Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Lessons from the Triumph of Ronald Ventura

The dizzying heights that artist Ronald Ventura has scaled in just the few years that his works have been selling at the international auction circuit are almost unimaginable, especially probably for his earliest collectors. But his triumph yesterday is on a totally different plane, and enough even for those who don’t follow the arts to take serious notice. In case you hadn’t heard, yesterday, at the Sotheby’s Modern and Contemporary Southeast Asian Paintings auction in Hong Kong, for the very first time, a Philippine painting by a living artist (just 38 years old in fact!) sold for more than one million US dollars, a record for any Contemporary Southeast Asian Painting at auction.

What does it mean for Philippine art?

First and most obviously, it confirms that at least some of the international spotlight is firmly on the Philippine art scene. In part, this is a testament to the undeniable talent of this - and other - Filipino artists. Indeed, there has been growing regional interest in Filipino artists beyond Ventura. Geraldine Javier, Rodel Tapaya, Nona Garcia, Kiko Escora, to name a few, have also been doing exceptionally well in the international scene.

The interest is also due to growing global interest in Southeast Asian art in general. China and India - the two major Asian powers - have paced the growth of the art market in the region, and as the prices of their art have skyrocketed, collectors began to cast their eyes on other Asian countries where, presumably, worthy bargains would be found.

Vietnam - with its historical connections with the United States and France - garnered the early benefits. Indonesia and to a lesser extent, the Philippines have been following suit, and there is still much room for growth.

Ronald Ventura’s high profile achievement is sure to attract even more interest in Philippine art, and particularly, its young contemporary Filipino artists.

A second, more important result is that Ronald Ventura, again and increasingly, will continue to be an inspiration to the current and next generation of Filipino artists. This outcome is double-edged.

On the one hand, Ronald Ventura shines as an example that the Filipino artist can and should compete and stand comparably with the best that this planet has to offer.

On the other hand, young artists should tread cautiously when following in Ventura’s footsteps. It may now be a bit difficult but it is important to remember that Ronald Ventura was not an overnight international sensation. His triumph yesterday was the result of years of building a reputation and even more years of honing his craft. If there is a lesson that younger artists must heed from Ventura - it is that they must be prepared to pay their dues. Some of them may even be more talented than Ventura, but - as in all aspects of human endeavor - it takes more than talent to make it in the art scene. It takes time, hard work and not a bit of luck.

And most crucially, it takes integrity - the discipline and faith to paint for one’s self and to explore one’s art, and to never compromise, regardless of and certainly not because of what they think the market wants.

Now, let me share what I think Ronald Ventura’s success DOES NOT mean.

First, it does not mean that the success and noteworthiness of our Filipino artists can or should be measured by how well they do (or don’t do) at auction. While Ventura’s sale yesterday is undoubtedly and undeniably authentic, it is not a secret that auctions are sometimes gamed, with collectors and gallery owners sometimes bidding on their own artists in order to attract greater interest in their works. And there are many other important artists who will not - either by circumstance or by choice - be part of the art auction scene.

Moreover, the market can be and is often wrong. No less than the greats Onib Olmedo and Ang Kiukok were ignored for years before their geniuses were recognized and appreciated.

And second, yesterday’s sale does not mean that it is too late to own a Ventura. Well, for most of us, this Ronald Ventura may now be out of our leagues. But it is not too late - and indeed this is where the fun is - to find the next Ronald Ventura. Because he or she is definitely out there. The only difference is that, because of this Ventura, more people than ever, both here and abroad, will be looking.

The good news is that the places and the chances to make that special find abound. Every week, there are openings for group exhibitions and first solo shows. Galleries seem to be sprouting all over just waiting to be explored. Art in the Park, an annual affordable art fair that benefits the National Museum, never fails to yield treasures. Manilart - an international art fair where you will find nearly all the most credible and respectable galleries - is just around the corner. And, there are numerous art groups and associations to work with, as well as underground street and graffiti artists who explore the boundaries and edges of art.

The local visual art scene has never been as vibrant and chaotic and exciting and full of opportunity - for both artists and collectors alike.

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