The recent events in our arts and culture institutions have made me think about my relationship with these organizations, given how I stand in favor of its independence, and against all these questionable government appointments.
See, the discipline I grew into in the academe was one that was critical of these institutions, looking always at the ways in which these are created to perpetuate the same forms and aesthetics that are primarily (arguably) based on the padrino system – a “mentorship” system that is about who you know, not what your skills are – and has a tendency toward keeping the opportunities (fame? fortune? haha!) within the very small circle that the cultural establishment sustains.
The amount of time I started to spend writing about arts and culture as an independent cultural worker forced me to study these institutions and keep track of what they were doing, seeing that as reference point for the work happening through private efforts, regardless of access to support.
Patronage and conflicts of interest
It is, of course, this lack of “access to support” that is the most dominant criticism against the existing cultural institutions, specifically the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA), given that it is the de facto Ministry of Culture under the law. The National Endowment Fund for Culture and the Arts (NEFCA), for which individuals, cultural organizations and institutions might apply for grants for their projects, is under the NCCA.
For a long time, I was only interested in the Subcommission for the Arts, which has a committee each for Architecture and Allied Arts, Cinema, Dance, Dramatic Arts, Literary Arts, Music, and Visual Arts. I imagine all these committees had a tendency to fall into the trap of patronage: it is easy to keep the same set of people in positions of power, where names might change, but loyalties do not.
There was also something questionable, at least to me, about having private businesses represented in an organization like NCCA. For example, the members of the Committee for Dance are listed according to designation and region on the NCCA website, and while the others are self-explanatory, i.e., University of Cebu Dance Company, Sinukwan Training for the Arts, these dance companies are listed alongside the Halili-Cruz School of Ballet, which to me does not fall under the same category, business as that is.
It is also the same apprehension I have about having a Committee on Art Galleries under the Subcommission on Cultural Heritage, when galleries are generally privately owned.
Transparency and diversification
How exactly are the members of these committees chosen, and who exactly are marginalized by these choices?
Is it possible for those in the sectors to vote in a representative, even when they are not part of any artist organization, or are not, uh, well-connected? Is there representation across generations of artists and scholars? Is there a better way of ensuring better, more honest representation across the sectors, since so many of us are not organized?
It would be interesting to find out how exactly each committee on the different arts goes about its task of “promotion” because that is their mandate – or is that limited to actually picking the projects that will receive funding?
It’s important to note that compared to the Subcommissions on Cultural Communities and Traditional Arts, on Cultural Dissemination, and the aforementioned one on Cultural Heritage, that it is the one on the Arts that has the thinnest set of requirements. The other subcommissions actually deal with conservation, education, research, cultural mapping among other specialized activities.
Nowhere in the mandates and functions of all four Subcommissions and its individual committees is there a sense that there is any place in the NCCA for critical work, criticism, or critics.
Sadly, for our cultural institutions, organizations, sectors, that is no extraordinary erasure.
(Even sadder? The Film Development Council of the Philippines under Briccio Santos actually encouraged critical discourse. But that’s gone now.)
Information and policy
The past three years or so, I have found it more and more interesting to go through the projects that the NEFCA has funded, because it is that list that gives one a sense of how NCCA fulfils its mandate of decentralizing the funding for cultural work. The document for the past three years is easily accessible online, and should be critiqued by anyone who wants to talk funding, sectoral support, decentralization and change.
This is the thing: I don’t blame anyone who does not know what’s going on with the NCCA. The organization has a huge problem with communication and information dissemination.
This is why NCCA has no real national character. We do not know what it does exactly and toward what end. We do not know the leaders who are there, disengaged as they are from the relevant issues of the day. Case in point, when cultural workers talk about contractualization, or when musicians talk about getting more OPM back on radio, why do we not hear the heads of the committees speak? When we hear about art mafias, or the crisis of movie piracy, workers’ rights, why do we not hear NCCA committee members shedding light on these issues?
This goes beyond making sure that information is disseminated. It’s also about ensuring that a national cultural policy which cuts across sectors and all cultural workers, across all aspects of culture, artmaking, and creativity, is being created, is evolving, and is being understood by the larger public. It’s about having the artists and academics within NCCA making the effort to speak to the public about why culture is relevant, and how it dictates where we all stand on issues of the day.
The current climate of “change,” and the decision of the more ambitious among us to wrest control of our cultural institutions by critiquing this before understanding what it does, is telling of how NCCA itself failed to establish itself as the culture ministry. This does not mean that it is not doing its job – in fact, if anyone cares to do research, there is pretty great work that’s been done by the current leadership, despite limitations. All it means is that there is not enough information about this work being passed on to the public.
Which is sad, because it brings us to this critical juncture, when so few care that government is ignoring our cultural institutions’ independence, and many imagine that a Department of Culture is the way to go. What, allow a politico to control who will get the NEFCA? Allow a politico to decide on affairs of culture?
Why would any self-respecting cultural worker want that?
Previously published in The Manila Times, August 20 2016.