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Chiang Mai panorama looking east, with Doi Suthep in the background. Image: Courtesy of Nicholas Reale.

Local legend holds that when Chiang Mai was “born” over 720 years ago, the founders read a horoscope that foresaw a great merchant city. Fitting then that this, the capital of the once sovereign Kingdom of Lan Na, has long been regarded as an epicenter of cultural exchange: from Burmese, Chinese, Thai, as well as countless other ethnic groups—including scores of foreigners from Western countries today. This modest provincial city, nestled upon a floodplain at the foot of the imposing Doi Suthep Mountain, straddles not just the two banks of the Ping River, but the increasingly appreciable gap between the traditional and the cosmopolitan. In what could either be described as the world’s greatest small arts city or the world’s smallest great arts city, the layers of humility established by its longtime crafts culture are becoming increasingly woven together by sparks of innovation by its burgeoning contemporary scene. As in the past and on into today, art is produced here foremost for its own sake, not for prestige or commercial value.

Quick Tips

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A silversmith at work near Wat Sri Suphan, the "Silver Temple". Image: Courtesy of Nicholas Reale.

Though several museums dot the cityscape, Chiang Mai is not an institutional arts destination; rather, come here to see the arts in action. Some of the most interesting spaces listed here are studios and workspaces, many of which the artists built themselves—and in some cases now live in. As common with Northern Thai culture, they will welcome you purely out of the goodness of their hearts. The best time of year to visit is during the cool dry season, typically from November to February. This period coincides with some of Chiang Mai’s more notable events, such as the Chiang Mai Design Week (in December) and February’s Galleries Night (counterpart to the same event in Bangkok). Chiang Mai Airport, located just outside the centrally located Old City, offers a number of affordable direct flights to several major hubs around Southeast and East Asia. As of 2018, the city’s bus network has been recently reinstalled but the best ways to get around within neighbourhoods are by foot or bicycle or, if travelling further, by rental motorbike or songtaew, a form of paratransit noted for its converted red pick-up trucks and negotiable fares.

Studios And Workspaces

The Bubble Arts Group Space

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The Bubble Arts Group Space.  Image: Courtesy of Nicholas Reale.

Though one of Chiang Mai’s newest art spaces, The Bubble Arts Group (143/144 Moo 10, Khan Klong Chonprathan Road, Suthep, Mueang, Chiang Mai, 50000) has more of a history to it than might be apparent at first. This warehouse tucked away at the end of the last soi (alley) before the fences of Chiang Mai Airport, has been a haven for emerging artists for three generations. But only in the last nine months has head artist Khun Oon put the title “Bubble Art” on this pop-up studio. Oon, a painter and mixed-media artist, shares the space with twelve others, and they proudly display their work in a loft space that serves as their exhibition hall. Exhibitions are open to the public—if you can ascend the ladder. The group of artists is committed to “using art as a force for good—to bring people together, inspire creatives…” fb.com/thebubble.groupartspace

Chiang Mai Art On Paper (C.A.P). Studio

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C.A.P. Studio team at work. Image: Courtesy of Nicholas Reale.

To know C.A.P. Studio (368/13 Nimmanhaeminda Soi 17, Suthep, Mueang Chiang Mai, 50200) is to know and appreciate the process of printmaking. Kittikong “Kong” Tilokwattanotai’s ever-evolving project grew from an experiment he began in his apartment, where the printing press he worked with took up most of the living space. Hedging his bets, he found this space and has since built it up around a team of dedicated printmakers who specialize in etchings and lithographs, wood and linocuts, and even CDs. No surface is too foreign for Kong and his team. Eschewing an eye-catching window display, C.A.P. Studio does not host regular events nor does it have a formal gallery. Instead, invited artists work on original print collaborations with Kong, with the full breadth of the studio’s resources at their disposal, free of charge. In tribute to their handcrafted nature, this is a studio not for printing, but for print-making. chiangmaiartonpaper.com

Maispace

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"A...ALL'' installation by SKANK. Image: Courtesy of Maispace Gallery.

One of the younger venues included on this map (located at 23/1 Charoen Prathet Road, Chang Moi, Mueang Chiang Mai 50100), the name “Mai” (Thai for “new”) will help this residency and exhibition space keep things fresh awhile to come. Maispace hosts resident artists from around the world, with the aim of helping foreign artists establish local bonds in Chiang Mai’s increasingly fertile art landscape. Founder and owner Khun Golf is looking to expand Maispace’s repertoire by offering exchange programs between Thai and foreign artists and to host documentary screenings and artist talks, amongst other events. A rooftop bar captures a spectacular view of the city and Doi Suthep in the background. fb.com/maispacecnx

Umbrella Making Centre

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Villagers of Bo Sang have long upheld their umbrella making tradition. Image: Courtesy of Nicholas Reale.

For centuries before Chiang Mai’s contemporary art renaissance, the city and region was a hub for the production of crafts, from silverware to porcelain products, but in particular, umbrellas. Since 1978, this institution at the heart of Bo Sang (located at 111/2 Moo 3, Baw Sang–Doi Saket Road, T. Ton Pao, A. San Kamphaeng, Chiang Mai 50130), a subdistrict known for its strong traditions of craft-making, has provided both foreigners and Thai a firsthand look at the intimate handmade craft of umbrella making. Founder Khun Thawil Buacheen established this facility after many years as a taxi tour guide, intending to establish a center to help local artisans produce work steadily while preserving traditional techniques. In the years since, the center has also improved the quality of their finished products, ensuring that the umbrellas satisfy both their original functions—as ritualistic offerings—and their current ones: as home decorations and for protection from the elements. handmade-umbrella.com

Galleries And Exhibition Spaces

Rampeung Community Art Space

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Image: Courtesy of Rampeung Art Space.

Though Rampeung Art Space (23/8 Moo 5, Mubaan Ram Peung, Soi Wat Umong, Mueang, Chiang Mai) might appear to be out of the way from the city center, the slope of Doi Suthep and the neighborhoods therein provide a rich number of art spaces, blanketed by the verdant canopy of the Northern Thai jungle. Here, Rampeung provides a stark modern contrast to the surrounding flora, with large windows that invite you in to see some of the finest works by young Thai and international artists working in Chiang Mai today. Like many of the city’s art spaces, its functions are many; it hosts workshops, provides artists with career development, and even has a bar and a cafe. An artist residency program ensures that a practitioner is frequently onsite, giving themselves the time to grow and develop their repertoire. rumpuengartspace.wordpress.com

Gallery Seescape

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Event and outdoor seating area. Image: Courtesy of Nicholas Reale.

The name "Seescape" (at 22/1 Nimmanhaeminda Soi 17, Suthep, Mueang Chiang Mai 50200) invites you to reconsider the way you look at art as a whole. Fitting, then, that owner and founder Torlap “Hern” built the U-shaped gallery, studio, and cafe himself over time, bit by bit, creating an environment that is sectioned into distinct parts, though forming a unified whole. Hern strove to create a space that didn’t conform to people’s worst expectations about art: that it is only meant to be hung on a wall, obscure to the average viewer. Curator Sebastian Teyac believes that this open plan helps to democratize art, inviting passersby to walk in and engage with the art on their own terms. Seescape additionally makes good use of this open plan by hosting regular exhibitions, about six times annually. galleryseescape.co

The Meeting Room Art Cafe

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Along with fine artwork, The Meeting Room Art Cafe boasts an impressive library. Image: Courtesy of The Meeting Room Art Cafe.

The values that owner and founder Khun Kavin “Jo” Trikittiwong espouses are apparent in the name “The Meeting Room Art Cafe” (at 89 Charoen Raj Road, Wat Ket, Mueang Chiang Mai 50000). Located along a stretch of the Mae Ping’s river bank that boasts a fine collection of craft shops, galleries, and nightlife venues, Khun Jo opened this platform for young artists—and any artist young at heart—to showcase their work and expand their career. Now seven years later, emerging Thai artists exhibit work alongside Chiang Mai’s bourgeoning bohemian foreigner community. Those passing through Chiang Mai will appreciate the monthly poetry series, Magic Theatre Poetry, while collectors looking to build relationships with artists will appreciate the abundance of art teeming about the space, so much so that there is no room left on the walls. Welcome to all as long as you keep in mind: it’s not quite a gallery, not quite a cafe—it’s the Meeting Room. cannonballgallery.org

Rakuda Photo Artisans And Cafe

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Along with a gallery, Rakuda hosts a full-fledged darkroom. Image: Courtesy of Nicholas Reale.

For a chance to engage with film photography so intimately as to feel the grain upon the images, look no further than this hybrid exhibition space/darkroom studio/cafe (located at 11/2 Inthawarorot Soi 1, Sri Phum, Mueang Chiang Mai 50200). Owner Khun Dtaa looked to find a location where she could pursue her passion for working with her hands to embrace photography’s analog traditions. The exhibition space regularly features collections produced by young Thai and Southeast Asian—as well as other international—artists who help shed light on some of the region’s most topical issues. Dtaa’s main focus, however, is to bring the appreciation of film photography to as wide an audience as possible. Her handmade approach is not limited to photography, and while visiting be sure to try some of her khanohm (“pastries”), baked with organic ingredients by Khun Khim. fb.com/rakudaphotoartisans

Huean Jai Yong

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A landscaped garden separates visitors from the outside world. Image: Courtesy of Nicholas Reale.

The trip out to San Kamphaeng might feel a bit far, but once you’ve arrived here and stepped through the tranquil garden of the restaurant and gallery known as Huean Jai Yong (64 Moo 4, Buak Khang, San Kamphaeng Road [Route 1317], T. Buak Khang, A. San Kamphaeng, Chiang Mai 50130), you will feel as though you’ve gone even further—back in time to Chiang Mai’s golden age as the capital of the Lan Na Kingdom. Pakaphong Thongkaing’s impressive oeuvre proudly exhibits the aesthetic sensibilities of this time period, with delicately crafted paintings, prints, and wood carvings that demonstrate a genuine appreciation for the spiritual, in particular the naga (a mythical dragon). Not to go unnoticed, the teak wood houses and enclosed garden design compliment the feeling that you’ve have journeyed into another time and place, while the coffee shop and restaurant offer traditional Northern Thai cuisine. rama9art.org/gallery/jai_yong_art

Baan Tuek Art Center

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Image: Courtesy Baan Tuek Art Center.

Located on Chiang Mai’s oldest commercial street (at 12-14 Thapae Road, Chang Moi, Mueang, Chiang Mai 50000) this non-profit arts organization greets you in a way that balances traditional taste with contemporary flair. The space is operated by the Faculty of Fine Arts of Chiang Mai University, and it focuses on showcasing emerging local artists, as well as older alumni and lecturers. Additionally, the gallery hosts workshops and discussions as well as providing artists’ services. Several exhibitions are held monthly. fb.com/baantuekartcenter

Museums

Chiang Mai Arts And Cultural Center/Historic Center/Lan Na Folk Life Museum

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Chiang Mai Arts and Cultural Center is located in the former Provincial Hall. Image: Courtesy of Stefan Fussan.

This trio of museums sits at the very physical and social core of Chiang Mai (127/7 Prapokklao Rd, Sri Phum, Mueang, Chiang Mai 50200), at the supposed “birthplace” of the city, where the original lak mueang (city pillar) was erected by founder King Mengrai on 12 April, 1296. Housed in former civic buildings—one of which the former seat of Chiang Mai Province—the architecture of these institutions is as impressive as the works inside. Together, the museums offer a thorough introduction into regional history and culture, displaying artworks, crafts, archival photography, scale models, and even an archeological site. Ticket packages for all three museums are good for seven days. cmocity.com

MAIIAM Museum Of Contemporary Art

012.jpgChiang Mai’s first contemporary art museum has garnered praise from the art world (Winner of the Leading Cultural Destinations Award for Best New Museum of Asia Pacific) as a pioneer and a bellwether for a city that is gaining recognition as Thailand’s true artistic epicenter. Though the museum’s real focus is much more modest; MAIIAM (122 Moo 7, Tonpao, San Kamphaeng District, Chiang Mai 50130) seeks to draw inspiration from contemporary Thai culture and the topical issues therein. Opened in 2016 in dedication of Chao Chom Iam, a consort to King Rama V, the museum presents the private family collection of Eric Bunnag Booth in a converted warehouse sporting a nonintrusive architectural scheme in the heart of San Kamphaeng, a longtime hub for traditional handicraft production. Along with its impressive permanent collection, which features a number of local artists including Navin Rawanchaikul, the museum hosts a dedicated space for rotating exhibitions. Through this, curator Khun Kittima says, the museum looks to uphold its focus on the “new”, hence the “mai” in its name, by keeping its rotating exhibitions in proper context to current events. maiiam.com

Wat Ket Museum

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Old relics abound in this museum, a labor of love. Image: Courtesy of Nicholas Reale.

One can feel as though they are walking through a time capsule as they admire the various artifacts on display in what could arguably be Chiang Mai’s most regrettably overlooked museum (located at 96 Charoen Rat Road, Wat Ket, Mueang, Chiang Mai 50000, inside the grounds of Wat Ket Karam). The structure of crafted and lathed wood was built by Chinese descendants for the abbot of Wat Ket Karam, Chai Sri Wimon, who lived from 1886-1957. Inside, the museum features an impressive collection of old porcelain products, traditional clothing, bank notes from various nations and time periods, tattered flags and regalia from the old Kingdom of Lan Na and scores of photographs of Chiang Mai from as far back as the turn of the 20th century. The museum is looked after by Chiang Mai native “Uncle Jack”, and the collection inside the museum features his own personal effects as well as donations from community members. 

Others

Chiang Mai Art Museum

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One of two exhibition halls. Image: Courtesy of Nicholas Reale.

Consider a foray to the foot of the mountains east of the city, and you will be greeted warmly by a truly unique space that holds the groundwork for a bold vision: Chiang Mai Art Museum (San Kamphaeng–Mae On Road (Route 1006), T. Ban Sa Ha Khon, A. Mae On, Chiang Mai 50130). The word “museum” almost does artist and founder Pornchai Chaima’s expansive project a disservice; the 52 rai (8.3 hectare) plot of land includes two exhibition halls, an “artists’ village”, a sculpture garden, orchards, a volleyball court, and cafe. Calls for building a further eight exhibition halls and expanding the artists’ village over the next three years will keep Khun Pornchai and his team of dedicated, live-in artists busy realizing their dream to have a self-sustaining mini community of art on display for the world to see. But what makes Khun Pornchai’s work truly unique is his personal commitment to keeping traditional Lanna Thai painting alive. The museum is currently open on an informal basis; all works on display will be up for auction, but no formal exhibition will be held until December 2018 until April 2019. fb.com/chiangmaiartmusuem

Chiang Mai University Arts Center

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Image: Courtesy of Chiang Mai University Arts Center.

Since 1999, CMU Arts Center (239 Nimmanhaemin Road, Suthep, Muaeng, Chiang Mai 50200) has been the face of contemporary art in Northern Thailand, supporting exhibitions, film screenings, performances, lectures, and workshops. It is administered by the Fine Arts Faculty of CMU, which also assumes curatorial duties of its various exhibitions. The best time to visit is after the Thai holiday of Songkran in April and into May, when students present their thesis exhibitions in the main hall and gallery. The museum’s mission, however, ensures that a wide body of work from artists hailing from other parts of Thailand and internationally are also exhibited. fb.com/CMUartcenter

Wat Sri Suphan

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Colloquially known as the “Silver Temple” (100 Wualai Road, Hai Ya, Mueang, Chiang Mai 50100), here the art is the architecture itself. A structure (ubosot) in some form or another has sat on this site for over 500 years, originally intended serve a community of silversmiths. Making shrewd use of their skills, the villagers would often use silver plates to help patch up damages on the structure. Only since 2008, however, has there been a concerted effort to construct a temple fully sheathed in silver, the process overseen by a man named Paw Khru Dee Laek. Today, the temple’s entire facade, walls, and ceiling are adorned with silver, and many silversmiths still work out of their shops nearby. Due to the fact that it is an active ordination hall, the interiors of the temple are forbidden to women. Nevertheless, the temple grounds are open to everyone and host “culture nights” every night at 18:00, monk chats thrice weekly, and live music.  chiangmai.bangkok.com/attractions/wat-sri-suphan

(Read more: Thai Artist Puts A Real Lunch Table In The Middle Of A Gallery)

Tags: Art, Exhibition, Exhibition Space, Art Space, Chiang Mai, Gallery