the government should have an acquisition budget dedicated to emerging artists.
How has the exhibition programme evolved over the years?
In the early days, Numthong Gallery used to focus on big solo shows. Later I tried to match an established artist with an emerging one, juxtaposing their ideas and techniques. I wanted it to be a learning experience for both artists and for the audience to discover these connections.
For example, we paired emerging artist Promtum Worawut with senior artist Sutee Kunawichayanont in a show titled 'The Classroom' (2010). Promtum was then a fresh graduate from Bangkok University whose works were critiquing the Thai education system. He made portraits of his classmates by shading on the multiple-choice options on examination sheets. Promtum was very new so it was hard to sell the works, but I knew that I needed to show them. So I suggested this duo show to Sutee and he agreed after seeing Promtum's work. The exhibition was first presented in a small room where we created a classroom setting with Sutee's desks and a blackboard in front.
I am keen to promote the younger generation and introduce collectors to new talent. You could buy a work for 2 million baht from an established artist or 10 works from a young artist which will support him for five years. Now that is an investment in the future. Of course, I do not tell collectors what to buy. I just invite them to view the show.
What are the challenges you face today?
The biggest challenge is to help collectors understand and appreciate work by young artists. At the same time, I also encourage the artists to continue developing their practice and find ways to keep their careers afloat.
Speaking about the market, what are your thoughts about the proliferation of art fairs? And how does your gallery engage with this aspect of the business?
Numthong Gallery uses the art fair as an opportunity to give our artists more exposure. For example, I proposed installations by a young artist for Art Stage Singapore’s ‘Project Stage’, which the gallery was a part of in 2014 and 2018 although I did not take up a booth to sell artworks. The intention was to introduce Thai artists to the international market.
The art fair is also a good place for me to see fellow art dealers, collectors and art critics. It keeps me updated on the latest developments.