Art projects and artist initiatives as alternative platform for young global Filipino artists (2009)
Art projects and artist initiatives as
alternative platform for young global Filipino artists
By Dayang Yraola
University of the Philippines
As a contribution to the study of arts management in the Manila art scene, this paper will explore models of art projects and artist initiatives, particularly through artists run spaces, and how it has helped artists, especially the young, to be able to participate in creative dialogues and the art market within the Philippines and globally. Art projects and artist initiatives will be viewed as an alternative platform to the dominant commercial gallery system and government formed arts & culture institutions.
For historical perspective, this paper will briefly discuss the Philippine Arts Gallery (PAG) and Arts Association of the Philippines (AAP) as models of institution initiated by artists for artists, Pinaglabanan Art Gallery and Shop6 as influences. And as focus, case studies on Big Sky Mind Arts Projects (BSM) and Surrounded by Water (SBW) will be presented to illustrate the dynamism if not fluidity of the platform; the case of Mag:Net Café will be presented to address the issue of sustainability.
For arts’ sake
Perhaps it is wise to begin by mentioning that there is no one definition for art projects nor artist initiatives in the Philippines at the moment. For the purpose of this presentation, I am defining them as a string of arts projects initiated by artists themselves using their own resources for creative and social purpose. This is somewhat interchangeable for time being. This would include therefore, artist-run-spaces. I chose to focus on Big Sky Mind, Surrounded by Water and Mag:Net Café because I believe their experience could be representative of the others, at least in terms of arts management.
In the late 1990s the idea of art projects and artist initiatives became popular in metropolitan art centers in the Philippines. Art projects, at least in Manila, are cross between the school groups, art organization and gallery. They are comprised of young artists in their early 20s with little money in their piggy banks, a good measure of guts and a whole lot of passion for their art. Among the number of artist-run-spaces, Big Sky Mind and Surrounded by Water were among the first, during this decade, which was eventually followed by Mag:Net Cafe.
May Datuin, an art studies teacher, observe that artist-run-spaces (projects & initiatives) provide support systems for painters, printmakers and sculptors. Datuin writes in an unpublished essay that “such a support system was envisioned by Purita Kalaw Ledesma, a businesswoman, art collector and visionary, who founded the AAP with a group of UP College of Fine Arts (UPCFA) alumni in 1948. Under her leadership and guidance, the AAP would soon develop into the biggest and to date, the oldest art group in the country. The AAP, in tandem with another artist-turned-organizer and patroness, Lyd Arguilla and her Philippine Art Gallery (PAG) propelled the Victorio Edades-led modernist rebellion and secured the place of Philippine Modernism, the variety that took root from 1928 to the 70s, largely through its Annual Competitions and Exhibits. When, in 1955, the AAP decided to dissolve the categories “modern” and “conservatives,” it was perceived that the contest favored the modernists, who won all the awards that year, resulting in a famous walk-out by conservatives who exhibited their works on the streets of Mabini. Modernism is said to be have “arrived” during that period after a long struggle with Amorsolo- and Tolentino-led conservatives. In 1957, the AAP staged its first attempt to organize a regional (Southeast Asian) exhibition on modern art. This exhibition, according to Kalaw-Ledesma, ‘is to be seen as part of a larger move towards internationalism, within an environment dominated by the Cold War and America’s efforts in sustaining its political influence over the region and in particular, the Philippines.’ The PAG, on the other hand, provided the venue that sustained the Neo- realists, a group that includes some of the most recognized names in the art world today, among others, HR Ocampo, Arturo Luz, Cesar Legaspi, and an artist who collects, Fernando Zobel, whose collection is now housed at the Ateneo Art Gallery, which is credited for having one of the most – if not the – definitive collection of Philippine modern art.
The 1986 People Power Revolution. Taken frmo the website: http://www.mtholyoke.edu/~guing22f/classweb/The1986PeoplePowerRevolution/page11/the%20revolution/therevolution.html
Mrs. Imelda Marcos’ patronship of our cultural scene in the1960s until the 1970s, brought along even more attention to arts. Activities in the art market became more active after the National Artist Award was put in place in 1972. A record was set that about 50 art galleries mushroomed the city in these decades. Not counting the museums and other art galleries outside Metro Manila. Among these galleries are Hidalgo Art Gallery, Red Gallery, Sining Kamalig, Galleria Duemila, Galerie Bleue and Rear Room.
This “high rollers trend” was shortly abated in the 1980s, when political situation and economic recession, attracted more attention than art. Seven galleries however remained active: the Hiraya Gallery, Greenhills Art Center, Liongoren Gallery, Gallery Genesis and the Artists Gallery.
Attention to art re-surfaced in the early 1990s when mall culture became popular in the city. ShoeMart or SM Megamall Art Walk was a hit. According to Lyn Yusi’s article, the row of art galleries in SM Megamall was a product of Juvenal Sanso’s exhibit experience in 1992 at this mall. Most of the paintings displayed were sold, including sales to “walk-in customers.” The SM management thought of it as good business idea and would also help in bringing art closer to people. Among the galleries in SM Megamall were Galerie Y, Crucible Gallery, Nemiranda Arthouse, Gallery of Prints, Gallery 139 and SM Art Center. Eventually Shangrila Mall, Robinsons Mall and Glorietta Ayala Malls, and Alabang Town Center housed art galleries as well. Outside the malls, there were Boston Gallery, Brix Gallery, Drawing Room, Sison Gallery, West Gallery, Finale Art Gallery and others.
Despite the huge number of galleries, the venue for young, emerging artists remain small and limited. Particularly for non-sellable art, like conceptual, installation, performance. It was quite obvious then that only sellable works following the style, subject and genre of more established artist are patronized by these commercial galleries. A large number of young artists, mimicked styles of established artists, to enter this prevalent gallery system. While others tread, what I appraise as a more exciting path.
Artists for artists’ sake
I find the 90s particularly exciting, especially when another set of artists “emerged” almost the same time as the popularization of Megamall Artwalk. These young artists are mostly working on what is coined as non-sellable art. Borrowing the words of Eileen Ramirez in her article, “Crossbred and Émigré,” these contemporary artists are working on “interplaying spectra of forms and ideas, meetings of tradition and modernity and the coming together of weakening oppositions.” Wherein the old categories (ie. Sculpture, painting, installation, etc) “are (but) working categories premised upon the fact that both artists and their works are hardly ever tucked into any one type, and are in most cases, in intermittent states of flux.” In short, they recognized options. And in other words, their art does not exactly subscribe to the existing taste of the art market, hence the search for their own platform to present.
I first met most of these emerging artists in U.P. when we were all just students. To most of them I had further relations in the late 90s when National Commission for Culture and the Arts carried on an agenda to map-out or locate artists in the Philippines and to gather them into a so called “artist network.” This was spearheaded by Brenda Fajardo, Imelda Cajipe-Endaya and Virgilio Pandy Aviado, among others members of the Committee on Visual Arts. I had the privilege of experiencing this “networking scheme” first hand, because I served as project staff when they were still laying the ground for this project. The visual arts congress was intended to bring artists from the four major regions (Luzon, Visayas, Mindanao, NCR) into an actual venue where they share the situation of art in each region, town or province, conduct workshops, draft policies and resolutions, plan for projects, etc. It was a long and tedious process. Five years of finding connections, keeping track and trying to stay in touch with at least 300 (sometimes more) artists is no joke for a young arts manager.
The impact of this network, I realized much later, was that it draw a picture of how diverse art making and arts management practice is in the country, that something else is happening beyond the commercialization of art. Towards the approach of year 2000, the NCCA has already mapped a good number of visual artists in the Philippines, who are now called their committee members or networks.
Among the cases presented in the visual arts congress in Palawan, was that of Surrounded by Water. SBW was founded in 1998, spearheaded by Wire Tuazon, who was just coming out of UPCFA when he founded it. Tuazon was joined by a huge number of artist friends from U.P. and his hometown, Angono, which is well-known for producing so many artists for so many years, including two National Artists. Their management structure is simple. They all have equal stake and responsibilities in running the space. Tuazon rented a studio type stall along the national highway, which looks very much like the commercial galleries we are familiar with. He invited artist friends to exhibit their works- -paintings, photographs, eventually installation, music, performance, and a mix of all these.
Louie Cordero, "No Title", 2000, Books, asphalt, photographs, light bulbs, neon, variable dimensions. The installation is part of the exhibition of thesis works by students of Roberto Chabet in the UP College of Fine Arts, in Big Sky Mind, New Manila, QC, April 2000. Photograph by Ringo Bunoan.
Another artist run space that I am personally familiar with is Big Sky Mind. Big Sky Mind was founded in 1999, headed by Ringo Bunoan, an artist-curator, Riza Manalo and Katya Guerrero. Like Tuzaon, BSM artists were just coming out of UPCFA when they founded it. The set-up was simple. They rented a 2-storey apartment in New Manila, along a highly accessible main road. They served coffee and beer to help pay for utilities and rent. Then invited their artist friends to exhibit and congregate from 5pm until the next morning. Some more artist friends were invited to volunteer. The ideals were not too simple though. Bunoan and her colleagues aimed to promote contemporary art by engaging in dialogues, encourage innovation and diversity in art and support young and less established artists.
According to Bunoan, their idea of forging a physical artists’ community designed by artists, might have been influenced by their relations with artist Agnes Arellano and her husband Michael Adams. They were owners of Pinaglabanan Arts Gallery, established in 1984. Arellano hosted “parties” at Pinaglabanan and invited these younger artists whenever foreign artists and curators visit the country. On these parties, the young artists became accustomed to art talks and building linkage with a wider art scene, outside Manila.
Art teacher Roberto Chabet is also material in their foundation. Chabet was a professor in UPCFA, a curatorial consultant at the Pinaglabanan and member of the short-lived but highly influential group of conceptual artists, Shop6. Shop6 was formed in 1974 and lasted only a few months. They were housed in a place called Lahi in Cubao then moved to Kamalig after an exhibit. They open shows every Friday, mostly of installation art and found objects. As Bunoan describes them, “Shop6 is like fireworks.” Although they lasted only a few months, “they were enchanting when they were there.” I was privy to BSM and SBW‘s art and life vibe. I have seen them explore acrylic paintings, crocheted steel wool, hang books with nylon strings, toy with the idea of dogs, politics, thoughts, cityscapes in the name of art. Installing all sorts of personalia combined or assimilated with poetry, music or all of the above. I have seen the BSM and SBW artists became interested with playing with video art and performance. And how “beanbag” conferences became popular venue to discuss what they are actually trying to say with their art. This is not to say that there is any hierarchy between paintings, installation and new media arts. This was mentioned to illustrate the direction taken by these young artists to be able to freely explore the potentials of art without the fear of being grilled and graded unfairly, when teachers or mentors are not satisfied. After so many years seeing “others,” BSM & SBW was the place for “we” and “ours”, a place to express “self,” where “we” could express and argue about art and juvenile sentiments, that might not matter to the rest of the world, but means more than important to “us.” Much later, with a little more stretch of little piggy banks which coincided with the opening of the digital information highway, artists from neighboring countries started to join the sessions. Some sent their works for exhibit and some even flew to Manila to give their spills. It was a happy place and happy times for a lot of young artists in Manila. Nostalgia aside, according to curator Patrick Flores, establishment of Big Sky Mind and Surrounded by Water is a classic case of doing the right thing at the right time. Early 90s was the time of biennale system. It was time when Fukouka, Havana, Singapore and Brisbane started their biennales; at the same time artists residency grants became popular. As an implication of this development new curators are in the search of new expressions to talk about. BSM and SBW artists were young and articulate, unafraid to be deemed lacking of whatever faculty or jargon or theory is required of an “artist”. Hence, each one took their places in these dialogues. It was also the time when contemporary Chinese art found its niche in the global art market. Indeed, these artists benefited too in the new attention being given to the east side of the planet.
View of part 1 of the first Shop 6 exhibition curated by Roberto Chabet in Sining Kamalig, Pasay City, 31 June 1974. The first part of the inaugural show included works by Yolanda Laudico, Eva Toledo, Joe Bautista, Alan Rivera, Red Mansueto, and Danny Dalena. Photograph by Roberto Chabet.
Towards the early part of 2000s, barely 5 years after they founded BSM & SBW, artists who came from these two arts projects became part if not actually main characters in Manila mainstream art. Although up to this date, Bunoan and Tuazon do not consider themselves as mainstream, the 13Artist Award they both received in 2003, indicates that they are not “emerging”, “peripheral” or “beginning artists” anymore. 13Artist Award is given by the Cultural Center of the Philippines every three years and the selection is based on the nomination of peers, body of works and achievements as an individual artist.
Perhaps another aspect worth inspecting in the whole arts project and artist initiative is their DIY (do-it-yourself) attitude towards the arts management. Whatever works for you works. When their spaces were opened there was no clear program, except that they wanted to encourage innovation, dialogue, diversity in the arts; no strict assignment for each member, all of them just wanted to help artists of their generation; and no solid strategy, except that projects will be held until budget runs dry.
After three years of existence, BSM and SBW changed suit. BSM, the venue, became a full-pledged restaurant-café after the original founders surrendered the two-storey apartment due to lack of funds. SBW’s original venue was closed and re-rented to another business. Bunoan continued to carry-out their objectives in a foundation that bares the same name; while, Tuazon and the SBW collective moved to EDSA-POEA, then later to 18th Ave, Cubao. I would like to underscore the different direction these two took. This could be read that while Bunoan and Tuazon are now both mainstream artists, their agenda deviated. Bunoan’s efforts were focused to projects and process via artist residencies, while Tuazon with his new capital, expanded SBW’s reach by moving into more accessible venues, until they closed shop.
At present, Bunoan works with Asia Arts Archive while still working on her art. She is scheduled to stage an exhibit in San Francisco and L.A. in November. Tuazon is busy working on his paintings which will be shipped to important art centers in Asia, festivals, and curating exhibits. This is of course not a critique on who is better between the two. This is just to illustrate how artists respond to options.
Rock Drilon and his efforts through Mag:Net is also an important case worth exploring in the issue of artist initiative and art projects. Drilon is another product of the University of the Philippines College of Fine Arts, much earlier than Bunoan and Tuazon. He claims no celebrity towards himself but definitely a well recognized artist. He is also known at present as the owner of Mag:Net Café in Katipunan Avenue, just outside the gates of U.P. Mag:Net is a café, magazine/books/cd and film store, exhibition space and a performance hub for many young and edgy artists in Manila since the early 2000s.
The business name Mag:Net originally means magazine network, a magazine store at SM North EDSA. In 2001, with an English partner Ralph Walker, Mag:Net Gallery was opened at the ground of ABS-CBN, the largest media network in the country. Aside from what they used to sell in the original Mag:Net, they added art pieces and held “Fullmoon Concerts” featuring Filipino artists, like Joey Ayala, Grace Nono, Cynthia Alexander and others who are known for promoting Filipino sentiments and sensibilities in their music.
Much later, in 2002, Drilon opened another Mag:Net, Mag:Net Café which he envisioned as a more holistic venue that would cater to many forms of art. Mag:Net Café hosts exhibits, film showing, music, poetry reading, performance and artists talk. At present, in addition to the Mag:Net Café in Katipunan Ave., there are 2 more Mag:Nets--one in Ayala, which is a store and gallery and one in High Street--which Drilon admitted as the more profit oriented among his Mag:Nets.
Mag:Net Café, Katipunan is Drilon’s living art space. Devoted to support emerging- cutting-edge artists, like Poklong Anading, Bernie Pacquing, Juan Alcazaren, Manuel Ocampo, Rai Munoz (music) and to provide a venue where creative people could congregate.
Programming is assisted by artist consultants. Just like BSM and SBW, Mag:Net artists are involved in international dialogues and global art market, mostly on their personal capacity and initiative. Mag:Net does not have exclusive contract with artists, hence they are free to do whatever they want, when ever. Drilon however mentioned sending works to Singapore, Hongkong and Malaysia; while musicians like Chris Brown of Mills College in the US, German curator and artist Tilman, and Filipino expatriate artists (Riza Manalo, Ernest Concepcion, Christina Quisumbing) have been part of the Mag:Net’s hosting history.
And just like any artist run spaces, it is non-profit oriented, hence in constant battle with survival. Sometimes the sales of the café assist the non-selling exhibits or performance, or sometimes the sale of artworks assist in keeping the space open. Nothing is earned per se, but none the less staying alive. Drilon mentioned that logistical structure is important. Coming from family of CEOs’ he learned that the space has to be “managed.” Not exactly to earn money but more to avoid being overtaken by politics and to avoid being co-opted by commercialization.
In as far as sustainability is concerned Mag:Net Café is obviously exceeding the usual mortality period of artist run spaces and is not showing any signs of slowing down.
Flores again, during one of our interviews summarized what these ARS wanted to achieve--they wanted to augment or supplement whatever the commercial galleries cannot offer—therefore an alternative platform to the mainstreaming of commercial galleries and not exactly a competitive establishment. To say that ARS are formed “just” as a reaction to commercial galleries is over simplifying their role. As history has it, they did more than provide a space to sell. They forged a community of creatives.
Alternative as constant
Cases of artist-run-spaces above uncover the following issues: 1) the idea of artists’ bonding; 2) their concept of management, capital and gains; 3) the issue of alternative.
Bunoan, Tuazon and Drilon agreed that they establish ARS to help their co-artists, to bring artists together and bring art into others’ lives. They wanted to help artists by providing them space to exhibit/perform their art, which the commercial galleries and other existing venues cannot accommodate. By exhibiting/hosting process-based art they encouraged younger artists to explore this genre rather than staying in the now considered conservative milieu of modern art. Through their spaces, arts projects became/becomes an event, because people, who are in search of this particular type of art, or even those incidental audiences, know that it is happening and where it is happening.
Acknowledging the need to bond with like-minded people is crucial for the existence of the ARS. Their projects wither due to exhaustion of human characters and the depletion of financial resources. But then again, since the need to bond is recognized, new ARS emerges when new capitals are discovered, or at the very least, take new forms and take on where they left off. Exclusivity, as in the concept of artist stable, is a non-word for these ARS. The very essence of “exclusive artist of...” which implies the exclusion of others and the limitations of formal contracts is not practiced. To reiterate, for these ARS, what is crucial is recognizing the need for creative people to bond together.
Searching further, one should ask, despite lack of orthodox management why do I say that this alternative platform is now becoming a constant option for artists in Manila especially for those who are young?
Taking the cue from Datuin, I find the concept of “cultural commons” as proposed by Shorthose useful in explaining or accounting for artist-ran spaces. The article illustrated that cultural commons operate with the concept of work-life nexus (creative ecologies), non-economic motivations, social reciprocity and trust-based exchanges. Shorthose and Strange elaborated that creative ecology “as a collective resource (is) rooted in voluntary micro associations (...) it exists independently of, and often in opposition to capital,” it provides a “mezzo-level structural defense for autonomous artistic labour, and a politics of autonomy within and beyond the commodified cultural sector.”14 Just like how Bunoan, Tuazon and Drilon view their ARS.
For these artists capital is defined as: 1) a shared idea, 2) a creative agenda, and 3) a circle of friends who are willing to share the idea and whatever capital they have; and their very existence, serving their co-artists, is considered their gain. The ARS therefore should not be subjected to the gauge of orthodox or capitalist concept of management, instead should be deemed as cultural commons.
Since these artists operate in a system that is relatively autonomous of the larger capitalist system their system is substantially different from that of the commercial galleries or even the more politicized government cultural institutions. Further referring to Shorthose, the contribution of cultural commons, like the ARS, to the society (both or creatives and other sectors) lays on the quality of life it imparts to both the producers and consumers. Collective cooperation, collaboration and sharing are important social and economic contribution of these cultural commons.
While the very core of the structure we call mainstream in Philippine art is being shaken by controversies, politicking and globalization at present, idealism in the young is being challenged. These issues of co-optation and worse by “poster-boy-ing” for complex political agenda that has none to do with art, makes cultural commons a more attractive and fertile ground for the young artists to invest their artistic labour. This same proposal was twice mentioned in a forum I attended recently. Two artists-organizers proposed that artists of present generation should put survival upon their own shoulder. Look into and go back to their own ranks and treat institutions as incidental characters, whether this is for the sake of creative autonomy, passionate labor or both.
As material to this, a good number of artist-run spaces and arts projects, aside from the three mentioned, have emerged in the middle to late 2000. There are at least ten (10) more that exists/emerged all-over the country with the average life-span between three- five (3-5) years. While I was writing this paper, an artist friend from Mindanao came by my house. Jericho Vamenta and his artist wife were scouting for a possible place to rent on the outskirts of UP Campus (in the area of Krus na Ligas) to put-up yet another artist run space. Some sort of a studio for them and other artists from Mindanao who are now in UP. He said that it seems like a good idea since there are a lot of them in UP and the rent is cheap. Although this is not in any way exponentially equivalent to the growth on the number of artists, there is at least an option where non-sellable, process oriented, emerging art can be exhibited.
This is of course not a seamless plan; actually some might even say that there is a shade of euphoria. But given the “success” stories of BSM, SBW and Mag:Net this might not be too ridiculous an idea after all. Artists’ putting their piggy banks together seems like a better idea than to wait for or covet institutional support. More artist initiatives for more art projects.
In closing, I would like to quote internationally renowned composer and musicologist Ramon Santos in his acceptance speech during the homage concert given to him by his students in July 31, 2009. Dr. Santos said that beyond, over and above all issues in our the field of culture and the arts, we should always remember that the artist’s ultimate task and responsibility is to create art, art that will dive the depths of our souls, art that affects people including and most especially our own person.
All images courtesy of the artists and Ringo Bunoan's Archiving Artist-Run Spaces (AARS) project for Asia Art Archive (AAA).
Images related to Roberto Chabet are part of 'The Chabet Archive', AAA and Lopez Memorial Museum.
 I would like to acknowledge the support and assistance given by The Philippine Embassy in London, Philippine Consul General in London, U.P. Center for Ethnomusicology, WhitePort Inc, Quezon City Culture and Tourism Affairs Office, family and friends from the University of the Philippines who supported “Send Dayang to STP&A through $100 pledge-campaign.”
 For a fuller discussion of Philippine Modernism, see Alice Guillermo. “The History of Modern Art in the Philippines, Asian Modernism: Diverse Developments in Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand, Japan Foundation Asia Center, 1995.
 Ahmad Mashadi, “Moments of Regionality: Negotiating Southeast Asia.” in Datuin, “An End to Noise,” (2009, unpublished) (pp. 25-37).
 Also discussed in more depth in Alice Guillermo, Ibid.
 Lyn Yusi, “The Development of Art Galleries in the Philippines,” NCCA website, last accessed August 2009.
 Eileen Legaspi Ramirez, “Crossbred and Émigré: Visual Art in a Flux”, www.ncca.gov.ph, last accessed 14 August 2009.
 Alternatives: Contemporary Art Spaces in Asia. The Japan Foundation Asia Center, 2002, 2005.
 Thirteen Artist award is in honor of the founding fathers of Philippine modern art: Galo B. Ocampo, Carlos “Botong” Francisco, Diosdado Lorenzo, Vicente Manansala Jr., Hernando R. Ocampo, Cesar T. Legaspi, Demetrio Diego, Bonifacio Cristobal, Jose Pardo, Arsenio Capili, Ricarte Purungganan, and Anita Magsaysay-Ho.
 Jim Shorthose and Gerard Strange, "New Cultural Economy, the Artist and the Social Configuration of Autonomy, The”, Capital & Class. FindArticles.com. 21 May, 2009. http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa3780/is_200401/ai_n9366243).
 NAA NAA Paano ka ginawa. Forum about the National Artist Controversy, organized by UP College of Arts and Letters and UP College of Music, August 2009.
 Tam-awan, Luna, UFO, Mariyah, Blind Tiger, Cubicle, Pablo, Black Soup, Green Papaya, Silverlens, Mo_space, Mogwai, Future Prospects, Barewall, Chunky Far Flung, Junk Shop, Third Space, Theo, White Wall. Some of these artist run spaces are now defunct.
About the author
Dayang Magdalena Nirvana T. Yraola was born on August 9, 1976 in Manila, Philippines. She completed her Bachelor of Arts Degree in Philippine Studies with majors in Art Studies and Philippine Literature and a Certificate in Creative Writing from the University of the Philippines, Diliman. She pursued a Master of Arts Degree in Museum Studies also from the same university. She was Thomas Jefferson Foundation Fellow for Monticello (Va, USA) in 2002 and Singapore International Foundation Art Associate for The National Art Gallery, Singapore in 2010. She has independent practice as curator and art writer. And holds regular post as Projects/Collections Manager for U.P. Center for Ethnomusicology (Library, Archives & Instrumentarium).