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Stories from a recent Hanging - Lopez Museum

On February 13, 1960, the brothers Eugenio and Fernando Lopez opened the Lopez Memorial Museum to the public. Dedicated to the memory of their parents, Benito and Presentacion, the collection of books, art, and Rizal memorabilia revealed to the public eye extent of the Lopez collection. That Eugenio or Eńing was an ardent collector of books was well-known; it is the art collection, the bulk of which are Luna and Hidalgo paintings, and Rizal memorabilia that became the object of public interest. In Claro M. Recto's speech for the opening of the museum, he reiterated Rizal's praise for the two painters and their achievement in the Exposion of 1884. He quoted extensively-in Spanish-from the speech that Rizal gave in Madrid in honor of the two painters. The amplitude and quality of the Luna and Hidalgo collection owned by the Lopezes was, at the time, unmatched. Housed in a remarkable building designed by Angel Nakpil (this has sadly been torn down), the new position of the Lunas and Hidalgos made available to a public was an indulgence that no other private local collection had done before.

The museum's inauguration had President Carlos P. Garcia giving the address with Cardinal Rufino Santos blessing the building. First Lady Leonila D. Garcia appeared in numerous newspapers unveiling the plaque, as the event had enough celebrities to merit being mentioned in the society columns. One column in the Manila Bulletin, in keeping with social column commentary, gives us details: "Music from Bohol was played during the unveiling, which was explained by the presence of the President. (sic) Another highlight, to our mind was the drizzle that proved damaging to the pouf hairdos of many women guests. We figure the poufs went down about an inch, not only because of the light drizzle but also because they had to cover their heads with paper the ladies themselves fashioned out a newsprint. A woman from New Zealand in costume, Guide Range Rotomar, here on a visit on the invitation of the Lopezes, wore Kiwi feathers for a cape and a colorful headband and dress."

While such details may seem facetious, these external manifestations (the poufs, the Kiwi flown in from New Zealand, the music from Bohol) are very telling signs, as society in hushed tones whispered the cost of the museum and its contents to have been in the area of two million pesos. The museum, aside from simply being a thoughtful memorial to loving parents, was the typical largesse that Eńing practiced when it came to his philanthropic activities. Raul Rodrigo writes in the biography of the family: 'Philanthropy is something of a tradition within the Lopez family, dating back to the first Eugenio Lopez's efforts to help poor of Jaro. Eńing himself liked to speak out about the social responsibilities of big business long before it became fashionable. 'Rodrigo considers the Lopez Museum as one of Eńing's largest philanthropic endeavors. Not only did the museum's creation extend Eńing's philanthropic hand, it also heralded the emergence of an important art patron in the Philippines.

Preparing for a new hang at the Lopez Museum, a work by J. Elizalde Navarro, one of his early pieces, dated 1971 is brought out. Untitled, the white assemblage was unusual for a man whose works are familiar to me as being characterized by violent color. This work revealed another Navarro, one who was experimental and willing to work out an alternative visual language. While his sculpture at the Ateneo Art Gallery, 'Homage to Dodgie Laurel' (1969), probably introduces Navarro's work as a sculptor (if it is necessary to use such labeling), Untitled is but one example of the more interesting imagery and material that Navarro explored. Straddling the two cannons of fine art tradition, Navarro sought to work out the challenge and limitations inherent in both painting and sculpture. The 1960s and 1970s brought about a new wave of 'thinking' artists, or at least, developments abroad pushed local artists to re-consider their practice beyond the modernist framework as espoused by Greenberg. The work is not avant-garde, but it does help art history focus on a strand of artistic development that went beyond the PAG (Philippine Art Guild) or the AAP (Art Association of the Philippines) whose importance in Philippine art history has been over-emphasized. Bought in 1999 under the new acquisitions program of the Museum, the Elizalde Navarro is but one of the many acquisitions made in the last five years. While the Luna and Hidalgo collection are potent pillars on which a museum can build its collection from, extending the collection through acquisition is an activity the museum would not practice until the 90s. To confront the collection's history is to face up the upheavals of the nation's political pendulum and the idiosyncratic hand by which family fortunes swung.

Eminent historian Renato Constantino was given the first curatorial position in the museum, from 1960 until 1972, and during his directorship, he acquired Luna's Espańa y Filipinas, thus adding an important piece to the already notable collection. When Constantino left in 1972 there was a hiatus in the activities of the museum. Consequently, acquisitions for the collection went down from a trickle to a full stop. The years between 1972 to1986 proved unremarkable in the museum's history, except for the occasional scholarly publication which kept the museum in step with current concerns. Production came in spirits: the Ochidiana Philippiniana in 1984, The Complete Writings of Dr. Eduardo Quisumbing in 1981 and Juan Luna: The Filipino as Painter published in 1980 was the only book which made any reference to the art collection. All were encouraged by Oscar Lopez, the son who shared his father's interest in book collecting. In 1986, the museum moved premises leaving the vast Nakpil building for the present one in Benpres. The move also came with a new director, Roberto Lopez, Eńing's youngest son. It was now the 1980s after the Marcoses had fled the country; the Lopezes had begun to re-establish their empire. The museum being an important legacy of the older Lopez continued undisturbed, going with the tide of the new decade.

Roberto M. Lopez's stint as director, until his death in 1992, spawned activity that shifted the focus from the library-whose reputation as the research center for Filipiniana in Asia continued unchallenged-to the art collection. During Robby Lopez's time, art books were published that would further the museum's engagement with their weighty collection.

Robby's interest in art went beyond his directorship for the museum; he began his own personal art collection, the bulk of which the museum received upon the death in 1992. Robby's collection was of course dictated by personal taste and passion; thus the museum, whose identity had relied on the 19th century masters, was besieged with a barrage of modern works. While Eńing, Robby's father, had in fact bought a motley assortment of modern works (early Manansalas, Amorsolos, some Tabuenas, most of the Macario Vitalis and all the Nena Saguils) during his time, the gesture was more cursory than deliberate.

Selections for the new hang continues and new paneling is being built to contain the works. 'That's an AAP winner, 1961. First Prize'. Mariles Ebro-Matias, current Lopez Museum Director, informs me. I have only been in the museum for a week, and the ins and outs of the collection is still quite foreign. The AAP winner she is referring to is Orange Land (1961) by Roberto Chabet. The moment is curious as the work is very unlike Chabet, but the fact remains that he had actually been singled out in 1961 for a prize, perhaps an incident he might not have cared for then nor wish to remember now. But despite himself, the artist by his work (at least those which are not ephemeral) becomes conveniently located in art history and consequently marks his own evolution. This is the point where museum collections come in and work towards studying the development of the artist, first using the specificity of the work, and then from there the possible extrapolation into art historical context, whether local or international.

The collection's depth is actually surprising still, despite my having been there for some months. The acquisitions these past five years sheds light on the personalities behind the purchases and the interstices within art history which the museum is obviously eager to fill in. there are, for example, works by former Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) head, Ray Albano. Eager to explore new ways for art, Albano backed many exhibitions at the CCP which were conceptual in nature, as well as allocated space for installation work. These were done during his tenure at the CCP in the 70s. His works in the collection, Uva (1979) and Where will you be today? (1982), purchased in 1997 are representative of Albano's concern for other modes of representing reality within the confines of visual language. Though still not his experimental work using found objects and constructed images not overly his concern about process, the works already signal that he had found images wanting. Instead of references, one is faced instead with a different course into the sublime. And even then his sublime concedes interference from subtle linearity.

Despite the fact that personal taste dictated past purchase, a private collection that has gone public will itself answerable, to a certain extent, to a public. The museum's direction undoubtedly shifted with Robby's gift. Acquisitions is not a simple matter, but a concerted effort to maintain a balance between the publics' preference and the collector's own decisions. Acquisitions is also not mere accumulation: it is a process of selection in keeping with the institution's objectives and vision, with the dictates of art history and its own becoming. Michael Compton asks about the Tate Gallery, 'should the Tate be building up a classic collection, rather like the National Gallery? Or should it be leading taste, introducing the public to the latest developments…? Such problems are of course ubiquitous-every public gallery has to square the competing demands of critics and scholars, of artists clamoring to get their work hung 'While the Lopez Museum continues to work out its own acquisitions policy, keeping in mind the particular issues that locate the museum, the late Geny Lopez had gone the direction of modernity by aggressively buying modern and contemporary works. A course which Oscar Lopez seems to have taken up more firmly, especially with the recent inclusion of two Alfonso Ossorios into the collection.

Matias approves of a line of Roberto Chabet's colorful, Four Directions (1999) together with Navarro's white piece, Untitled (1975). The juxtaposition opens up an interesting conversation between the two pieces. Navarro known for color is represented with a white work, while Chabet, known for his conceptual works, decides on blocks of color with each canvas interrupted by a harmonica. The works balance off well, whilst the noise of their historical developments continue undeterred in the background. As Roger Malbert writes about the delightful juxtapositions that come about when putting together an exhibition and letting it loose on public: 'A certain cautious informality is in fact a hidden feature of most exhibitions of art, other than those prescribed by chronology or other logical considerations. The 'hang', the installation, is the moment of necessary spontaneity, where unforeseen effects are produced as soon as objects are positioned in space. It is a version of the creative process, speculative and personal. Then, when the arrangement is settled and declared to be definitive (it cannot be bettered), art becomes public, like thoughts committed to paper-and is exposed to the critical gaze.'

Oscar Lopez affirms that the art collection will soon parallel the library's contents in the next decade, fully aware that acquisitions run not only the voice of history but alongside those who are creating it. The passion for collecting is full-time job, a kind of blessed obsession as Stephen Gould writes in the fascinating book Finder, Keepers. But in many ways the passion, the obsession, of collecting becomes a burden shared, 'to bring part of a limitless diversity into an orbit of personal or public appreciation.' The Lopez Museum does the latter, conscious that the cost of engagement is high, but willing nevertheless, to take part in the discussion.