“Art is supposed to widen our ideas of life. It’s supposed to get us into philosophical discussions and expand our minds. But if we’re stuck in that little muddle of selling stuff, we’re going to end up doing merchandising. It’s going to hurt.” — Lyra Garcellano

By Sam L. Marcelo
Associate Editor

THE UNCONVENTIONAL charm of The Link car park in Makati City, home of Art Fair Philippines (AFP) since 2013, has faded for nine of the 10 galleries mounting their own event, ALT Philippines, at the SMX Convention Center.

Artinformal, Blanc Gallery, Finale Art File, Galleria Duemila, MO_Space, The Drawing Room, Underground, Vinyl on Vinyl, and West Gallery have separated from AFP and its organizers — Trickie Lopa, Lisa Periquet, and Dindin Araneta — for several reasons, some more personal than others, and with varying levels of amicability. The main sticking point, however, was AFP’s refusal to move out of the car park. (The tenth ALT gallery, 1335 Mabini, is joining both.)

Splitting from AFP is a bold move considering that the fair has metastasized into a cultural juggernaut that pulls in tens of thousands of visitors.

The two fairs, which take place within a week of each other, are vying for the eyeballs and Instagram posts of an art crowd intent on protecting itself from the coronavirus and “fairtigue” (defined by Blouin Artinfo as “an existential state of exhaustion brought on by attending or exhibiting in too many art fairs”).

“The primary reason I joined ALT is that I want to explore a different venue,” said Jay Amante of Blanc Gallery in a phone interview. “The space you put artworks in is very important. I feel that AFP has been around the car park for too long. It’s very limiting, physically, for the artworks and for the number of artworks you can put.”

The Link has a ceiling height of eight feet. In contrast, the function rooms at SMX Convention Center at SM Aura Premier have more than triple that at 28 feet. Furthermore, ALT Philippines, in keeping with its utopian, consensus-building approach to event management, features a hive-like layout that puts all 10 exhibitors on equal footing. Each exhibitor will have 70 square meters of floor space to play with and the freedom to do whatever they want; no one will be banished to a remote corner on the 7th floor of the car park.

“A new space will always give you a rejuvenating feeling,” said Mr. Amante, who stressed that he decided to sit out AFP 2020 even before ALT presented itself as an alternative.

“Before ALT came about, I felt like there was a need to change the venue, but how do you say that to a well-oiled, perfectly working machine?,” said Mr. Amante. “Art Fair Philippines works. It brings people in. You’re able to showcase the works in a decent manner. There was really nothing wrong with AFP… but the thing is, it was getting tiring.”

ALT Philippines, for Mr. Amante, is a chance to regain the enthusiasm that was snuffed out after seven years in the car park. “The first edition of anything you do in life is the most exciting,” he mused. “This is not a rebellion. It’s wanting to feel that what you’re doing isn’t robotic. …I think it’s a good thing. I think everyone will step up. The Art Fair Philippines team will definitely step up and so will the ALT team — we don’t want to embarrass ourselves. It’s that dynamic that excites me.”

Adding to the Blanc gallerist’s excitement is the wide-open future of ALT Philippines. “This could be the last one or this could go to Barcelona next year,” he said. “We don’t know.”

A notable absence among the 10 founding galleries of ALT Philippines is Silverlens, which wasn’t invited to join the new fair. Headed by Isa Lorenzo, Silverlens has a packed first quarter that began with S.E.A. Focus in Singapore in January. After AFP this February, the gallery will head to Art Basel Hong Kong and Art Dubai, both in March.

“We really choose where we participate and only go for the top fairs,” said Ms. Lorenzo in an e-mail. Silverlens joins art fairs for specific reasons, including connecting with existing clients, meeting new ones, and touching base with the museums and collections in the host city or country. Art fairs, after all, are huge networking events where curators, collectors, artists, and everyone who’s anyone rub shoulders and breathe the same air (the year’s hottest fashion accessory might be a face mask).

AFP, in particular, Ms. Lorenzo said, “opens a lot of opportunities for people to come to Manila to see us in our home turf.” Adding ALT to the mix a week before AFP opens doesn’t worry her: “I don’t think ALT will dilute the scene, it should make it more interesting.”

It bears saying that, like Mr. Amante, Ms. Lorenzo’s affection for the car park has dwindled. “AFP should really move out of the car park,” she said, “but people come, and we do well. We connect with people — visitors, art shoppers, and art collectors — who don’t come to the gallery, and invite them to come to Silverlens for a better experience than the car park.” (Asked how AFP makes up for the fact that The Link isn’t the best venue to show off art, Ms. Lorenzo’s one-line reply was: “They don’t.”)

In an interview during a press event for AFP, Ms. Lopa defended AFP’s loyalty to The Link. “Our mission is to widen the audience of contemporary art. This is reflected in our choice of venue. We want to hold the fair that’s accessible and that’s not intimidating. The car park answers that need and that’s why we’ve been there,” she said.

Despite the departure of the nine galleries that chose to show only at ALT Philippines, this year’s edition of AFP is the biggest yet, with 61 participants in the Galleries section. New features have also been added to the existing roster of talks, tours, and public art projects: ArtFairPH/Film, which celebrates Philippine cinema; ArtFairPH/Open Studios, which is composed of workshops and demonstrations; and ArtFairPH/Incubators, which showcases creative spaces outside of the mainstream gallery format.

Questions about ALT were sidestepped and Ms. Lopa made no mention of the new fair. “We’re just sticking to our mission. Why are we here? It’s to widen the audience for the visual arts. This is why we continue doing what we do. We’re in this for the long haul. I think you’ve seen by our lineup that we’ve not let up in terms of our planning. We’re still pushing the boundaries of what we can show our audience.”

All this talk underscores how important art fairs have become to the art ecosystem. It is now a validating institution for artists and, as artnet put it, “the art market’s central apparatus.” (See “Team Gallery’s Jose Freire on Why He Is Quitting Art Fairs for Good” by Andrew Goldstein, news.artnet.com, March 5, 2018.)

The UBS Global Art Market Report 2019 bolsters the same claim with numbers: aggregate sales at art fairs are estimated to have reached $16.5 billion in 2018 — up 6% year-on-year, while the share of the total value of global dealer sales made at art fairs was 46%.

Among the key insights stated in the UBS Global Art Market Report 2019 is this: “The evolution of the event-driven market and art fairs has been the most significant trend for dealers in the past two decades. In 2000, there were about 55 established international art fairs. This number has increased rapidly since then, and in 2018, there were close to 300 fairs with an international element.”

The report also noted that the Philippines counted among the countries with the lowest national average prices for booths, along with Portugal, Italy, and Spain, which all averaged under $300 per square meter.

The UBS Global Art Market Report 2019 concluded that “while dealers and collectors have noted their increasing exhaustion with the number of events on the art fair calendar, fairs remain one of the key channels for sales and the exchange of information in the gallery sector.”

The emergence of the art fair as a validating institution and its effects on art-making deserve a conversation beyond how much was sold and how many people went.

Artist Lyra Garcellano, whose practice spans about 20 years, remembers a time when artists had to eke out their own spaces. The “exhibition economy,” as she calls it, looked different: there were no art fairs and galleries paid scant attention to fresh graduates, favoring established masters instead. Contemporary art in the Philippines wasn’t the sexy thing that it is today.

The art fair as a prevailing form of distribution, circulation, and education has “its own harsh effects” said Ms. Garcellano, who knows of what she speaks since she has participated in AFP multiple times and will participate in ALT.

“Art fairs tend to have works that are almost the same, or very similar to each other. It has this look.” The “art-fair work” is big, bombastic, and attention-seeking. It is “wow, ka-boom!” To succeed in an art fair, a work cannot be too small, lest it drown; it cannot require more than eight seconds of consideration, lest it exceed the ever-shortening attention span of human beings.

“We can go into the deeper discourse, which is kind of scary: this is the kind of work that will be popularized and become currency,” said Ms. Garcellano, who added that students who are required by their art professors to visit the fair will see these works and think that these are the only forms of art that should be emulated or valued. The monolithic homogeneity — the sameness — of the works found in an art fair becomes oppressive if people lack criticality and come to believe that this is the only kind of art that matters.

“It’s a bad thing if it’s going to trap you,” said Ms. Garcellano, who has seen artists surrender their practice to the market to create a brand. “They don’t want to experiment anymore because they’re scared of not being accepted in terms of their works being translated into something of commercial value.”

Another art fair doesn’t really expand the ecosystem if it caters to the same people and gives access to those who already have it. Another fair doesn’t disrupt the status quo, it maintains it.

What Ms. Garcellano wants to see is a plurality of models. On a recent trip to New York, she caught up with artists who have been practicing for 40 years despite not being the subject of monographs, or being biennale artists or art fair hotshots — despite not selling that many artworks, even. “They are able to practice because grants, though competitive, are available to them, grants that are offered by the state or private institutions,” she said.

“Art is supposed to widen our ideas of life. It’s supposed to get us into philosophical discussions and expand our minds. But if we’re stuck in that little muddle of selling stuff, we’re going to end up doing merchandising. It’s going to hurt.” she said. “It’s going to hurt you if you think that you are no longer valuable if your works are not translated into money.”

ALT Philippines 2020 runs from Feb. 14 to 16 at the SMX Convention Center Aura, SM Aura Premiere, BGC in Taguig City. For more information, visit www.altphilippines.com. Tickets are available at SM Tickets (www.smtickets.com/events/view/8784). General admission is priced at P250. Art Fair Philippines runs from Feb. 21 to 23 at The Link car park in Makati City. For more information and for ticket purchase, visit artfairphilippines.com. Tickets will also be available at the reception area.