The tale of two fairs
DIPLOMATIC POUCH - Giorgio Guglielmino (The Philippine Star) - September 12, 2019 - 12:00am

There is a city in the world that for number of quality artists, galleries of the highest level – perhaps the best in the world - for the caliber of collectors and in general for the sheer number of critics, curators and art lovers allows herself to have two contemporary art fairs per year. It is New York. In March “Armory” takes place – more classical in its presentation – and in May “Frieze” takes place – more focused on the cutting edge aspects of art.

But starting from 2020, the primacy of New York will be equaled by Manila. From next year, in fact, the traditional “Art Fair Philippines” will be joined by a sort of alternative fair, or rather a grouping of ten galleries that have decided to interrupt their participation in  “Art Fair Philippines“ where they were present until 2019.

Let’s take a step back in time. When I arrived in Manila just over two years ago, I was really impressed by the Filipino art scene.  West Gallery of Quezon City – which is now part of the “breaking away galleries” – was the first gallery I visited. Then I went on to know all the others. Two features struck me immediately: the beauty of the spaces (“Finale” and “Silverlens” among all and later, when it opened last year, “Art Informal Makati”) and the high percentage of works sold, an unmistakable sign of a large generation of new and young local collectors.

I have given my small contribution by inviting from Italy every six months a personality (a curator, an art critic, the director of a gallery). My intention was also to show to those who deal with contemporary art in Italy the multiform and growing reality of the Philippines.

I am also organizing a great exhibition (“Arte Povera – Italian landscape”) that after some problems encountered with the originally chosen venue, the MCAD, due to the director’s self-referential attitude, will open at the Metropolitan Museum on Feb. 8, 2020.

I sincerely believed and I still believe in the possibility that contemporary Filipino art can conquer a growing place in such a difficult and competitive landscape as that of today’s art. To do this, an important step consisted of the aggregation of the galleries in a single large annual fair.

I saw “Art Fair Philippines” for the first time in February 2018 and then again in February 2019. Original, and in my opinion appealing, the location; the quality of the works exhibited is somewhat discontinuous, but cheerful, fun, lively and full of buyers. Certainly the fair can be improved. It should open up more, it should give a little more prominence to international initiatives (the conference of the gallery director who came from Italy could certainly have been more publicized), have better organized leisure spaces (the rooftop). But overall it has always worked. And it is essential that it continues to function because it is the moment of visibility for Filipino art for many foreign visitors. It is an essential step to show the best creative part of the Philippines.

Now back to today. Ten major galleries have broken away, will not participate in “Art Fair Philippines” 2020 and will be setting up their displays in a shopping center. Let’s try to indicate first the negative aspects of this split and then the positive ones.

On the negative side, “Art Fair Philippines” offer will be more limited. The fair will have to invent something new (I will give a small contribution myself, inviting and sponsoring the participation of a quality Italian gallery). For the breaking away galleries there will be a significant lowering of visibility and above all of sales. Furthermore, positioning themselves temporally a week before, they will not receive attention from those who come from abroad to see the main show and who certainly will not arrive four or five days before to see the two fairs; the people of the art world are always in a hurry.

Now we come to the positive aspects ... I’m thinking. But honestly I can’t think of any!

It seems to me unusual that a form of compromise could not be found between the needs of the galleries, even if they were right but perhaps not adequately asserted, and the need to maintain a unified direction. Perhaps it is not too late for an attempt to settle the differences? Not for the sake of individual galleries or individual personalities. But for quality artists that exist in the Philippines and deserve to be seen.

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(Giorgio Guglielmino, Ambassador of Italy, is a collector and writer on contemporary art)

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