Siem Reap may be best known for its Angkor-era temples, but it’s slowly becoming one of the top spots in Cambodia to show – and buy – contemporary art. Words by Erin Hale.

When American artist Grace Gutenkast decided she wanted to showcase her work, the Phnom Penh resident knew exactly which gallery to pick. Putting offan exhibition in some of the capital’s best-known galleries, she instead chose the 1961 Coworking and Art Space in the north end of Siem Reap for her debut exhibit in Kingdom of Wonder.

“A lot of people are like, “Why Siem Reap?”, and it’s because I fell in love with that place,” says Gutenkast, whose show Willpower, a collection of 14 paintings focusing on the strength of Khmer women, runs until Nov. 4.

“The space means a lot to me because upon first visiting Siem Reap, I checked out 1961. When I walked into the gallery, the art exhibited was [Cambodian-American artist] Anida Yoeu Ali’s. Her series was incredible and definitely made me love the space more,” she says. “I like 1961 Gallery because it is clean, but not too sterile, modern but not too pretentious, and has an open and welcoming environment.”

Gutenkast is not the only artist prioritising Siem Reap over Phnom Penh. While it’s long been known as the centre of Cambodian traditional arts, Temple Town has seen a contemporary arts scene steadily emerge during the past 15 years.

Despite the town lacking formal art academies like Phnom Penh’s Royal University of Fine Arts, it has become one of the best places to show and sell art, thanks to a significantly larger and more affluent tourist population.

The gallery is not the only place in town to see contemporary Cambodian and foreign work. Long-term expat Sasha Constable recently opened Constable Gallery at Large, located on trendy Hap Guan Street, where she curates a combination of visual arts and sculptures.

Constable chose Siem Reap because, for better or worse, foreigners are the main buyers and appreciators of Cambodia’s growing contemporary art.

“This is a place where you have this transient population with tourism coming through, so there’s, in many ways, more opportunity to sell artwork, because the main market is expat and tourists,” she says. “There’s still yet to be an emerging Cambodian contemporary art market, which I hope will happen in the next few years.”

She’s chosen her location well on Hap Guan Street, now known as “Kandal Village” after several businesses banded together to market the strip as Siem Reap’s answer to Soho. Anchored by cafes, such as The Hive and Little Red Fox Espresso, Kandal Village is a great place to spend an afternoon wandering in and out of boutique shops and art spaces.

However, Siem Reap’s more established institutions, including Sofitel Angkor Phokeethra Golf and Spa Resort and the local branch of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC), have worked hard to promote contemporary art and not just classical pieces that tend to be focused on.

Sofitel recently showcased work by Cambodian artist Ouk Chimvichet, who crafts metal sculptures from decommissioned weapons, such as AK-47s and M-16s.

The FCC complex is also home to the McDermott Gallery, which showcases work by American fine art photographer John McDermott. The gallery holds shows on a regular basis and houses a permanent exhibit made of a series of stunning sepia photographs of Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples taken since the 1990s.

Siem Reap has lots of exciting new venues to see art and the chance for tourists to bring it home, but what the city – and the rest of Cambodia – is lacking is a contemporary art museum to place new works on the same level as classical Khmer art, says Constable.

“It would be great to have a permanent museum for contemporary art; that would be fabulous. There are some key players in contemporary art here and it would be a shame to lose all their early works that they’ve created and not have them on display in the museum so people can see the way things have developed in this country,” she adds.

Small steps are being made towards this goal. The first contemporary art exhibition to be held at the National Museum in Phnom Penh, Histories of the Future, has proved such a success that it has been extended until Oct. 16, including public events, guided tours and talks.

“This is arguably the first contemporary art exhibition to be featured and shown within the national and governmental institution – therefore a sign of support from the government of Cambodia,” says Reaksmey Yean, one of the organisers. “Thus, also a success of the Khmer artists that eventually they can use their national space to promote and make visibility of their work.”

For now, though, artists and curators will continue to carve out their own spaces in some of Siem Reap’s best cafes, hotels, and galleries, one show at a time.