“The gift is an unconditional one,” wrote Fernando Zóbel in a letter to Fr. Francisco Araneta, S.J. in 1960. “I want the Ateneo to have complete freedom in the use of these pictures.” As of December 2018, these same words were inscribed on the wall by the entrance to the exhibition Love It and Leave It: A Legacy of Gifts to the Ateneo Art Gallery. The show, which concluded on January 19, inaugurated the museum’s new space on the campus of Ateneo de Manila University, its longtime home.
Zóbel was a Spanish-Filipino painter, businessman, and art collector who would become the uncle of the fourth richest man in the Philippines. Araneta was then President and Rector of Ateneo de Manila University, the foremost private university in the Philippines. Zóbel’s gift was a collection of canonical “post-war Philippine modernist works” that would catalyze the creation of the Ateneo Art Gallery (AAG) under the university’s governance. Over the decades, many others — primarily philanthropists, rich businessmen, and corporate entities — have carried on Zóbel’s practice of donating artworks to the AAG; such largesse has helped achieve his vision of establishing the AAG as “the premier museum of Philippine modern art.”
But at what cost are these gifts granted? Zóbel’s ability to donate artworks to the AAG rested on his ability to acquire them in the first place. He was a direct descendant of mestizo landlords who had benefitted from colonial landgrabs; if not for the three-hundred-year Spanish plunder of the Philippines and the dispossession of its people, he would not be in a position to accumulate the wealth an art collection — and, consequently, an art donation — as massive as his required.
The ability to contribute artworks to the AAG’s still-burgeoning collection rests on nothing more than the ability to accumulate wealth — which means that corporations can become donors just like Zóbel. This explains how somebody like Col. Andres Soriano — the Spanish-Filipino founder of various leading Filipino enterprises (San Miguel Corporation, the food conglomerate best known for San Miguel Beer, as well as Philippine Airlines, Asia’s first flagship airline) and who was decorated by the US government as a war hero for his facilitation of US occupation of the Philippines — can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Smart Communications — a telecommunications giant led by the Filipino tycoon Manuel V. Pangilinan, who chairs multiple corporations moving primarily in healthcare, education, and basic utilities — among AAG’s patrons.
All three personalities are compradors of note, facilitating the sell-out of local resources for the benefit of imperialist, if not outright colonialist, states. Since the US purchase of the Philippines from Spain for $20 million in 1898 — a sale that benefitted the Zóbel de Ayalas, the Sorianos, and other families of the mestizo elites who had colluded with one or both of the occupying powers — the Philippines has never wrenched itself away from US control. Pangilinan has accumulated wealth precisely because his corporations adhere to the economic policies and social welfare measures set by US-led financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund-World Bank.
Such policies promote the flexibility of labor, pushing wages down and eroding the right to unionize. They also institute unregulated public-private partnerships that enable the private sector to hold social services and utilities hostage. Rather than support basic industries, they invite foreign direct investment toward import-dependent and export-oriented industries that channel domestic resources out of the country, thwarting national industrialization. And thus we arrive at the fantasy of free trade, which disregards unequal access to markets and capital while widening the wealth gap between the developed and the developing worlds, specifically former colonial powers and their subjects.
Every donation from these personalities is an investment that perpetuates their influence over the state and the conditions of production from which they profit. Presented by the AAG as acts of generosity, such investments reproduce power: donors boost the prestige of the AAG, which then inflates the value of the works in the AAG’s custody — and subsequently the works in the custody of their donors — all while the donors deodorize their accumulation of wealth. Suddenly, the Jollibee fry cook with no security of tenure, earning five to ten dollars a day, is no longer simply in the service of a corporation led by labor exploiter Ernesto Tanmantiong, President and CEO of Jollibee Foods Corporation; he is now — mutatis mutandis — in the service of Philippine modernism and art patrons like Tanmantiong, who also happens to be the President of Ateneo de Manila University and namesake of one of AAG’s galleries. Incidentally, in June of 2018, a Jollibee mascot held a photo-op at an AAG exhibition on the same day laid-off workers demanding reinstatement and security of tenure set up a protest camp right outside a Jollibee warehouse.
Rather than acquiring its collection on its own, the AAG has resorted to normalizing a feudal culture of philanthropy, propped up by what appears to be its donors’ goodwill. That poet and art critic Carlomar Daoana — notably a recipient of an art criticism award granted under the auspices of the AAG itself — can uncritically represent philanthropy in the AAG as generosity in his column for a major daily shows the extent of this normalization. The culture of philanthropy becomes so entrenched that the AAG can shamelessly flaunt its role in “directing corporate social responsibility programs towards art patronage,” as if art patronage were as urgent as access to potable water (which happens to already have been privatized by the state under corporations led by Pangilinan and the Zóbel de Ayalas).
So much cultural development has been entrusted to the elite that their self-interested decisions can be passed off as decisions made for the public good. It follows that when Security Bank Corporation, for example, decides to acquire and donate an Isabel and Alfredo Aquilizan to the AAG, the AAG obscures the gains made by Security Bank to focus on the gains supposedly made by the public. The bank’s gains range from tax breaks that could have gone to social services and infrastructure development to boosts in the values of other collectors’ and corporations’ artworks in the AAG collection.
Hoping to contribute to this vision of Philippine modern art, even artists themselves — with minuscule resources compared to billionaire donors — participate in gift-giving, parting with their own artworks or the occasional personal acquisition to bolster both the AAG’s collection and reputation. In exchange for divesting control of their own work, they simultaneously earn the two-fold prestige of being AAG donors and having work in the AAG collection. Exploiter and exploited alike become philanthropists even as the exploiter gains so much more.
The system of exploitation that enables the wealthy to collect and donate art is the same system that withholds agricultural land from its tillers.
The Lorenzos of Lapanday Foods Corporation (LFC), for instance, have an entire gallery within AAG named after their matriarch, Alicia Lorenzo. Lapanday is an exporter of agricultural goods that claims to have “introduced the first Philippine brands of fresh fruit to the global market,” providing a steady supply of bananas and pineapples to “grocery stores in China, Japan, the Middle East, Korea, and other countries in Asia and the Pacific rim.” Its thousands of hectares of agricultural land had been amassed through lopsided agribusiness venture agreements (AVAs) between the corporation and small farm-owner cooperatives. AVAs are legal instruments for legitimizing landgrabs, normalizing unfair labor practices, and dwarfing the already-minute income of small farm-owners perpetually swindled by exporters.
Lapanday’s control over land that isn’t theirs is so total and despotic that when a small cooperative of agrarian reform beneficiaries disputed one of Lapanday’s onerous AVAs in 2016, the protesting farmers were met with serial armed harassment that escalated to outright aggression: seven of these farmers were wounded when they were peppered with bullets upon entering the territory legally declared theirs by the state.
In the same year, the Lorenzos were also implicated in a case of illegal trafficking, displacing eight hundred sugar workers from their homes in Southern Philippines to work at a hacienda in Central Luzon with its own dark and convoluted history of dispossession and peasant massacres. Prior to their rescue, the sugar workers were reported to be earning as little as $0.18 a day. The hacienda is largely under the ownership of the Cojuangco-Aquino landlord family, who acquired their 6,400-hectare territory in the 1950s through a purchase from the tobacco company that had received it as a gift from the Spanish colonizers; the US-backed Philippine government facilitated this deal. A Lorenzo owns the sugar mill located within this hacienda. It is no coincidence that one of the biggest commercial art galleries on the Asia side of the Pacific Rim is owned by the Lorenzos; the president and CEO of Lapanday sits on the board of directors of this same gallery.
To bluntly summarize: it is no stretch of the imagination to say that the collecting class is made up largely of the landlord class as well as the big comprador bourgeoisie. In the case of the AAG, the landlord class and the big comprador bourgeoisie — including the salaried bourgeoisie on the payroll of big banks and financial institutions — have everything to gain from their own gestures of cultural generosity. Every gift of art extended to the museum is a gift to themselves, whether by way of tax breaks, anti-worker policies, and anti-peasant measures.
Genuine agrarian reform and national industrialization are the key demands of the struggle for national democracy, which is led by a mass movement of peasants and workers. Because donors cannot reproduce their power should these demands be met, gift-giving in the context of museums requires the suppression of these demands. It is in the interest of museums like the AAG to uphold the imperialism that keeps relations and modes of production feudal (in which peasants are in bondage to the interests of the landlord class) and bureaucrat-capitalist (in which state bureaucrats are beholden to the interests of the comprador-bourgeoisie).
A program of genuine cultural development — one that fosters the conditions in which Philippine modernism can thrive — must therefore be a program of organized resistance against feudalism, bureaucrat-capitalism, and imperialism. Emmanuel Torres, the AAG’s first curator, may have bought into the vision of Zóbel’s donation growing into “a body of works signifying the best of modern Philippine art,” but what’s so modern about an art collection that rests on the barbarism of exploitation and dispossession?
If museums of modern art want to uphold their integrity as custodians of the modern, they cannot evade the responsibility of disclosing the contradictions that come with art patronage. Neither can they ignore their complicity in advancing the interests of the collecting class which accumulates wealth by dispossession. As long as museums depend on the generosity of the collecting class, they must also reveal what this dependence costs us, their public: our freedom.
The work introduced by this essay, 176 Gifts/176 Dispossessions, is a collection of photographs of title cards labelling the artworks in the AAG’s inaugural exhibition. Each card is peculiar in that it acknowledges who donated or bequeathed the artwork before either work or its creator is named — an almost hysterical acknowledgement of the hierarchies at play. More than a show of the work of artists, it is a show of the work of philanthropists.
That Filipino artists participating in the legal mass movement for national democracy have been commissioned by SFMOMA’s Open Space for the realization of this work should not be dismissed as mere irony. It is the direct outcome of the import-dependent, export-oriented economy the Philippines is mired in. We are no strangers to the fact that SFMOMA’s board of trustees and an American clothing retail giant with six factories operating in the Philippines (at least one of which is located in an industrial zone where workers enjoy limited economic and political rights) share the same chairman. We openly face the contradiction that by participating in this project, we indirectly participate in the patronage system that normalizes dispossession.
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