February is National Arts Month. Numerous gallery openings and art events are happening every week, and as we come close to the middle of the month, the more we hear the words “art fair.”
“Insiders” often look at art fairs as trade shows. By trade, this simply describes the business aspect of art. They serve as markets where gallerists, dealers, curators, and artists make deals or exchanges. But it might be depreciative to only describe art fairs as a palengke or art supermarket.
We should regard art fairs as the gathering of galleries to exhibit the works of numerous artists all in one place. Visual and non-visual treats become open to the public. Not only are they great works serving as agents of enrichment, but they are oftentimes the best works the artists and the galleries can offer for the year.
But if people aren’t collectors or artists or art enthusiasts, why is it necessary for them to go?
While there is a commercial aspect that cannot be avoided, there is also an attempt on the part of the organizers to make the fairs attractive and accessible. (By accessible, I am referring to the event itself, not the works, since artists, if they have credibility, won’t compromise their art for the sake of public acceptance).
In independent film festivals, for example, it is unfair to say that some groups of audiences shouldn’t be there because they are not film connoisseurs. It should be an event where anyone can watch films beyond their usual consumption. And when there’s a large attendance, festivals grow, as we have seen in the growth and emergence of many distinguished film festivals.
The most renowned art fairs in the world are Art Basel (Basel, Miami, Hong Kong), Fiac (Paris), and Frieze (London). In previous years, art fairs in the Philippines – and our other artistic achievements – are also getting noticed by the world. (READ: Global art festivals and the artists who remain starving)
Established in 2008, ManilART was the pioneering Philippine art fair. It was the flagship project of the National Committee on Art Galleries (NCAG) of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA). Over the years, ManilART has been providing the public with an extensive mix of works both by contemporary artists and masters – including ethnic and regional artists – and even works from abroad.
Another notable art fair is Art Fair Philippines, which is arguably the largest in the country today, with around 20,000-50,000 visitors and 500 plus exhibitors. Founded in 2013, they exhibit the best modern and contemporary visual arts from Filipino artists. It has also been the place to see works from some international artists too.
Just this year, 10 of the most prominent galleries in the Philippines broke away from Art Fair Philippines and established ALT 2020. According to their statement, their vision is to create a “meaningful engagement with its visitors, artists, and professionals in the art community.”
In these art fairs, they don’t just exhibit great works of art, but amplify relevant social issues. In previous years, some of the topics presented were heritage conservation, cultural diversity, environmental concerns, diaspora, religion, EJKs, and corruption. (READ: The art of dissent in the time of Duterte)
Given the limited time, the number of works to see, and the noise and distractions, it is important to note that there may be no complete absorption of the works in art fairs. To address this matter, organizers also host events and talks to help educate the public and contextualize the artworks. Artists and gallerists are also present, willing to talk to anyone interested about their intention and process. There’s also the traditional walking tour done by art professionals.
Attendance, however, is not the be-all and end-all of art fairs. Theorist Raymond Williams highlights the need for cultural analysis, where we should try to understand what the works are saying about the lived experience and how it affects us. For him, it is necessary for us to learn how to read these signs (or what he calls “structure of feeling”) because they are records that a particular culture wishes to express.
As a regular attendee of art fairs for almost a decade now, I’ve witnessed how much they've evolved. I've also seen an abundant offering of high-quality art, discovered respected and valuable artists, and learned of prominent galleries here and abroad.
Although the scene may be growing, however, the dilemma remains. There should be no cultural elitism in art fairs, but at the same time, these places also can’t be kitsch. Art education must also continue to be strengthened so there may be more possibilities for cultural analysis. And from there we can begin more thorough conversations that may help us understand who we are as Filipinos. – Rappler.com
Jose P. Mojica teaches communication and media at the University of Santo Tomas Faculty of Arts and Letters under the Department of Communication and Media Studies. He is a resident fellow of the UST Center for Creative Writing and Literary Studies.