Written by Gwen Bautista
The spread of COVID-19 has forced the temporary closure of art spaces all around the world. Its full cultural impact and economic effect in the local art scene is still unknown. Deemed “non-essential” by the national government, art galleries and museums may not fully open their doors, yet, even after the lifting of mandatory quarantine protocols. Thus, the pandemic has opened discussions on the role of art in a time like this. It has propelled debates and arguments on urgent calls such as the welfare of artists and cultural workers, and the consequences it will bring to commercial and non-profit art spaces. Art fundraisers have emerged to help not only artists but also frontliners and those who have lost their income. The quick and generous response of these initiatives had been compared with the slow and militarized action of the government. The National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) for its part released a one-time relief aid through its Cash Assistance Program for artists and cultural workers, many of whom are freelancers and contractors. Each individual received the amount of five thousand pesos. While this development is welcome, the future is still clouded with uncertainty about the government’s revival plan for the arts and culture.
As early as April, the Baguio Arts and Crafts Collective, Inc. (BACCI) and the Baguio Creative Council were already at the forefront of distributing care packages and relief goods to artists and craftsmen. According to John Arvin Molintas of Tam-awan Village, regular meetings and consultations were held even before the pandemic, in order to address the needs of the art community. However, due to the pressing matters brought by COVID-19, they have been coordinating with the local government to present suggestions and to move activities online. The Tam-awan International Arts Festival, which was supposed to have taken place last May, was postponed since mass gatherings were still prohibited. Tam-awan Village is currently looking at re-aligning its festival budget instead to respond to the immediate needs of its artists, workers, and craftsmen.
The independent artist-run space, Nomina Nuda, in Los Baños, Laguna has kept their operations minimal. Its curator, Christian Tablazon, says, “The space had been managed by just the two of us, Jael Mendoza and I, and we’re both government-employed teachers who remain compensated despite the class suspensions in view of ECQ, and so, we’re fortunate enough not to have to seek financial relief elsewhere. The funding for our programs at Nomina Nuda, since it opened in 2018, has also come from our own income.” Tablazon and Mendoza are in the process of re-calibrating their programs as they rethink new formats that will not compromise their safety and that of their guests and collaborators. Tablazon adds, “We’re thinking of developing satellite or offsite programs for Nomina Nuda in the future and concentrating instead on research and curatorial projects elsewhere. As for Nomina Nuda as a physical site, we could hold a loosely-paced series of informal and intimate artist residencies —something we’ve always been keen to try.”
Artist Leslie De Chavez, who runs Project Space Pilipinas (PSP) in Lucban, Quezon had been occupied with PSP’s online video project. PSP’s team has found some other ways to busy themselves with while reflecting on the new situation. De Chavez tells us, “Jomar Galutera finds joy in gardening (since he lives in the farm) as well as cleaning the area that surrounds his place and studio while Dyan Corachea takes advantage of spending quality time with her first-born, together with her folks in Lucena. We just call each other or exchange messages once in a while just to make sure everyone is safe and complete with necessary stocks [supplies] during the lockdown. However, because I live in Tayabas, my parents in Lucban are the ones who [would] see to it that assistance, relief, and financial aid are provided and [are] always available to our fellow artists and volunteers in Lucban.”
PSP recently launched Quarantined Lives, an open call for one-minute video projects. “Social media and mobile phones are the most immediate platforms and accessible tools to keep us connected with our friends, fellow artists, and the audience; it’s more appropriate to have an online exhibition of moving images.” De Chavez continues, “Quarantined Lives will also be screened in public and will be our first exhibition project in our physical space as soon as the lockdown is lifted. The project is a subtle way of asking how our families, friends, and friends of friends from different places are coping with the pandemic, a contracted ‘kumusta kayo diyan?’ kumbaga. Then, we compile these creative ‘under quarantine’ articulations as proofs of life, [both] shared and experienced.”
At the UP Vargas Museum, a number of their workforce had been working from home since the
lockdown happened. However, this is not the case for those who work with location-based tasks such as gallery invigilation, archives digitization, and inter-office liaison work. In terms of alternative programming, Museum Researcher, Lea Marie Diño, says, “Long before the pandemic started, we had been digitally circulating study guides as supplements to our exhibitions on a regular basis. Since the ECQ began, these educational modules have become
the alternative, and we have focused on them, plus on other museum content in our online campaign, #VargasMuseumVirtualMode.” Amid the general community quarantine, the museum opened two exhibitions this month: Junyee’s Kwarantin and Roberto M.A. Robles’ Form|Kata Proto-type. While personal visits are still prohibited following government guidelines, the museum held virtual tours of the exhibitions. For those who will pass by the area, Kwarantin and some works from Form|Kata Proto-type are installed in the museum’s lawn, making it available for public view. Diño is confident that the museum will find ways to rise above the constraints brought by the pandemic: “As one of our thrusts is education, guided tours for large groups will most likely resume at a very much later time; only small groups will be entertained. Collateral activities of exhibitions, such as artist talks, will also have a limited number of audiences; live streaming may be a solution to this.
Artists Arvin Flores and Mai Saporsantos of Artery Art Space in Cubao tell us “We’re a small team so it’s manageable for us to check on one another. For the month of May, we’re allocating a percentage of sales to a charitable group that provides healthcare workers with PPE’s and the like, as well as food provisions for certain neglected communities. Since sales right now are only possible online, it somehow helps everyone who is in need, which also includes both the artists and the gallery. The art community is a small but tight community and it’s great to see right now that art maintains its relevance not just by offering visual and moral relief but also
facilitating material aid when it can.” Flores declares, “Our approach has always been to seek how things are interconnected through art, as Artery, so finding ourselves within this virtual condition is something we all share currently, and the challenge is not to get lost in the process. It would be interesting to see what art would survive this crisis, what kind of demand would come out from awareness and determine value, to deem what would be critical, much more make the work important.”
When the Taal Volcano erupted in January, Tagaytay Contemporary (TagCon), an art space that holds exhibitions, workshops, talks, and music festivals, had to suspend operations. Artist, Bam Garibay, who manages the space says that TagCon has actually reopened in February as the ashes from the eruption had been cleared. By March, they had to close once again due to COVID-19. “TagCon will probably be doing more online exhibits,” Garibay believes, so that they can continue events, but with a limited number of audience. “We are thinking of doing another online exhibit once the mobility problems are solved. The checkpoints are becoming “chokepoints” and we do not want to put our delivery people and the artworks in a bad situation.” TagCon is being run by a three-man team; a gallery assistant and an all-around caretaker who maintains the place and Garibay himself. Ever since the lockdown started, both are still receiving salaries and the caretaker has been planting more vegetables in the parking lot. The gallery assistant is staying with them at a farm in Alfonso, Cavite.
One of the few contemporary art spaces in Mindanao, Art Portal Gallery in Davao, is housed inside a compound in the city’s Poblacion district. Artist, Alfred Galvez, who established the space in 2015 said that they have been using their social media accounts and website to present online exhibitions. He feels that being able to present emerging artists from Mindanao in a virtual platform will help collectors from other parts of the country to know more about contemporary art practices in the region. While Art Portal keeps a small staff, he is worried about the future of the space. The cost of rent among other things is an obstacle in sustaining the gallery. Apart from exhibitions, the gallery is holding art workshops, so the space will not be dependent on the sales of the artworks. He said if they wouldn’t be able to keep the space, they could at least continue holding online shows and then use their residences for discussions and exchanges. However, he commits to making sure they sort all possible solutions to continue operations as he feels that a gallery space, somehow, provides a home to many young artists who might need direction in starting their careers.
Dr. Omega Garibay who operates Omriel Art Galerie in Iloilo with her son, Shalom, informed us that they are in the process of reforming the way they manage the place. Founded as an art gallery and space for wellness workshops, Omriel hosted a number of exhibitions featuring artists from the Panay region. Since the closure of their gallery in its initial location, Omriel had been active on Facebook as they introduce works from their previous shows. As an ice breaker, their followers engage in a series of insanely difficult film trivia. Dr. Garibay explains, “We have decided not to renew our contract [with] the place by the end of June 2020 and we will divert our gallery and gift shop online. Big change; dreams have to be in abeyance and we might think of pop-up exhibits.” Omriel will be maintaining an office in a different place near the family’s residence and that “the most important thing now is to be alive. When things will be clearer with Covid, hoping in a year or two and I am still alive, [then] we will re-open.” As of this writing, Omriel happily announced that they moved to a new space in Jaro, Iloilo.
In the National Capital Region, galleries continue to accept private appointments as they ensure social distancing measures, and safety protocols are in place. At Galerie Stephanie, the staff requires everyone to do a temperature check, wear a face mask, and complete a contact tracing form. Marketing Manager, Belle Castillo, remarks that they’ve been regularly checking up on each other as many of them are only required to be in the gallery once or twice a week. They’ve resorted to digital catalogs and online exhibitions for those who would want to stay at home but wish to see the shows. She remarks that “It’s a challenge for local galleries to make the viewing experience similar to seeing art in person.”
As artists use this time to ponder on their position in art, galleries are suddenly faced with a new set of concerns. Castillo quips, “I’ve noticed that there’s a shift in the language and tone of social media content— more earnest and authentic. It sounds more like they are speaking to a community rather than to business clients.” Together with ATD Fourth World Philippines, a non-profit organization, Galerie Stephanie raised funds through Gracious Hands, an online exhibition where a portion of sales was donated to distribute food packs and health kits to families living in extreme poverty.
With the crisis in place, the art world will definitely do its task to adjust and adapt to the times. However, long-term public-funded programs should be leading the effort in ensuring the future of arts and culture in the country. A country with a thriving art scene will produce a population where critical thinking is encouraged and that, in itself, should be treated as essential, especially if we want a nation that would challenge its own people to become more aware and analytical of their surroundings. Hence, the existence of art spaces guarantees a safe place where democracy can flourish.