Through a side alley and up a flight of stairs, the open, airy room of Romeet Contemporary Art Space is a rare nexus of Cambodian art, having brought the work of some of Battambang’s finest talents to Phnom Penh since it opened in 2011.
But the gallery—a dedicated exhibition space for graduates of the Phare Ponleu Selapak art school—is closing, at least until a re-envisioned space opens in September. And it’s marking the occasion with a retrospective group exhibition, “Phare Celebration: Last But Not Least.”
“It’s an occasion to celebrate what we’ve done because we are going to close after the exhibition,” curator Camille Baczynski said of the show, which opens tonight and runs through mid-August.
Spanning 2011 to 2015, the exhibition features 12 artists, from established names like Srey Bandol, Long Kosal and Pen Robit to first-time exhibitor Alic Khuon.
Grouped by year, the collection presents a diverse range of work—from abstract paintings and realist watercolors to sculptures—and reveals evolutions in artistic styles. Works from 2011 draw heavily on traditional Khmer aesthetics, but by 2014, there’s more abstraction and brut expressionism.
Each section also marks some iconic moments for Romeet: The 2012 grouping, for example, includes the first artworks that were ever transported to Phnom Penh from Battambang in one haul, while the 2013 set features a sculpture by Mr. Bandol from the gallery’s first major installation show.
A non-profit organization, Phare has been offering visual arts classes to children and young adults since its inception in 1994. In the years since, Battambang has hosted a fairly robust creative scene.
But access to the art market in the capital is essential, said Mr. Bandol, one of Phare’s co-founders.
“When they graduate from the school, it gives them the opportunity to show their work in Phnom Penh,” he said. “Now it’s hard, I think, if you’re not well known and you want to show your work.”
The gallery serves as the next stage in an artist’s career: Where the school taught them to create, the gallery helps them become professional—and public—artists.
“It’s not only putting your artworks on a wall,” Ms. Baczynski said. “They have to create this connection between their artwork, which is something you do alone, with a lot of the public.”
But the school in Battambang is evolving, embracing different art forms while making the curriculum more rigorous and structured, Mr. Bandol said.
“The school is changing,” he said. “[For] two years, we try to develop to be a professional art school.”
“We not only want to provide them with painting; we want to provide photography, video, many things,” he said, adding that the school has expanded to offer graphic design and animation, with about a dozen students in each department.
“That’s not just a Phare issue, it’s the Cambodian people: They get involved with iPhones, computers, technology,” Mr. Bandol said. “So I think, yes, why not?”
And here in Phnom Penh, the gallery is similarly adapting.
“It’s not a sad closing: We’re closing to do something new and something exciting for us,” said Ms. Baczynski, who became gallery manager in January after the departure of longtime curator Kate O’Hara.
“We were looking for something to maybe put all the fields of the visual arts together,” she said of the reconceived space set to launch later this year.
“There’s a plan—we just can’t talk about it right now,” she added. “We want to keep it as a surprise.”