What Transpired, What was Lost in National Arts Month 2024

FEBRUARY—that one month when we descend into a frenzy of gimmicks for National Arts Month (NAM). But amid the fairs, openings, and public programs, we tend to forget that February also marks the anniversary of the EDSA People Power Revolution.

No legislation directly links the two events. Not even the proclamation that institutionalized the annual celebration of NAM in 1991. Yet I wonder if their concurrence is mere coincidence. What does it mean to celebrate the arts in a country where the freedom to express—including through artistic means—remains under siege?

From the Concerned Artist of the Philippines (CAP)’s screening of AsiaVision’s Fragments last February 24, 2024 in Baguio City.

Expanding the reach of the arts

Responding to this question entails a recap of NAM 2024, although this will be limited to the events I attended or came across on social media. This year’s NAM headlined the theme, “Ani ng Sining, Bayang Malikhain,” where Filipino creativity was posited as a bountiful harvest “derived from collective human imagination, not just individual aspirations.” 

Along with other cultural agencies, the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) and the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) spearheaded the nationwide festivities. CCP held its flagship ‘Pasinaya,’ while NCCA had its jam-packed roster of activities that spilled into the entirety of March. Evident were attempts to expand geographic reach and to strengthen public programming, largely focusing on participatory activities (e.g. workshops) across Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao.

Other major art institutions were also at the helm with fresh exhibitions launched during NAM. The Metropolitan Museum of Manila with a showcase of its permanent collection in Histories and Horizons, the UP Vargas Museum with its experimental Fever Dream, Ateneo Art Gallery with the conclusion of Snare for Birds and the opening of Mark Justiniani’s Void of Spectacles, and the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design with 30 Lives.

Engaging ‘publics’ 

Similar to NCCA and CCP, an increasing attention to public programs was noted among these institutions. The UP Fine Arts Gallery (Parola) launched multi-sectoral events throughout the month, such as an art workshop with progressive alliance SAKA and an artist talk with photojournalist Raffy Lerma and community pantry organizer Patreng Non. Both Lerma and Non were part of Parola’s Warm Bodies, an exhibition on artistic expressions of dissent.

I was also fortunate to join two events by the Concerned Artists of the Philippines (CAP): their screening of AsiaVisions’ Fragments in Baguio and their NAM debriefer. The debriefer was a roundtable discussion with artists and cultural workers who shared their experiences working during NAM—contracts of service and Xdeals included.

From the Concerned Artist of the Philippines (CAP)’s screening of AsiaVision’s Fragments last February 24, 2024 in Baguio City.

And how could one miss out all the buzz from Art Fair Philippines and ALT Philippines—two consecutive weekends of the art gallery ecosystem coming together in a single space. Individual recaps and art world trends made manifest in Art Fair Philippines and ALT Philippines have been discussed elsewhere. But more than being comprehensive showcases of the arts landscape today, both events demonstrated the politics that underlie the scene. Insider/outsider assertions, public accessibility, and artist/gallerist relations—their mere staging left many questions in their wake.

ALT Philippines held February 23-25, 2024 at the SMX Mall of Asia Complex.

As institutions engaged with varied publics through varied means, the multifarity of the arts scene was laid apparent. Different programs and institutions engaged with different sectors. And with NAM 2024 bannering the diversity of communities in this year’s theme, this only calls us to evaluate whom and what all our art gimmicks seek to serve.

It is all the more urgent when we recall the long-standing censorship that members of the art community still face. During CAP’s roundtable discussion, cultural worker, writer, educator, and curator Lisa Ito-Tapang pointed out how NAM began and ended with the arrests of two creatives: director Jade Castro on January 31 and drag artist Pura Luka Vega on February 29, both on trumped-up charges no less by the state.

Art, justice, and freedom

NAM 2024 positioned itself as a celebration of the diversity of the Filipino creative nation. Strong public programs immense in scope of subject and reach accompanied this intent. At the same time, it revealed rifts among the players of the art scene as well as the ongoing persecution that hounds the art community.

I go back to the question I posed at the start. That NAM and the EDSA Revolution anniversary occur at the same month should be no mere coincidence; it is best taken as a reminder of what remains to be done, and fought for, in this political climate. To sever the ties between the two will trivialize the necessary link between art and the spirit of justice and freedom—how art is a tool for, just as it is in need of, their fruition. 

As Dr. Norma Respicio, foremost Philippine textile expert and academic once said, “When wielded for the people’s struggles for a better world, the artist and the people can certainly achieve victory in their struggles.” 

After all the booze, the get-togethers, and the hey-good-to-see-you-see-ya-arounds of February, there remains so much left to do for us all.