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(if they can make it there, they can make it anywhere)
By Sam L. Marcelo, Multimedia Editor
SILVERLENS, the 18-year-old Manila-based gallery, is opening in New York City this September with solo shows by Martha Atienza and Yee I-Lann — bucking the trend of businesses closing due to the coronavirus pandemic, surging inflation, and a global economy on the brink of recession.
Silverlens co-owners Isa Lorenzo and Rachel Rillo bought an airy 2,500-square-foot space in the Chelsea Arts District that used to house Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery.
“It’s like we’re jumping off a cliff and we don’t know what’s at the bottom,” said Ms. Rillo, in a Zoom call with BusinessWorld on July 16.
“And we don’t know if it’s a five-foot cliff or a five-kilometer cliff,” Ms. Lorenzo added.
Now being renovated, the New York space has a footprint comparable to Silverlens’ home in Makati City — which the gallery rents in Lapanday Center along Chino Roces Extension — but with the advantage of a higher ceiling height of 20 feet and massive skylights.
Located right by the High Line, on 505 W 24th Street, Silverlens NY will enter a district crowded with big names, such as Lehmann Maupin, Lisson Gallery, Marianne Boesky Gallery, and Gagosian.
“If you go to New York and you’re going to spend one day looking at galleries, you’re going to go to Chelsea. … It’s amazing to be in this neighborhood,” said Ms. Lorenzo of the Manhattan borough’s gravitational pull.
The gallerists declined to share how much they were investing in the space, saying only that it was “a commitment.”
Listing portal StreetEasy, a subsidiary of real-estate marketplace company Zillow, estimates the average price per square foot in West Chelsea at $2,362 as of this writing.
This “trans-continental move,” as Ms. Lorenzo and Ms. Rillo described it, was driven by the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic.
When lockdowns pushed everyone and everything online, Silverlens found that 25% to 30% of its website visitors were from the United States.
“We had a team that was watching who was watching us,” said Ms. Rillo.
Curious as to whether their website analytics translated into a genuine market for Silverlens artists in the United States, Ms. Lorenzo and Ms. Rillo flew to New York City in the middle of 2021 to meet with curators and art habitués they befriended in the decade or so that Silverlens has been participating in the art fair circuit.
Their month-long trip solidified their desire to be part of the New York art scene and the stars aligned quickly once they decided that they wanted to be there: The space was offered this January; it was turned over in April; Silverlens NY opens this September.
“It’s truly nuts,” said Ms. Rillo. “The more we tell people about this timeline in the art world, the more they don’t believe us. They think we’ve been planning this for five years.”
BRICK-AND-MORTAR VS THE METAVERSE
Opening a brick-and-mortar space halfway around the world might seem ironic, given the emphasis on e-commerce and the rise of virtual galleries that specialize in digital artworks that exist as non-fungible tokens (NFTs).
However, a report titled “Future of New York” published this February by UBS Financial Services, Inc., is bullish on the physical gallery.
“I don’t see a shift away from gallery spaces in New York for two reasons. The foreign galleries benefited tremendously from the fact that they were within walking and driving distance of this great body of collectors. … Henceforth, gallery owners will, if anything, see the need to have more of a foothold in New York, not less,” said Marc Spiegler, global director of Art Basel, who was interviewed in the report.
“And just as importantly, galleries are investing in New York real estate. … So this meme that ‘the gallery space is over,’ that ‘everyone’s going to move into the metaverse,’ is just not sustained by the evidence on the ground,” he continued.
The UBS report also stated that “New York’s position as a global center of the art market will continue uninterrupted.”
“The Art Market 2022,” an Art Basel and UBS report published this March, noted that US collectors had the highest share overall (53%) of new and emerging artists’ works.
‘THE OPPORTUNITY OF A PANDEMIC’
The New York art scene, in the past few years, has consolidated, making room for international players like Silverlens.
Galleries from Brazil, Korea, Mexico (and now, the Philippines) have moved into the industrial spaces in Chelsea vacated by medium-sized American galleries, which, depending on their fortunes, either closed or relocated to the historic cast-iron buildings of posh Tribeca.
“We couldn’t let the opportunity of a pandemic pass us by,” said Ms. Lorenzo.
“There’s a lot of movement. What’s happening in Chelsea right now is you have a lot of the big blue-chip guys and then you have the migrants. There’s space,” she added, using “space” in terms of real estate and diversity.
The very attributes that would have made it impossible for Ms. Lorenzo and Ms. Rillo to set up shop in New York in the early aughts now make them appealing: they are queer BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color).
“They need BIPOC representation. And that’s what we are,” said Ms. Lorenzo. Added Ms. Rillo: “We tick off quite a number of boxes so we’re going to jump on board.”
The West’s cultural reckoning — provoked by the immigration debate, the #MeToo movement, the Black Lives Matter movement, anti-Asian violence, and the climate crisis, among others — have put marginalized communities front and center.
“It’s a pivotal moment, specifically in the United States,” said Ms. Lorenzo. “We are squarely in that spotlight because we are brown. There is a sense of being seen.”
These global issues inform the positioning of Silverlens NY as shown by the two artists featured in the inaugural show: Dutch-Filipino video and installation artist Ms. Atienza and Malaysian photomedia-based artist Ms. Yee, whose works are both rife with geopolitical tension.
Ms. Atienza’s The Protectors features the fisherfolk of Bantayan Island and “explores environment, community, and development” while questioning who owns the land and who owns the sea.
In Roof of the Mouth, meanwhile, Ms. Yee collaborates with indigenous Malaysian weavers to present a body of work that “claims and celebrates communities and their geographies, often at the peripheries, that give shape to the center.”
The primary goal of Silverlens NY is to get institutions and museums to collect the work of its artists and provide a Southeast Asian perspective to topics, such as climate change and circular economies, that have a direct impact on the Philippines and the region.
“We want to be part of the conversation,” said Ms. Lorenzo. “There are so many issues that they are championing and talking about over there [in the West] but we’re the ones who are living this on a daily basis.”
NO LONGER AN ISLAND
Silverlens NY is not the first time that Ms. Lorenzo and Ms. Rillo are venturing beyond the Philippines. From 2012 to 2015, they operated in Singapore at Gillman Barracks, where they focused on the artists on their roster.
“We were like an island, just showing our own thing,” said Ms. Lorenzo.
The lessons they learned from their three-year stint in Singapore influenced their New York programming, which will be composed of two-month exhibitions that are gallery-curated — as in Gillman Barracks — and curator-led, thus broadening Silverlens’ horizons.
“We’re going to invite curators from there [the United States] to put up shows with our artists and artists in their radar,” said Ms. Rillo. “I’m excited about that because then there’s a sense of discovery for us.”
Silverlens is eyeing artists who are part of the Asian diaspora, reflective of the backgrounds of both gallerists. Prior to founding Silverlens, Ms. Lorenzo studied at the Parsons School of Design in New York City and worked at the International Center of Photography, also in the same city; Ms. Rillo, meanwhile, was on the opposite coast: she studied at the Academy of Art College (now known as Academy of Art University) in San Francisco and was a photographer based in Los Angeles.
Also related to this migratory/trans-continental experience is the matter of currency and whether there is a danger of skewing the prices of their artists out of the Philippine market.
“We’ve been working at this price level for many years. We don’t need to create an international price and a local price — it doesn’t work that way,” said Ms. Lorenzo. “We’re pretty much established and our artists are also established — it’s not so much an issue.”
“We just happen to be in the Philippines,” she added. “I already feel like we are running a very international standard program. It’s just a matter of applying ourselves and what we already do in Manila to New York.”
Silverlens will present the first New York solo gallery shows by artists Martha Atienza and Yee I-Lann, on Sept. 8, at Silverlens NY, 505 W 24th Street, New York, NY. For more information, visit www.silverlensgalleries.com.