BY SAM L. MARCELO, Senior Reporter

The BSP art collection: Figures and paintings

Posted on March 30, 2012

AROUND 5,000 people walk through the corridors of the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) complex on any given workday, many of them unaware that the paintings they pass by are part of a cultural treasure trove worth at least P2 billion.

THE CORRIDORS throughout the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas are lined with art
That solid narra table sitting on the fourth floor? Rumored to be the very table used during the Malolos Convention of 1898. And that large ceramic “plant pot” in BSP Executive Business Center -- the one on the same floor as an antique Balayong table made by a Batangas master, weaving from Southern Mindanao, and works by four National Artists? Why, that “plant pot” is a 19th-century bathtub.

Staggering in depth and breadth, the BSP art collection is composed of 1,361 artworks spanning more than 200 years, from the late 18th century to the present. The oldest pieces, among them religious paintings on molave panels by anonymous painters, are now on view as part Ikon/Iconography, an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Manila (the Met), also located within the BSP complex.

The newest acquisitions, meanwhile, are installed in the BSP lobby. An upcoming exhibit, also at the Met, will show off the 32 most recent acquisitions of the Central Bank, among them: Philippine Revolutionary Heroes by Benedicto “BenCab” Cabrera, a purchase that means BSP finally has at least one work from each of the 14 National Artists for Visual Arts; The Miracles of Lumawig by Rodel Tapaya, who won last year’s Asia Pacific Breweries Foundation Signature Art Prize; and two of Maxine Syjuco’s hand-painted Giclee-on-canvas pieces, the “newest” having been made in 2011.

About 40% of the BSP art collection is on view, distributed inside the BSP complex and its 21 regional offices, as well as on loan to different institutions.

Aside from its art collection, the BSP also has classical gold and pottery from the pre-colonial period on permanent exhibit at the basement of the Met. Notable pieces include a trio of burial jars from the late Metal Age; a 4.9-meter necklace weighing 1,387.7 grams; a Sash for High Royalty that would take an artisan about a year to complete; and a pair of barter rings bigger than doughnuts made of nearly pure gold.

Meanwhile, the BSP Money Museum, inaugurated in 1999, is a “numismatist’s haven” that houses a collection of currencies.


In 2011, Monetary Board Member Ignacio R. Bunye wrote in his “Speaking Out” column in the Manila Bulletin that the BSP art collection “is believed to be wider and deeper in scope than the collections of GSIS [Government Service Insurance System], Cultural Center of the Philippines [CCP], and Intramuros Administration [IA] combined.”

Regina “Ginny” Mercedes Cruz, Money Museum curator, confirmed Mr. Bunye’s assertion, which was published under the title “A storehouse of Philippine culture.”

“It’s true,” she said in an interview with BusinessWorld, and then proceeded to explain why: the GSIS has a concentration of paintings by Hernando “H.R.” Ocampo and Fernando Amorsolo, along with tapestries by Federico Aguilar Alcuaz and winners of its Art Competition; the CCP has pieces mostly from the 1960s and 1970s; the IA, on the other hand, is strong when it comes to 19th-century art. Ms. Cruz added that the NM collection, which encompasses a whole range, is weak in 19th-century and early 20th-century art. Merge these four institutional collections together and the result still wouldn’t compare to what BSP has.

The artist with the most representation in the BSP collection is Amorsolo, painter of light and landscapes, with 28 pieces, followed by Ocampo with 27. The largest is an abstract by Jose Joya measuring seven meters in length; the most expensive, a toss-up between Félix Resurreccion Hidalgo’s Las Virgenes Cristianas Expuestas al Populacho (The Christian Virgins Exposed to the Populace) and La barca de Aqueronte (The Boat of Charon). The latter two, both replicas made by Hidalgo of his medaled oil-on-canvas paintings, are found at the Met.

Interest + Money = The Perfect Combination

The BSP art collection started during the term of Gregorio Licaros, who was BSP governor from 1970 to 1981, then expanded exponentially during Jaime C. Laya’s three-year tenure, from 1981 to 1984.

“I had the interest -- I wouldn’t even use the word ‘passion’ -- and the Central Bank had money: the perfect combination. That’s really all it was,” Mr. Laya told BusinessWorld. “It was easy. I passed the word around that BSP was interested in growing its collection and offers kept coming in.”

-- Jonathan L. Cellona

In an essay titled “The Central Bank Painting Collection,” Mr. Laya wrote that his rules for acquisition were simple: “(a) aim for quality; (b) buy a few important pieces rather than many average quality works; (c)... emphasize the work of recognized masters; (d) get large works rather than small pieces...; and (e) the cost should be no more than what [he] would be personally willing to pay for the collection as a whole... if and when the time comes.” (“The Central Bank Painting Collection” is included in Letras y Figuras, a compilation of Mr. Laya’s essays. The original version was written as an introduction to the book Kayamanan: 77 Paintings in the Central Bank Collection, published in 1981).

One other rule, unwritten but understood, was “no nudes.” “I didn’t think it would be appropriate,” Mr. Laya said.

According to the former Central Bank Governor, the one painting that he really wanted for the collection, and eventually got, was Simon Flores’s Portrait of Cirilo and Severina Quiason and Their Two Children.

“I saw that portrait featured in a Sunday magazine decades before and it stuck to my mind. I therefore asked a friend -- the National Library Director Serafin Quiason -- if they were his relatives and if the portrait was available,” said Mr. Laya in a subsequent e-mail. “It turned out that the little boy in the portrait was his grandfather but the painting was inherited by another branch of the family. He contacted them and negotiated for the Central Bank. We visited the owners -- who ran a cake shop in front of Sto. Domingo church in QC (sans rival, their specialty) -- and struck a deal. That was the only painting I really sought.”

When news spread that the BSP was aggressively buying art, the financial institution gained the enviable position of having first dibs.

“When anyone wanted to sell something, he would always offer it first to the Central Bank,” said Mr. Laya. The downside was that the price was often astronomical.

Unwilling to bargain with sellers, Mr. Laya had to say no to important works, which were then offered to other buyers at half the price. “I ended up not getting really nice pieces for that reason. I missed out on several objects,” he sighed.

After Mr. Laya’s term ended, acquisitions all but stopped. Between 1984 and 2009, only four works were added to the BSP art collection.

“Priorities shifted,” explained Frances Arespacochaga, BSP Deputy Director, Special Services Division, Corporate Affairs Office. “The Bank had to focus on economic recovery.” Between those years, the Philippines was shaken by the 1986 EDSA Revolution, the 1997 Asian financial crisis, and the Global Financial Crisis that began with the collapse of the Lehman Brothers in 2008.

Realizing that gaps in the Central Bank’s collection were widening, BSP Governor Amando Tetangco, Jr. put into place an acquisition fund in 2009. Since then, the Bank added 32 artworks to its collection, which, as mentioned earlier, will be exhibited soon at the Met. Asked how much money the BSP had to play with, Ms. Cruz merely smiled.

In the same column by Mr. Bunye, the Monetary Board member mentioned that Mr. Tetangco also established a Committee on BSP Artworks and Paintings chaired by Deputy Governor Diwa Guinigundo.

This committee is, in turn, assisted by a Cultural Properties Acquisition Advisory Committee composed of non-BSP consultants who understand the whimsies of the art market.

-- Jonathan L. Cellona

Mr. Laya, heads the committee, and is joined by Corazon Alvina, vice-chair of the Met; architect Lor Calma; art critic Alice G. Guillermo; National Artist Arturo Luz; Deanna Ongpin Recto, President of Alliance Française de Manille; and artist-critic Cid Reyes.

While the rules that Mr. Laya laid down during his term are still followed (“no nudes” included), the emphasis has moved to younger artists rather than the masters. “The really nice ones are no longer available,” said Mr. Laya, referring to old works. “That’s why we’re now focusing on contemporary art.”

Six months to pay, prestige 100% guaranteed

Managing a collection as large as the BSP’s can be difficult. “You have to remember, BSP is a bank. Not a museum,” said Ms. Cruz, an art historian who has been with the institution for close seven years.

Problems in the past included storage, maintenance and hanging, since BSP’s hard marble walls don’t take holes kindly.

A conservation program has been active for about five years, to see that the collection is cared for properly. Heat-emitting halogen lamps, which can damage paintings, have been replaced by LED lighting.

Humidifiers with automatic timers were bought in order to remove moisture from the air.

Being what it is, the BSP already has tight security. The complex has an X-ray machine, like those found in airports, to scan bags. It also has armed guards; CCTV cameras; and floor-specific RFID visitor cards that “expire” after 7 p.m. (The RFID cards cease to open turnstiles beyond that time; visitors who overstay are locked inside the BSP and must call security in order to get out.)

According to Ms. Cruz, who heads a staff of six people, the issue now is the act of purchasing itself. Unlike private collectors who can pay for things that strike their fancy right then and there, the BSP is a public institution that must follow a procurement process as outlined by law.

“It can take as long as six months,” said Ms. Cruz. “The challenge today is really the process of buying. It’s not instant since you need to get approval and do all the required paperwork.”

In exchange for the delay in payment, however, an artist receives the distinction of having his piece included in the most important public art collection in the Philippines. “You can put it in your CV or your resume,” said Ms. Cruz. “It’s a matter of prestige because BSP only gets works that are good. We don’t just get a painting because it’s there.”

To ensure that the BSP art collection continues to grow, the Bank launched Tanaw in 2010. Tanaw is a national art competition limited to Filipino artists who have previously won in national and international competitions and art fairs. The top three works automatically become part of the BSP collection.

Five minutes away, 24-hour jet lag

This coming May, people will get a rare chance to see some 300 works from the BSP art collection -- the largest public viewing so far in the history of the Central Bank. The exhibition will be mounted throughout the Philippine International Convention Center (PICC), which will serve as the venue for Manila 2012, the 45th Annual Meeting of the Board of Governors of the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

Four thousand people from the ADB’s 67 member-countries are expected to attend. “It’s a good project,” said Ms. Arespacochaga, BSP Deputy Director. “It’s like putting our best foot forward and projecting a positive image of our country to an international audience.”

According to Ms. Cruz, who is on the curatorial team, the yet unnamed exhibit will be thematic in nature. The probable groupings, to be installed in the PICC’s corridors and lounges, are: landscapes; the Filipino and the Filipina (evolving portraits of who we are, beginning from the 19th century to present); Manila scenes; and folk spirituality, legends, and myths (such as the painting by Mr. Tapaya).

“Nothing is final. Nothing is definite,” Ms. Cruz said, adding that they are still in the planning stages. Asked what the exhibit hopes to achieve, she replied that the event is an opportunity to showcase the country’s long painting tradition as well as its uniqueness.

The Philippines, she pointed out, was heavily influenced by Europe and America. Where other Asian countries have murals -- Thailand, for example -- the Philippines has canvases. “Our painting is tradition is different. It just goes to show that we’ve had a lot of contact with the West,” she said.

Ms. Cruz continued that local artists are very well-collected outside the Philippines, fetching high prices at auctions organized by Christie’s and Sotheby’s. The exhibition at PICC will celebrate this talent and reveal the evolving definition of painting, from oil-on-canvas to mixed media.

The transfer of 300 pieces from BSP to PICC, a five-minute drive assuming green lights all the way, is a lot of work. “We’re envisioning at least five days of transport and installation,” said Ms. Cruz, adding that around 35 people will be involved.

A team stationed at BSP will be in charge of packing each piece in bubble wrap and glassine, an air- and water-resistant type of paper; tagging; and loading the pieces into an armored car or a rented van.

“We’re still debating what the best mode of transportation is,” said the BSP Money Museum curator. “The problem with armored cars is that their interiors are smooth. It will be difficult to tie the pieces down.”

Once the artworks arrive at the PICC, a receiving team will make sure that the pieces are unloaded properly. They will not be unwrapped at once since paintings suffer from 24-hour jet lag: they must be given at least a day to acclimatize to their new environment, even if it is just five minutes away. Once the pieces have adjusted, curators can then direct their hanging. The exhibition will stay up for the entire month of May.

With hope, those who view the exhibit at the PICC will realize why the BSP began an art collection in the first place. One should go back to Mr. Laya’s essay “The Central Bank Painting Collection,” which opened with the paragraph: “To know a country and its people means to know its culture and traditions. Statistics on growth, trade and prices are hardly enough. The full understanding of a nation calls for an awareness of its people’s aspirations, psychology, history, way of life, all of which are evident in their art, literature, music, drama. It is in this spirit that the Central Bank art collection was formed, to present the rich tapestry of the nation’s past and present, as seen through artists’ eyes over three centuries.”

For bankers and businessmen who are more impressed by numbers than sentiments, consider this: since 1984, the value of the BSP art collection has grown from an estimated P68 million to P2 billion in its most recent appraisal. “Prices. We always have to talk about prices,” said Mr. Laya. “Prices are always interesting.”