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Contemporary Art Booms in Thailand’s Cultural Capital of Chiang Mai

Away from the pretense of Bangkok, Chiang Mai is unique among Thailand's culture treasures and features a thriving contemporary art scene.

Simon Osthiemer

November 27, 2017


Once the capital of the independent Lanna kingdom, Chiang Mai in Thailand’s north has always pursued its own path, which perhaps explains why it’s home to a thriving contemporary art scene.

From the expansive spaces of MAIIM to the intimate settings of the unique Gallery Seescape and the promise of CMU Art Center, Chiang Mai is on its way to becoming Thailand’s most important art hub.


ABOVE: The MAIIAM, Chiang Mai’s most important art space, features a collection assembled over the last 30 years.

Almost singlehandedly, this new contemporary museum has put Chiang Mai’s art scene on the map. Founded by noted Thai collector Eric Bunnag Booth, alongside his stepfather Jean Michel Beurdeley and late mother Patsri Bunnag, the space showcases the family’s private collection of contemporary Thai art, which has been assembled over the last 30 years. The building is a former warehouse in the city’s eastern Sankampaeng district – traditionally home to pottery, silk and paper-making villages – which has been given a new face with the addition of a attention-grabbing mirrored facade. Inside, topical exhibitions rotate twice a year, with a cafe and boutique shop to visit after you’ve finished viewing.

Gallery Seescape

ABOVE: Gallery Seescape is the brainchild of Hern Larpjaroensook, featuring exhibition spaces, a bar, and a restaurant.

Over the last decade, Ayutthaya-born Hern Larpjaroensook has struggled to make ends meet as an artist in Chiang Mai. The slim income meant that he ended up building his own gallery room by room – adding exhibition spaces, a bar, then a restaurant and shop. This hands-on approach extends to his artwork, which features a prominent use of up-cycled materials. It was this thought process that led him to creating his best-selling work ‘Besto Boy’, a unique figure that features a functional switch for a head – when you turn it on, part of the body lights up. As well as his own work, Gallery Seescape also regularly showcases up-and-coming local artists, while the restaurant serves a range of fresh, organic cuisine.

Rakuda Photo Artisans & Cafe

ABOVE: Rakuda Photo Artisans & Cafe is a place for retro shutterbugs.

Hidden down a dead-end road in the heart of the walled city, this garage-style cafe and photography studio is one of the few places left in Chiang Mai where you can still print rolls of film. The shutterbug owner uses a traditional dark room to hand process your photos, offering a range of options not available by machines, while you can also purchase new rolls of film – both black and white, and color. Already moved on to digital? You can still peruse the owner’s collection of classic cameras and enjoy a freshly brewed coffee while watching the world go by, or ask what’s on the small exhibition space out back, which showcases both the work of the owner, as well as that of the city’s other film devotees.

Woo Chiang Mai

ABOVE: Woo Chiang Mai is found in the trendy Wat Ket neighborhood.

One of the city’s most memorable spaces, this colorful venue – made up of two separate homes now joined together – easily combines three distinct purposes: lifestyle shop, cafe, and art gallery. The former sells a variety of products handmade in Chiang Mai, including ceramics, textiles, clothing, and fragrances, in a deliberately ramshackle way that sees every surface covered in items for sale. In the cafe, reached via a corridor lined by vases of fresh flowers and bell jars filled with homemade cakes, choose from an eclectic array of tables, and enjoy a fantastic menu of Thai and Western comfort food. Lastly, the upstairs gallery presents the work of talented local artists, all of which is available for purchase.

DC Collection

ABOVE: The DC collection comes from Disaphol

One of Chiang Mai’s foremost collections of contemporary art actually sits behind closed doors, but can be viewed if you call ahead. Upon arrival, huge wooden gates are opened up, revealing a large garden space dotted with residences – the site was once home to Lanna royalty. Standing in contrast off to one side is a white cubist building, which shows selected pieces from the superb collection of Dr Disaphol Chansiri (hence the name) – this includes work by notable Chinese artists Ai Wei Wei, Huang Yan and Zhang Huan, as well as prints from famed American photographers Robert Mapplethorpe and Herb Ritts. In the garden is the ‘Navinland Checkpoint’, an installation from local artist Navin Rawanchaikul. Visits are by appointment only.

CMU Art Center

ABOVE: Tomorrow’s talent is brewing at CMU Art Center.

For the chance to see the works of local artists before they make it big, head to this art center in the hip Nimmanhaemin Road area. An offshoot of the Fine Arts Department at Chiang Mai University, it serves as combination incubation lab and exhibition space for students, allowing them to showcase their latest works, mingle with curious visitors, and collaborate with more established artists. While raw, there is undoubted talent on show – the program has produced the likes of Navin Rawanchaikul and Hern Larpjaroensook, and  was once headed up by Montien Boonma, considered the founder of Thai contemporary art. Visit the Facebook page to see what they are exhibiting.