Organisers of the Ateneo Art Awards discuss the Philippines’ vibrant art scene, the next generation of promising artists and the continuing influence of Founder Fernando Zobel.
The contemporary art of the Philippines is going from strength to strength, supported by a handful of institutions such as the Ateneo Art Gallery and its Awards. Executive Director Richie Lerma and Managing Curator Yael Buencamino reflect on ten years of the Awards and the changing Filipino art scene.
A government infrastructure that supports art production in Manila is sparse. Yet, the city hosts a number of art openings weekly, mostly funded by private citizens. It is through private collectors and private institutions that the grounds for art production remain fertile in Manila.
The Ateneo Art Gallery, the only museum that specialises in Philippine modern art, supports art production through the Ateneo Art Awards, in collaboration with the Jesuit school Ateneo De Manila University. The prize was established in 2004 in honour of its founding benefactor Fernando Zobel de Ayala, whose support to young Filipino artists is integral in Philippine Art History. The Ateneo Art Awards grant Filipino visual artists under the age of 36 the opportunity to take part in artist residencies internationally.
Executive Director Richie Lerma and Managing Curator Yael Buencamino chatted with Art Radar to share their stories of the Ateneo Art Gallery, discuss the recent young winners of the award, and their position within the complicated social and political structure of Manila’s contemporary art.
Ateneo Art Gallery’s collection was bequeathed by Fernando Zobel, can you talk a little about this man and perhaps a few things you continue to learn about his work and legacy? For instance, Art Radar just recently found out that he made a solid contribution to building the Cuenca Museum of Abstract Art in Spain – inspiring!
Richie Lerma (RL): Fernando Zobel is the inspiration behind the Ateneo Art Awards as the founding benefactor of the Ateneo Art Gallery. The collection that he decreed to the Ateneo de Manila University in 1960 is the result of a deep engagement that he had with the nation’s Modernist/Post-war Modernist movement in the early to late fifties. Of course, what is quite inspiring about Zobel is that he had an enduring effect and legacy on the formation and development of modern art, not just here in the Philippines but in Spain too. In fact, he didn’t just help establish one museum but two: the Museum of the Ateneo de Manila University, which is called the Ateneo Art Gallery, and the Museum of Spanish Abstract Art in Cuenca. At Cuenca, he is as greatly honoured as we honour Zobel through the Ateneo Art Awards.
Yael Buencamino (YB): When [Zobel] was interested in something, he would study it well and then share his knowledge and passion with others. His interest in Philippine santos led to extensive research and the publication of a book titled “Philippine Religious Imagery.” His passion for the visual arts led him to paint, collect,teach art appreciation and – as you mentioned – establish two museums.
Beyond this though, he seems to have been a strategic thinker. He realised that by donating his collections to institutions – his Philippine modern art collection to the Ateneo and his Spanish abstract art collection to Fundacion March – he ensured that what he built would last beyond his lifetime.
Zobel is an icon, a legend in Philippine art history. And like all legends and icons, the image of them becomes static, uni-dimensional. His support of the Philippine Modernists and establishment of the Ateneo Art Gallery are such important milestones in the development of Philippine art that this is what is remembered and repeated about him. It is a delight to hear people who knew him talk about what he was like. His niece Georgina Padilla recounts what good company he was – witty and charming.
A cartoon drawing we came across in the process of putting together the Lee Aguinaldo retrospective attests to [Zobel's] sense of humour. It was a certificate drawn and signed by Zobel, Chabet and Eric Torres stating that against their better judgment, they were declaring Aguinaldo a genius. It was very funny to see these giants of Philippine art making fun of themselves. Zobel referred to himself as a Museum Director and High Priced Artist.
What is the exhibition programming like in Ateneo? How do you make programming relevant to the foundation of the collection and the university?
YB: A portion of the museum is dedicated to showing portions of the permanent collection at all times. The focus is on the Philippine Post-war Modernists because this is the core and the strength of the collection. Having the gems of the collection out at all times makes it easier for teachers to plan their class trips to the gallery. They are assured that they are familiar with the works that will be on exhibit and they can work them into their classes.
For our temporary shows, the programme is very much influenced by the character of the museum. We make it a point to do shows that either take an in-depth look at artists in our collection or present a different facet of the artists’ practice. We have done retrospectives and one-man shows of several artists in the collection – Lee Aguinaldo, Nena Saguil, Jose Pardo, Lao Lianben, Pandy Aviado, Impy Pilapil and Arturo Luz to name a few. Those shows address the need for further research and art historical scholarship.
Programmes like the Ateneo Art Awards define the way we engage with the art community today. Still inspired by the foundation of the museum, the AAA seeks to emulate the example of our founding benefactor, whose support of the art of his time contributed to its development. Through the AAA we recognise outstanding works of contemporary art, providing critical acclaim to young artists.
Another facet of our programming is the group exhibition that interacts or takes inspiration from our permanent collection. By referring to pieces in the collection in the creation of new pieces, the collection is made relevant and more interesting.
RL: I think the fact that we are doing this article on the Ateneo Art Awards brings us back to the most important aspect of our exhibition programme: the awards themselves. The award is a way of engaging with the contemporary art scene. It helps us to recognise emerging talents on an annual basis, pointing to the Ateneo Art Gallery as an arbiter of excellence in the contemporary art scene.
How does the Ateneo Art Awards add to the programming of the museum in relation to the permanent collection?
RL: Well, the wonderful thing about the Ateneo Art Awards [is that] through the exhibition of the shortlisted artists one is able to see the further development of the art that is already in the [museum's] permanent collection. I believe that having these works here in the museum on display, in the same area as the permanent collection, vivifies (…) the legacy of the permanent collection and the definition of development of modern contemporary art in the country. In the same way, when we look at the works of the shortlisted artists, we see themes, preoccupations, etc. vivified through the works of these contemporary artists.
Emmanuel Torres was a seminal figure of contemporary art, as a critic and curator. He was also one of the past curators of the gallery. Can you let us know how he influenced the programming in Ateneo Art Gallery?
YB: Professor Torres helped shape the character of the museum. Like his mentor Fernando Zobel, for the museum he collected art that was overlooked at the time but would prove to be important. Torres in the seventies and eighties collected pieces by the Social Realists, whose works commented on the socio-political situation of the time. These are very strong and powerful images that remain relevant today. This was the mark that Professor Torres made on the collection. Mr Zobel would probably not have made the same choices, because he was not a political person and was not fond of this type of art. But it is that discerning eye and ability to make prescient selections that binds the two individuals that shaped the collection.
An institution is often related to governance, a power based on the audience it serves. How do you negotiate the relationship between the public sphere and private funding? Where do you usually start?
RL: The Ateneo Art Gallery occupies a unique position not just in the country but internationally. It is a private art museum in a private university, but one that takes on a national role in terms of serving as a national collection of Post-war Modernist art for which we are most renowned. We also have a very strong Social Realist collection. Through our continued engagement with the contemporary art scene, we are in a way the national museum of contemporary art of the country as well; not just in terms of our growing collection, but also in terms of our continued celebration of contemporary art through the Ateneo Art Awards. In terms of negotiating that, I think that Ateneo recognises its responsibility to the larger audience.
How do you find the relationship between artist, curator, and critic? Do you find that increasingly, the critic has become marginalised by new awards?
RL: I agree that there has been a lessening in the so-called power of the critic, simply because there has been a widening of forums in which people can express themselves. I think social media has in many ways misguidedly inspired people to become critics. People are no longer able to discern what valid criticism is and what it is not. Therefore, when people are lost in the ability to discern, the [low] quality of art criticism that is out there is what inspired the Ateneo Art Awards to embark on a new awards category for criticism, which we’re doing next year in partnership with the Kalaw Ledesma Foundation, bringing in the Kalaw Ledesma Prize for Art Criticism.
YB: In the situation today of overlapping roles, where artist is also curator and curator is critic, it is the role of critic that has been neglected. This is the reason that the Ateneo Art Gallery has teamed up with the Kalaw Ledesma Foundation to establish the Purita Kalaw Ledesma Prize for Art Criticism. Artists, curators and others involved in the art community have been lamenting the dearth of art criticism in the country. Newspapers and magazines report on exhibitions, but none of them review and critique them. Hopefully this prize will revive the genre of art criticism.
This is the tenth year of the Ateneo Art Awards. What has changed in the Philippine art scene since the Awards started and what kind of role do you think Ateneo Art Awards have played in these changes?
RL: It has been very significant. I think the most important thing is the increase of audiences for contemporary art in the country (…) also, in one way or another, affecting this great movement in the burgeoning and continuously expanding Philippine art market. There has been long been a need for critical recognition and the Ateneo Art Awards continues to do that on an annual basis. In terms of developments I see, through the Ateneo Art Awards, people are beginning to see other art movements and other art genres being celebrated. People are hopefully encouraged to support performance art, installation and video, for example. That’s a wonderful development.
YB: To mark the tenth anniversary of the Ateneo Art Awards, the Ateneo Art Gallery and Pananaw, Philippine Journal of Visual Arts, are collaborating on the eighth issue of Pananaw that will be centred around the topic of art world channels of validation. A section of the publication will be devoted precisely to this question of how the Filipino art scene has changed and what role, if any, the Ateneo Art Awards has played in that.
The brief answer, though, is that there has in the past decade been huge growth in the interest in contemporary art and in the market for contemporary art. When the awards started in 2004, there were substantially fewer commercial galleries than there are today. Artists who were just out of art school would put up artist-run spaces just so that they could exhibit – selling was almost a bonus. Today, the paintings and sculptures of people just out of college are being snapped up by eager collectors and commercial galleries are sprouting up to meet the demands of the market. While this is part of a global trend, I have no doubt that the Ateneo Art Awards contributed to shining the spotlight on the excellent work done by young artists.
As the scene has changed, so has the role of the awards. In the beginning, its role was to call attention to young artists, to foster an appreciation for contemporary art. The more important role it plays now is that of arbiter. Given the proliferation of exhibitions and art being produced and the previously mentioned dearth of critical discussion available to the public, the Ateneo Art Awards provide a critical voice – acknowledging excellent artistic practice.
How do you balance the potential influence that the gallery has on the art scene? Do you encounter any limitations in terms of selecting the panel or providing the rules and standards in exhibition-making or in the nomination process?
RL: When it comes to the jury, admittedly, we are selecting from a small group. That’s perhaps because we are at in that stage in terms of people, I suppose, people who are going into careers in the arts and in academia with a particular focus on the visual arts, not in terms of studio arts but in terms of critical art studies. There are very few who have really dedicated their lives to this, and most of the people who are in academia and are seriously engaged in contemporary art have already been invited to the Ateneo Art Awards. It’s also a clarion call for other individuals to seriously consider going into the growing art scene and a growing market as well. People should certainly go into it.
What kind of feedback are you getting from artists after they receive the coveted prize with the residency?
RL: They have been able to expand their networks and their horizons certainly widened by undertaking these residencies, seeing the work done by their peers, seeing the quality and the depth of the art being done. I guess that is very important. I am heartened to hear the feedback from our partner institutions overseas when they are universally amazed at how well our artists are doing in terms of engaging with the local audiences where they undertake these residencies. Also their skills, flexibility, resilience, dynamism and the ability and way to produce good works in such a short period of time.
Lastly, what are the programme’s current priorities and what are you looking forward to in the future?
YB: What I am most looking forward to is the new building that will be constructed on campus dedicated to art and innovation – a sort of hub for creativity that will house the Ateneo Art Gallery, a theatre, a black box and the Fine Arts programme of the university. The university’s focus on fostering creativity based on interdisciplinary cooperation is very enlightened and very encouraging for those of us that work here. In terms of projects, the ones that I mentioned earlier, the Purita Kalaw Ledesma Prize for Art Criticism and the AAG/Pananaw publication are both very exciting.
RL: We still see the Ateneo Art Awards as the centerpiece of our exhibition programme. We devote a lot of our manpower and resources to [the] administration and handout of the prizes each year. In addition to that, we continue to entertain proposals for exhibitions from artists who are represented in the permanent collection and also from curators who wish to mount exhibitions that reflect upon or engage with the permanent collection. This is something that we are to continue and, as we move to the next stage, we are beginning to prepare for a new museum. We foresee expanding that particular exhibition programme. So we are in very exciting times.
- Ateneo Art Awards 2013 honour artists with existential touch – August 2013 – Buen Calubayen and Raffy Napay’s explorations of existence impress Ateneo’s prize jury
- 10 Filipino artists you need to know now – The Spot – July 2013 – young and talented, but are they truly Filipino? A controversial top ten
- Re-imagining the future with Filipino artist Mark Salvatus – interview – July 2013 – former Ateneo Award winner Salvatus keeps his feet firmly on the ground
- Innovation in residence: 10 years on top for Singapore Tyler Print Institute – July 2012 – in its tenth year, STPI reflects on its role in Singapore’s changing art scene
- Art in the Philippines – a day tour of Manila galleries in pictures – October 2010 – Art Radar reports on a day in the life of a Manila gallery goer
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