Pandemic in the Philippines: A cultural sector on its own

By Katrina Stuart Santiago
(2,200 words, 8-minute read)

When I was first asked to write about “cultural leadership” in the Philippines, I turned up a blank. This is not because we lack cultural institutions that get public funding—we in fact, have enough of those. Neither is it because there are no organisations, nor that there aren’t enough people who put in the work for culture, and who do the work that’s necessary and urgent. If anything, since this pandemic broke and the crises of failed governance surfaced, we have seen people from the arts and culture sectors rise to the occasion of others, filling in gaps in government response in ways that can only be extraordinary given our collective trauma. 

But institutional leadership is a whole different matter altogether. After all, the first indications of the present decay in national leadership might have been seen in its treatment of cultural agencies as nothing more but positions for loyal allies. So the National Library is headed by a non-librarian—a violation of the rules for such a position; the chairperson of the Film Development Council of the Philippines (FDCP) has since been called out by the film and creative industry for her overreaching regulation over all audio-visual content—which is not part of her mandate; the Movie and Television Regulation and Classification Board (MTRCB) is filled with appointees whose only claim to fame is that they campaigned for the President in 2016; the head of both the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) and the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) is the same old man, the President’s former teacher, who still thinks arts and culture is about teaching the youth to stay away from drugs and video games.

Of course, we might say that cultural leadership is not in these State institutions, but in us who are out here. But that would mean falling into the trap of evading the discussion on: (a) public funds and where it goes, and—just as important in a country where positions are not just platforms but megaphones for ideological predispositions—(b) cultural power. In the time of pandemic this becomes even more important. As with the national government that reduces the poor majority to begging for alms, the cultural worker has no choice but to beg and be oh-so-grateful for the P2000 to P5000 pesos in assistance allocated for the “most deserving.” Never mind that the collective need is clear, the massive crisis ongoing, government incompetence ensuring that there is no end in sight. 

At a time when national leadership has proven to be most violent and heartless, there is little one can expect from cultural institutions. Hard put to gather insights on what it’s like for the different cultural sectors and where we can go from here, I fell back on individuals working in the private and public sectors, whose experiences and vision are important in terms of a preliminary mapping of a future for the arts and culture sector, both immediate and long-term. In a country where the government has given leadership a bad name, we work with honest-to-goodness cultural workers. 

Delan Robillos has worked with the NCCA since 2014, and in recent years has worked as part of the Subcommission on Cultural Heritage, traveling the country to do workshops on cultural mapping of both tangible and intangible heritage. The pandemic and the contingent restrictions on movement has of course put a stop to the work of heritage partners on the ground, but surprisingly, they have sought him out. “It’s been heartwarming to find that some of them are worried about not being able to do their work,” he says. “It means that the time we spend on community trainings, asking people to participate in and take responsibility for their common heritage, towards building upon their community’s cultural heritage profiles, has been effective.” 

A cultural mapping activity in Sarangani Province in Southern Philippines with Gawad Manlilikha ng Bayan (National Living Treasure) awardee, B’laan mat weaver Estelita Bantilan.

What is most worrisome for Robillos is the loss of intangible heritage, practices that can easily disappear, at a time when the struggle for survival is foremost on everyone’s mind. “Masks that use our indigenous weaves are being sold, but little time is spent actually explaining what those weaves mean,” he says. One understands the concern—it almost seems like a relapse into the romanticisation of the indigenous, as opposed to the task of cultural mapping where interest grounded in data is encouraged and pushed forward. And yet one realises that it is also no surprise that survival is our primary concern, as opposed to sustainability. Selling and buying these woven masks now, using whatever othering gaze in the process, seems better than buying another mask made from China after all. 

Survival is also at the forefront of what Rica Estrada, head of the CCP’s Visual Arts and Museum Division (VAMD) mentions as the primary concern for the sector. “The main crisis is still the lack of resources, the lack of support, and the lack of coordination and unity. But as always, the artistic community does what it can,” she says. “Artists have come together to find ways to make themselves be heard and counted. Cultural workers have been checking in on each other. It’s also been really inspiring seeing how artists and cultural workers have been giving to those outside their community, like fundraising initiatives for the marginalised, for frontliners, food drives, among others.” 

Estrada hits tangentially on a salient point, one that is rarely talked about. Cultural workers give their time, energy, and resources in performing the civic duty of assisting those who are most vulnerable, but there is no forgetting that in the hierarchy of sectors we are just as endangered by this state of affairs, if not already vulnerable ourselves. What Estrada mentions as a “lack of coordination and unity” is of course crucial not just in naming this predicament, as it is in addressing the probable outcome that is a cultural sector in dire straits.

VAMD itself has had to scrap its original 2020 programme of exhibitions and events, and reconfigure and reimagine what might be done the rest of the year instead, given the closure of the CCP. “We needed to step back and re-check our priorities and strategies for the division. We were also directed to create a more visible online presence, which led to us creating a social media programme from scratch, with no expertise or previous training,” she explains. 

The LIGALIG: Gawad Alt 2.0 Virtual Exhibit at the Cultural Centre Philippines [More]

But it isn’t just about using new platforms as it is about reassessing and taking a step back. “Our work now involves a lot more care for, looking into, and working with what we have, whether it be our community, our collections, our archives, or skills that we were not able to practise as much before. There’s been a lot of looking back and a lot of taking stock, and re-aligning ourselves to be able to make use of our history and the assets that we have to be able to give and share.”

The same kind of rethinking has happened for Robillos, though the pause seems to have taken him in the direction of actually going beyond institutional limits, towards the expansion of practices that would deliver on the institutional vision—rarely talked about as that is. Speaking about traditional arts, as well as the delicate (and sensitive!) balance that needs to be struck in terms of assistance and funding programmes across the regions, he explains: “There has to be a recovery programme, one that reviews the capability of artists, provides legal services, and which encourages cultural innovation,” he explains. “A capability fund would encourage artists to work on long-term projects that might sustain them for a longer period of time, as opposed to a dole-out.”

Where taking pause has been important, there is also much to be said about those who seem to have hit this pandemic ground running. VIVA EXCON, a Visayan-based traveling biennial run by artists, had announced its November 2020 run on February 29, before the nation was put on the longest Covid-19 lockdown in the world. By April 29, it announced that it was to continue as scheduled. 

Now called Dasun Recalibrated 2020, it will run for 10 months, from November 2020 to July 2021. “Dasun, a Hiligaynon term, meaning next or referring to the future is the theme of VIVA EXCON 2020,” organiser Manny Montelibano says. “Its recalibration involves two phases. The first phase is the V-Con (virtual conference) and V-Ex (virtual exhibitions). V-Con will feature online panel discussions on the curatorial, which will highlight our regional curators with selected artists, regional issues that will be presented by our island coordinators, global concerns in the art world, online workshops, artist talks, and webinars. V-Ex will feature collateral exhibitions happening in the Visayas. This phase will happen in November 2020 to June 2021.”

Depending on travel restrictions, the second phase is tentatively set for July to August 2021, when physical exhibitions and conferences in Bacolod City will be mounted. “We decided to push through with VIVA EXCON because we believe, in these times, we have to continue to work for the future, and our theme is our futures,” he explains.

The new moves of VIVA EXCON 2020 [Source] 

To Montelibano, that future, both immediate and long-term, might be about turning inwards. “The pandemic era will pave a way for the appreciation of what is local. Most artists respond to the times, that’s why so many artworks focus on this pandemic, the lockdown, and its effects,” he surmises. “Artists will continue to work, and some may modify their practice. We have a common limitation, we are restricted to move, to travel, to gather, even traditions will be controlled, but we cannot stop. We just need to accept reality and work with it. And if reality goes out of bounds, we have to deal with it.”

Estrada speaks to some extent in a similar vein. “The robustness of local content has also been exponential. I think there is a longer gestation period to wait out but I am also looking forward to the art that will come out of this.”

For Robillos, much should still be anchored on the changes we need to make for the systems to work in favour of artists and cultural workers. Here he mentions the private sector, and wonders about the role they now play. “How has the private sector assisted artists, the same ones whose works they earned from pre-pandemic? How might the private sector contribute to a real recovery programme for the arts and culture sector that isn’t just about amelioration?”

These are important questions to ask, and these should also be addressed to State institutions of culture, with its funds intact, but its projects on hold or now cheaper, because they’re all happening online. Robillos also sounds the call for something so basic, but which the various institutions have been unable to build: a database. “We need information,” he says. “Up to now there is still no official list of artists and practitioners in the cultural sector, which is crucial not just for amelioration, but for the more sustainable projects we might build later on.” 

During the first lockdown, multiple survey forms did the rounds on social media, all coming from different organisations and agencies, a way to find out who was in most need of assistance. But after the first set of fundraisers and the distribution of cash, we have not seen how else these surveys might be used, and no institution has been able to gather all these surveys towards building at least the beginning of a veritable database of artists and practitioners in the country. 

It is of course disunity that ails the sector, and one is hard put to disprove that. It is the kind of disunity that cripples, and it is, for the most part, the kind of divide that allows for the powers-that-be to stay where they are, no matter how abusive or inutile. Estrada though seems hopeful. “There seems to be a more united call for change, even from those you would not usually hear from. I am hopeful that artists will be able to see the value of coming together and of looking out for each other,” she says. “But I am also hopeful that this time was used for introspection, for finding our individual answers to questions of purpose and value and roles in society. The system, big and diverse as it is, has been showing some signs of promise, but also has too many sectors that have either remained silent or seems to be pushing for a return to the status quo, which I do not believe would serve the greater good.”

And then probably the most significant call. “The lack of services were the main focus for the first few months of the pandemic, but the larger, more terrifying crisis is that of the curtailment of freedoms. I believe this is something that will affect the art community greatly in the near future, if it hasn’t already,” Estrada reminds us. “History tells us that our voices, once united, and led by genuine purpose and true concern for all, and not by fear or anger, will serve as the light that we will need to get us through these dark times.” 

A leadership vacuum, hungry stomachs, and unemployment notwithstanding. Hope springs.

This article is supported by Splice Lights On.

Katrina Stuart Santiago is an independent cultural critic and opinion writer from Manila, with a decade of work in print and online. Her critical work on theater, film, visual arts, and popular culture was published in Rebellions: Notes on Independence and Romances: Variations on Love by the Ateneo de Naga University Press in 2017. Her role as critic has fueled her activism, which cuts across issues of cultural labor, systemic dysfunctions, and institutional crises. She is contributing writer for CNN Philippines, and is teacher of multimedia arts at the College of St.Benilde-School of Design and the Arts. She maintains the review website, the opinion page, and has been writing at since 2008. She is founder of PAGASA-People for Accountable Governance and Sustainable Action, which seeks to build a new civil society for the urgencies of the present.

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About the author(s)

Katrina Stuart Santiago is an essayist, cultural critic, opinion writer, and book author from Manila, with a decade of work in print and online. Her role as critic has fueled her activism, which cuts across issues of cultural labor, systemic dysfunctions, and institutional crises. She is a teacher at the College of Saint Benilde’s School of Arts, Culture, and Performance, book maker at small press Everything's Fine, and is a contributor to the International Association of Theater Critics’s online platform, Critical Stages. She founded People for Accountable Governance and Sustainable Action-PAGASAph that seeks to provide the space for political action from younger civil society actors. She is part of the 2021 cohort of the Feminist Journalist Project of the Association of Women's Rights in Development, is a 2023 Public Intellectual of the Democracy Discourse Series of the De La Salle University, and is co-author of UNESCO-Germany’s Fair Culture Charter. She has been writing at since 2008 and is @radikalchick online

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