The Philippine art world today

MY TURN - Jaime Ponce de Leon (The Philippine Star) - September 9, 2019 - 12:00am

For the great collectors, it’s never really about the money — although I’ve heard more than one declare that it’s better than buying a condominium or playing the stock market.

The question on everybody’s mind about the art world is this — what is it really like?

To tell the truth, it’s like any other eco-system: there are the “Great Whites,” “Moby Dicks,” “Little Mermaids” and “Aqua Men.” There are the voracious collectors and the wonderful pieces that got away. There are sirens, mistresses, Virgin Marys and Veronicas — and I am talking about artworks here and not the owners. 

There’s old money, new money, heiresses and self-made men (and women!) — and everybody in between. There are bona fide experts and quite a few know-it-alls. There are people who can roll with the punches and who have more lives than the cat’s nine. Can I even say there are charming sociopaths and handsome adventurers? I love them all! We wouldn’t have such a fascinating and fun time without every single one of them.

The thing is, one of my personal cardinal rules — and that’s the same for the best and world-famous auction houses, — is discretion, discretion, discretion. I can share a few stories, but can never ever reveal who sold what and who bought it, unless they allow it. (I know this runs contrary to the journalist’s instincts to get a scoop.)

At the very top of the food chain, of course, are the legendary collectors. How I wish I could be part of this august company and never have to sell a painting — in other words, that is, to be Paulino Que. Paulino started collecting in 1979 and his collection was fueled by passion, perseverance and, the most difficult quality to achieve, consistency. His holdings are uniformly superb. It is powered by the quest for the beautiful. Being in the art trade, I always hear of people envying Paulino — especially since he is the total package with the gorgeous Hetty by his side, the beautiful home, and the nonpareil art collection. With all that and what his collection is today, I can honestly say that it was an unwavering march to be where he is.

As a dealer, it is always with pride when you see pieces you’ve sold in praiseworthy collections. Each sale is a delicate process because every client is exacting and some can be highly knowledgeable, not only regarding the history and context of each piece but also its provenance and price. It’s never a walk in the park. For whatever a deal is worth, it is always gratifying to sell something that would end up in a highly important collection.

But in hindsight, collecting is a journey. As they say, the journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. A lot of younger collectors almost despair of being able to put together a collection and one such example of a good one is Louie Bate’s. Louie’s collection has an exquisite representation of each artist. And it just shows that opportunities always abound.

In my early days of the trade, I became friends with Jomari Treñas as he became an early client. He is one of those collectors that is very discerning. He doesn’t need, say, two or three Manansalas but perhaps just one — but a very good one.  Collectors and dealers tend to be territorial and judgmental especially when you are new to the game. Jomari was very discreet about dealing with me and was what you would call one of my “first movers.” I remember especially the first art fair I joined. I was such an unknown that some people  — people who would eventually become my close friends — downright doubted some of the pieces I had on display.  As luck would have it, one Fernando Zobel painting, which had raised a few eyebrows, was bought by a Zobel no less. It was an early vindication that gave me a lifeline in my art-dealing career. 

For the great collectors, it’s never really about the money — although I’ve heard more than one declare that it’s better than buying a condominium or playing the stock market, as art investment guru Tonico Manahan would stress. And it’s not necessarily true that you are unloading because, God forbid, you need the money.  Today, it’s no longer the old concept of selling at an auction: the 3 D’s (Death, Divorce or Debt). People don’t always sell because they need the money. Some are just plain bored, others want to “upgrade,” some have simply just changed their minds. There are a number of reasons. I think the recent Rockefeller auction made that clear. In our own Manila circuit, a certain extremely wealthy gentleman disposed of one of his famous artworks setting a world record to boot at León Gallery for the simple reason that he wanted to endow his favorite foundation.

The art world is replete with characters. The first gallery I frequented was Avellana Art Gallery and that was where you would meet everybody, from Jimmy Laya, Leo Garcia, Deanna Ongpin-Recto to Mel Meer, Rupert Jacinto and Malu Gamboa. It was a diverse group of people that completed the art world. Perhaps it was Albert’s hospitality that drew everyone together.

Today, there are many galleries especially in the Pasong Tamo strip, from Karrivin to La Fuerza. At Art Informal of Tina Fernandez (who by the way is the Peggy Guggenheim of the art world for her ability to create a star), you will see Norman Crisologo who anoints the next big names as well as Mike Tomacruz whom Tonico Manahan again refers to as “the pusher and trafficker of Philippine Contemporary Art.” An endorsement from him can jumpstart a young artist’s career. And then at La Fuerza is Jia Estrella of J Studio who is the other great discoverer of young talent.

Beside Jia would be Marti Magsanoc, the oncologist and founder of Archivo who has a cult following for his conservation of Filipino film and promoting the unsung heroes of the art-world.  Marti would be the best to speak to if you found an oil by Larry Alcala from 1949 or an early David Medalla in your storage. This is where you will normally see Migs Rosales whom I respect for his deep understanding of art, furniture, and style.

Up North, taking the torch from her late mom is Chitty Cometa, who is usually surrounded by a host of collectors at her dinner table that is smothered with food. She has succeeded in managing soaring stars like Dino Gabito. It’s definitely a good place to discuss the latest happenings and gossip in the art world. There you will meet the influential artist-manager Derek Flores of DF Art Agency who has a number of artists in his stable — and a must-know if you’d like to be in line for the very hard-to-get Andres Barrioquinto.

Frankly, for us in the trade, we’re only as good as our last deal or our last auction offering. It’s definitely a lot of hard work. We have been honored to bring to the market amazing works by Lorenzo Guerrero and his ablest students Juan Luna and Resurreccion Hidalgo — but also marvelous works by Amorsolo, BenCab, Malang, Ang Kiukok, Anita Magsaysay-Ho and, of course, the record-holder for the most expensive painting to be sold in the Philippines, Jose Joya.  Not to be forgotten as well are the legendary 80-something Zobels found in an American attic. It sounds like a cliché, but that became known as the Pfeufer Collection. I find myself asking after every deal or sale — what’s next?

Nowadays, there are some who are moving their vision towards international art.  With the Camachos and Marcel Crespo as the poster figures, we have Tim Tan who has become its latest entrant, hosting tireless dinner-gatherings at his pied-a-terre to welcome the recently acquired George Condo for his collection. Tim, too, has his own following and, in fact, the trend-setting “Larry’s List” has featured him. León Gallery together with the Gagosian Gallery had the privilege of putting together the first Nam June Paik show in Manila, thanks to the important collector and Hirshhorn Museum trustee Ken Hakuta.

In the opaque world of art, the majority of sales  happen at the art fairs.  There is Art Basel in Basel, Miami and Hong Kong, and numerous others. Our very own Art Fair Philippines with Trickie Lopa, Dindin Araneta, and Lisa Periquet are the very capable “Tres Marias” of the fair whom I feel will weather-for-the-better the usual complications that make the art world more fun.

And then not to miss are the online sales and the unique sales platform using Viber called “Art Rocks” by Dr. Steve Lim. There you will feel the voracious appetite of collectors wanting to have a piece of the newest talent.  Steve donates all earnings to his favorite charity, very noble indeed.

In my group chat I asked who they think are the tastemakers of today. The names that came out were naturally figures you already know like Julius Babao, Olivia Yao, Toto Salgado, Rico Quimbo, Bryan Villanueva, Jun Villalon, and Soler Santos, among others. They have this incredible touch that sets the trend. And, of course, not to mention the high priest of Pinto, Dr. Joven Cuanang, who has laid the infrastructure for what Philippine contemporary art is today.

And then we have those who have sadly left us. The famous Dr. Teyet Pascual who deserves a chapter just for him. The late and great Martin “Sonny” Imperial Tinio Jr. who has seen them all and was brutally frank in telling you straight that something was beautiful, divine, fake or, in his inimitable manner, what he dubbed as simply “pangit.” I personally trusted Sonny’s taste — and I am happy to say, our tastes would coincide exactly when he found something of exceptional beauty. Sadly he’s gone too soon, despite his 76 years of age at passing.

Ramon Villegas was once the indispensable figure in this wonderful world of ours and his all-encompassing knowledge on art and antiques was essential to all of us who depended on his blessing on matters of authenticity and even taste. He, too, had his faults but his logical and historical analyses were sought after.  Today, we have the Pampanga aristocrat Toto Gonzalez, and the literary blueblood Lisa Guerrero Nakpil, who were both mentored by these extraordinary gentlemen, as well as the old collectors and dealers who have seen them all to ascertain period matters and authenticity.

The world of art is fun. People may have chosen to enter and subsist in the art world for different reasons. What cannot be denied is that all of these characters have made the art world colorful, rich, diverse, and constantly exciting. You can’t have an onion skin though as you will always hear comments about either your choices or your sources. Tastes change and mistakes will be made. Embrace them — as they will tell your story later on and it will be a good story. You just have to be consistent and to listen to the elders in the game.  See as much art and as many shows as possible as it is the only way to train the eye and absorb as much information as possible. In buying, I always like to give this unsolicited advice to strive for quality and as the great dealer Lord Joseph Duveen said, “When you pay high for priceless, you’re getting it cheap.”

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