Ringo Bunoan reflects on the development of artist-run spaces in the Philippines, from the 1990s and beyond.
It was the end of the 1990s. Most of us had just graduated from the University of the Philippines College of Fine Arts (UP CFA). Some of us were already able to exhibit in major venues like the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP), The Art Center at SM Megamall, and other art spaces in Metro Manila, mainly through the efforts of our professor Roberto Chabet,1 a pioneering Filipino conceptual artist and curator who led our group, and also the alternative art space Shop 6 in the 70s, after his brief position as the founding museum director of the CCP. Still, exhibition opportunities were few and far between for young Filipino artists, with a majority of the local galleries preferring to show traditional paintings and sculptures by established artists. At that time, galleries in Metro Manila were all located in the Art Walk, a row of spaces on the fourth floor of SM Megamall, the biggest shopping mall in the Philippines. Occupying more or less the same twenty sqm. space, the galleries could only exhibit a few works at a time. Bigger exhibitions were usually held at the CCP and The Art Center in SM Megamall.
Starting our own spaces therefore became a necessity, for it allowed us to pursue art without being dependent on institutions and galleries. We learned how to work together, do things ourselves, and basically to take control of our own careers. It gave us room to gather, share ideas, experiment, and create works that would probably never be shown elsewhere in the Philippines, for they were too trashy, too big, too obscure, too difficult to understand, too disruptive, too “Western,” and in general, just different from the dominant Filipino aesthetic.
In January 1998, a friend from UP Film, Yason Banal, opened Third Space. Located within a gated subdivision in Quezon City, it was an old, abandoned, and dilapidated house that was converted into an experimental exhibition / performance space / workshop / library. A couple of months after, in March 1998, Wire Tuazon and other friends from UP CFA opened Surrounded by Water (SBW) in their hometown of Angono, Rizal, just outside Metro Manila. Their one-room space along the old East Highway became a destination for regular exhibits and performances. The following year, 1999, The Junk Shop run by Russ and Eng Chan had to close after a break-in, but by October we opened Big Sky Mind (BSM), which I founded together with Katya Guerrero, Riza Manalo, and other partners. We rented an apartment in New Manila and used the ground floor for a café and the second floor for exhibitions, screenings, performances, and other events. Around the same time as the opening of BSM, SBW opened its second, more central outpost at the Pied Piper Place along EDSA. Across town, in the bohemian district of Malate. Carlos Celdran and his wife Tesa also opened The Living Room in their apartment overlooking the famed Manila Bay. There was definitely something in the air, so much energy and promise, a kind of leap of faith into the unknown as we approached the turn of the century. Within a year, we were able to transform the landscape of the local art scene and establish ourselves as the “alternative” and the “contemporary.”
We were the new generation of artist-run spaces, learning and taking inspiration from other spaces, which were active in the 90s. Weekends and long breaks were spent hanging out with other artists who ran their spaces, checking out exhibitions, and trading stories, gossips, and tips. I intentionally use the term “artist-run space” loosely, referring to art spaces owned and operated by artists, whether they are non-profit and experimental, a hybrid model such as gallery/cafes, or a commercial gallery. In the Philippines, where there is a weak infrastructure for the arts, such models are often porous and overlapping. Filipino artists have also traditionally held multiple roles and many occupied key positions in and outside of institutions.
In Manila, we frequented Ami Miciano’s Penguin Gallery and Café, a popular hangout for artists, especially after openings and performances at the nearby CCP. There were also several established commercial art galleries in town, owned by artists including The Luz Gallery run by Arturo Luz, Mauro “Malang” Santos’s West Gallery, and Brix Gallery run by Briccio Santos and Rock Drilon. The legendary Pinaglabanan Galleries run by Agnes Arellano was already closed by the 90s, but Agnes continued her support for artists and organised informal gatherings in her home. Outside Metro Manila, we also went north to Café by the Ruins in Baguio, where the Baguio Artists Guild held its court. Founded in 1988 by members and friends of the guild, the cafe was the primary community space for artists in the northern Cordillera region, hosting exhibitions and festivals by both local and international artists.2 Down south in Negros, the Black Artists in Asia group was also running VIVA EXCON, an art festival in the Visayan Islands. Beyond the Philippines, we were also able to connect with artists with similar initiatives in other countries.3 While our operations were diverse and contingent to local conditions, the desire to provide a platform for art outside traditional gallery and museum conventions was common to all.
Artist-run spaces do come and go but they have had a long presence in the Philippines, which can be traced as far back as the 1930s, when the Modernists led by Victorio Edades opened up their atelier in Manila and introduced a new style of painting that challenged classical figuration. After WWII, formal associations of artists and art galleries were established such as the Art Association of the Philippines (AAP) founded by Purita Kalaw-Ledesma and Lyd Arguilla’s Philippine Art Gallery (PAG), which were both critical spaces for the development of modern art in the Philippines in the 50s. The 60s saw the proliferation of artists’ spaces, from informal gallery/cafes to professional art galleries including Luz Gallery, an important venue for modern art and a successful model for artist-owned galleries in the Philippines in the coming decades. In the 70s, amidst the growing political turmoil and counterculture movements across the country, a group of artists led by Chabet opened Shop 6. Described by Chabet as his “alternative to the CCP,” Shop 6 ushered in a break from the rigid structures of modernism through a barrage of experimental exhibitions, installations, interventions, and happenings during the Martial Law years.
By the time we met Chabet in the 90s at UP, Shop 6 was just a memory, a great story, which he shared to his students. For me personally, it served as a benchmark, defining what it means to be truly “alternative” in the most radical and uncompromising way. It was a space to propose different ways of thinking, doing and presenting art, whether the audience was ready for it or not. In the 70s, there was little support for conceptual art in Manila but it did not stop the artists from experimenting with their works. Chabet tried to keep the spirit of Shop 6 alive by encouraging many of us to open our own spaces. He prepared us for the task by involving us in projects and exhibitions, which gave us real experience, skills, and confidence. He shared his wisdom, gave advice, curated exhibitions, donated money and works for fundraisers, and always brought drinks to the openings. He was our biggest supporter but also our biggest critic, never failing to point out our mistakes and weak spots. He has always claimed a space for artists, from within the institution (CCP and UPCFA) to its alternative (Shop 6), clearing a path for his students and other artists to follow, from Agnes Arellano’s Pinaglabanan Galleries in the 80s, to our spaces in the 90s, and succeeding in the early 2000s, including Green Papaya Art Projects, Magnet Gallery, Future Prospects, and MO_Space.
Images: (1) View of the exhibition Common and Uncommon Goods curated by Roberto Chabet, Future Prospects, Cubao, Quezon City, Metro Manila, Philippines, 2006. Photograph courtesy of Gary-Ross Pastrana. (2) Opening of the exhibition Conflict Resolutions curated by Jayson Oliveria and Lena Cobangbang, Future Prospects, Quezon City, Metro Manila, Philippines, 2006. Courtesy of Gary-Ross Pastrana. (3) Roberto Chabet (right) with his former students (R-L) Ronald Achacoso, Juni Salvador and Gerardo Tan at the University of the Philippines College of Fine Arts, Diliman, Quezon City, Metro Manila, Philippines, 1997. Courtesy of Roberto Chabet.
Today, the impact of artist-run spaces in the development of global contemporary art has already been acknowledged.4 In line with post-institutional changes and other socio-cultural shifts worldwide in the last twenty years, artist-run spaces have emerged as critical platforms for more expansive art forms and practices. By providing artists with the space to create and show works outside the conventions of traditional museums and galleries, we have redefined the role of art and the artist in relation to our immediate communities and the wider public. Once operating in the fringes, whether by intention or by circumstance, artist-run spaces have now become widely recognised as key players in the rapidly changing art ecosystem. Likewise, installations, performance, sound, video, and other ephemeral practices, which have been limited mostly to alternative spaces in the 90s, are now commonly exhibited in major institutions, commercial galleries, and art fairs.
In the Philippines, however, the position of artist-run spaces still remains unclear. Last February 2020, Art Fair Philippines (AFP), one of the biggest art events in the country, staged its seventh edition despite the exodus of ten major art galleries who formed their own fair, Alt Philippines. AFP was quick to fill in the gap and launched a new Incubators section featuring six “creative spaces outside the mainstream gallery format”—art/n23, Giatay, Limbo, Load na Dito, Project 20, and Signum. While it was not the first time for artist-run spaces to participate in large-scale enterprises such as art fairs,5 their representation in this year’s edition of AFP raises a few questions. Is their inclusion a form of a long overdue validation? Or, was it an afterthought, a kind of convenient solution to plug the hole left by the breakaway of the ten galleries? Was it an act of collaboration or one of co-optation? For Alt Philippines, it must also be asked, how is it different from AFP and other art fairs in the country? Apart from being smaller in terms of scale and programming, it was surely refreshing to see a fair organised directly by galleries, without the interference of other corporate or national agendas, but despite its name, it still cannot claim to be an alternative for it is still market-driven, hierarchical, and lacking in curatorial direction, just like most art fairs.
This year also marked the end of Green Papaya Art Projects, one of the longest-running artist-run spaces in the Philippines. Established as a non-profit organisation in 2000, Green Papaya has been actively supporting alternative art practices, hosting exhibitions, performances, residencies, and other artist-initiated projects by both local and international artists. While they have previously announced that they were closing next year, after a twenty-year run, the space they shared with the bar Catch272 burned down last June when an electrical fire broke out in their neighbour’s unit and quickly spread to the other apartments. By sheer fate or luck, their upstairs storage room was not completely destroyed and they were able to salvage some artworks and archival materials, many of which had been donated or loaned by artists. The surviving materials, which are currently being conserved and digitised, will be launched online by Asia Art Archive at the same time as that of a separate, archival collection of six spaces in Manila.6
The sudden shuttering of physical spaces due to the global pandemic has triggered a hasty online migration. Museums, galleries, organisations, and all other art spaces are now challenged with moving their operations online—digitising their backrooms and collections, creating virtual exhibition and discussion rooms, and all sorts of digital programmes and content. This transition is inevitable but many were caught totally unprepared, particularly in the Philippines where digital literacy and Internet access are uneven and unstable. These pitfalls, further compounded by pandemic restrictions and politicking, need to be addressed in order to navigate our way within and around online space. This is especially difficult for artist-run spaces not only because they have limited resources and capacities, but also because they largely thrive on physical gatherings, face-to-face meetings and conversations, and the immediacy of experiencing art in real life, all of which can never be fully translated online.
For artist-run spaces in the Philippines, the prospects have never been more precarious and problematic. With so much uncertainty around us, we can only speculate how things will pan out in the coming months and years. Some spaces might survive, or find a way to transform themselves to adapt to the current situation—but at what cost? Already we are experiencing so much pandemic fatigue, expecting people to sacrifice and work harder for the sake of community organisations is an additional burden for most. Artists have been continuously calling out unfair practices in online discussions, but with little effect in a society that still tends to romanticise struggle as an inherent part of being Filipino. Indeed, much has been said about the Filipino’s resiliency in the face of trauma and hardship. In reality, it is a worn-out call that offers no real compensation for the lack of empathy and meaningful support from governmental and private institutions. To be truly alternative now, artists must be part of the reckoning and reconfiguration of the structures that perpetuate divisions and inequalities that have long plagued the art scene in the country.
Ringo Bunoan is an artist and curator based in Metro Manila, Philippines. She is the co-founder of Big Sky Mind (1999–2005), King Kong Art Projects Unlimited (2010–present), and artbooks.ph (2014–present).
1. In 2009, AAA launched the archive of Roberto Chabet, which covers over fifty years of his life and practice. Apart from including his artworks and curatorial projects, the archive also contains materials on Shop 6, CCP, and UP CFA.
2. Since then other artist-run spaces have opened in and around Baguio, including VOCAS and Ili-Likha, owned by National Artist Kidlat Tahimik; and Tam-Awan Village, run by a group of artists supported by National Artist Ben Cabrera, before he opened his own BenCab Museum.
3. Big Sky Mind participated in international conferences and exhibitions organised by 1a Space in Hong Kong, The Pacific Association of Artist-Run Centres in Vancouver, and the 2002 Gwangju Biennale curated by Hou Hanru and Charles Esche, which focused on artist-run spaces.
4. Keehan, Reuben, ed., Column 4: Spaces of Art, Institutional and Post-Institutional Practices in Contemporary Art (Sydney: Artspace Visual Arts Centre, 2009).
5. Galleries owned by artists have regularly participated in previous editions of AFP. In 2016, I also curated an exhibition featuring artist-run spaces from Manila as part of the special exhibition programme of Art Dubai.
6. The six artist-run spaces, which were active from the 1980s to the early 2000s, were part of the Archiving Artist-Run Spaces (AARS) project I initiated for AAA in 2007: The Pinaglabanan Galleries, The Junk Shop, Third Space, Surrounded By Water, Big Sky Mind, and Future Prospects.