HCMC – American curator Craig Thomas, director of the Craig Thomas Gallery in HCMC, has been dedicated to promoting talented young Vietnamese artists through the hosting of regular exhibitions at the gallery for over a decade, thus contributing to the development of a vibrant domestic art scene in Vietnam.
Thomas has been living and working in Vietnam since 1995 and has been actively involved in the Vietnamese art scene since 2002. Prior to opening the Craig Thomas Gallery, he curated and managed another gallery in HCMC, where he identified and mentored a number of promising debutant HCMC-based artists.
He founded the Craig Thomas Gallery in 2009, with a focus on supporting the development of emerging and mid-career Vietnamese artists working in painting, sculpture and mixed media and providing them with a platform to present their work to a wider audience.
Admitting to The Saigon Times why he chose Vietnam to open a gallery, Thomas said he worked as a lawyer for some 12 years but gave up the profession, as he didn’t like it. “A good friend here knew that I had a passion for art so she offered to let me manage her gallery here in HCMC. From there, it was a natural progression to open my own gallery and I have always been glad that I did,” he explained.
Through his decade-long involvement in the Vietnamese art scene, Thomas has seen tremendous change. Vietnamese artists have evolved greatly and are now involved in all kinds of artistic mediums and exhibiting great creativity. There are many more art spaces and galleries, and the galleries themselves have upped their game quite a bit. According to Thomas, there is still a long way to go for Vietnamese art to take its place on the international stage but the progress is clear.
Speaking about how Craig Thomas Gallery has contributed to Vietnam’s art development, Thomas noted, “I think the thing that we have been able to do is to identify artists who have recently graduated from one of the fine arts schools and help them present themselves in a professional manner at their first solo show. There is nothing more satisfying than seeing a young artist have a successful show and get rewarded financially for his/her creative efforts.”
Two artists that Thomas worked with from the beginning of their careers are Lim Khim Ka Ty and Lieu Nguyen Huong Duong, whom he described as “super talented and would have been wildly successful regardless but it is nice to know that the gallery helped a little with their careers starting out”.
As for contemporary Vietnamese art, Thomas confirmed that most of the collecting is still being done by non-Vietnamese people. However, that has been changing over the past five years or so with an ever-growing group of local collectors. These collectors tend to be younger people in their 30s and 40s.
He has always thought of Craig Thomas Gallery as a Vietnamese gallery rather than a foreign gallery in Vietnam, offering favorable conditions for Vietnamese collectors and viewing them as the real future of the gallery.
The American curator has also introduced Vietnamese artists and artworks to the overseas audience. In 2018, he took the works of 17 Vietnamese artists to New York and rented a space to showcase their works for a month. Thomas is planning another show in New York when the time is right as it is a great opportunity to introduce work by Vietnamese artists to people who may never have the chance to visit Vietnam.
He said he is attached to Vietnam because of its people. “From the moment I arrived here, I found Vietnamese people to be the most welcoming and gracious of any country that I previously lived in or visited. After 25 years here, this is the place that feels like home to me and when I now visit the United States, it is more as a tourist. There are many people back home that I miss but there are so many people here that I am fond of that I just don’t think I would be happy anywhere else.”
He has had too many memorable moments working and living in Vietnam to recount but he recently celebrated the 10th anniversary of the opening of the Craig Thomas Gallery last year. “We flew in artists from Hanoi and Hue so that all the artists who had really built the gallery would be here with us. The show was filled with fantastic work from all of them and it was a great event,” Thomas said.
At the moment, the gallery is holding a solo exhibition titled “Tribe of Loneliness” by HCMC-based artist Luong Luu Bien, presenting a series of visceral vignettes that express the vulnerable and isolated side of the human condition.
The exhibition runs until August 6 at Craig Thomas Gallery, 27i Tran Nhat Duat Street, Tan Dinh Ward, District 1, HCMC.
By Minh Tuan