People are still selling and buying art — even through Viber

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Works by Mauro "Malang" Santos (left) and Elmer Borlongan auctioned through the Art Rocks Viber group. Proceeds went to purchase of PPE and N95 masks for the frontliners. Photos courtesy of SOLER SANTOS and ELMER BORLONGAN

You can find everything and everyone on Viber. My credit card company regularly informs me of the latest promos to turn my credit into cash. Take another 15% off this evening, says an online retailer, from 9 p.m. to 12 m.n. only. There are Viber group chats for government offices and news outlets. Besides grocery items like flour and laundry detergent, Viber seems to be the preferred channel for fruit importers who sell Driscoll blueberries, Hami melons, and Korean strawberries.

I wake up to several hundred notifications daily from the various group chats and channels where I am a silent participant. Viber has everything, really. Besides puto seko and disinfectant by the gallon, it was the only place you could find the anti-nematode Ivermectin, sold by boomers in the Viber groups of exclusive Makati villages. That is, before it was accredited by the FDA for human consumption with a prescription.

According to an article in Business World, Viber grew almost three times in terms of business users in 2020. There are over 40 million Filipinos on Viber, reads another report, which is already more than the current population of Canada. But as accessible and wide-reaching the app might be, there are groups that will probably retain exclusivity. One such group is the Viber group called Art Rocks, a virtual art auction that sells fine art for various causes. Prices for art can go as high as millions, and all patrons need to do is say “MINE” first.

Founded in 2012 by an art collector and urologist from St. Luke’s Medical Center (SLMC) named Steve Lim, M.D., Art Rocks began as an initiative for the charity arm of the hospital. Sales of the auction often went to paying off the hospital fees of indigent families and to further the education of some of their hospital trainees. The art for auction was usually supplied by any of the group’s partner galleries. According to sources who wished to remain anonymous, there are more than 200 people in the group chat. Though names weren’t named, many of them are allegedly doctors, lawyers, politicians, business tycoons, and actors. The group is by invite-only, and you probably need a ton of connections, influence, or capital to be invited.

But in March 2020, the group refocused their charity efforts to COVID-19 relief. They raised ₱9.7 million to purchase 13,000 test kits. The group also started Art For Life, which auctioned and sold various works by Ang Kiukok, Malang, Elmer Borlongan, Bencab, among many others for PPEs, medical supplies, and food. A year later, I’m told the group has returned to raising funds for medical bills, which are most often COVID-related.

While overall global art sales fell 22% in 2020, online art sales doubled in value. According to the Art Basel and UBS Global Art Market report, forced closures and cancellation of in-person fairs accelerated digitization for many galleries and dealers. The same report noted an influx of a new generation of collectors who were comfortable with looking at art on their computer or their phones.

Another thing the report noted is that in comparison to previous recessions, the very rich have gotten even richer this pandemic. Buying patterns of cash-wealthy art patrons remained resilient, especially in Asia. In an ANC Market Edge February 2021 interview with art collector Atty. Tonico Manahan, he says that there was a surge in luxury spending when the lockdowns eased up.

“When the pandemic first hit… There was no travel, no eating out, no nothing, people were bored. So when the lockdown eased up and art sales continued, there was a surge in spending in luxury items and quality pieces flew at record prices… There was a flight to quality,” Manahan said in the interview.

The digitization of art in the Philippines

In an interview with ARTnews, the deputy chief marketing officer for British auction house Christie’s Matthew Rubinger has observed a reversal in the way the industry functions. From being events-first, they are now seeing auctions as global and digital-first.

“Rather than thinking about our physical exhibitions first and how our website and the app can enhance those, we’re actually thinking about that in the reverse way,” Rubinger said. “A few years ago, we may have thought about where the painting is going to be physically, and then let’s think how we’ll present it digitally.”

The pandemic has pushed the global art industry to adapt more digital mindsets. While the Philippines consistently lags behind our neighbors in terms of technology, digitization, and internet speeds, the culture industry has been doing what it can to keep moving forward.

Art Fair Philippines co-founder Trickie Lopa contemplated cancelling the fair in 2021. The year prior had been the biggest one yet, with over 61 local and international galleries in participation. The yearly Art Fair had been an event unto itself. The mere act of lining up outside The Link carpark in Makati took hours. Once inside, there was always so much to see and the booths were often manned by artists themselves. At the Art Fair, you could speak to the artists about the collection and their work. You could get to know them beyond the price tag on their pieces. “We just didn’t know how we were going to bring that experience online,” Lopa tells me over Zoom. “But after we saw the success of Art in the Park, I felt it was possible.”

Art in the Park was scheduled for March 15, 2020 — a day before the Luzon lockdown was declared. The event was first postponed indefinitely until they announced that the event would push through in August. The one-day event at Jaime Velasquez Park turned into an eight-day virtual exhibit through

“What we learned then was that people were still making art and people wanted to see art,” Lopa says. “We just knew that if we were going to do it with [the] Art Fair, we needed to showcase art that would be suitable for the platform.”

The focus of Art Fair 2021 was on digital art, specifically on the controversial NFTs or Non-Fungible Tokens. The virtual event ran for ten days and was completely accessible on their website known as the Metaverse.

NFT works available through the Art Fair Philippines NFT sale. Screenshot from ART FAIR PHILIPPINES/WEBSITE

“Part of the whole pandemic experience has been that a certain creative community has come out and come out strong,” Lopa says of digital artists and the rise of cryptoart. Lopa acknowledges the controversies of NFTs, but she believes that this is one of the ways that art continues to evolve.

“Because it is very new, we’re still learning about it. I know I still have much to learn,” she says. “But I don’t think it is going away. Cryptoart has been a way to validate digital artists and it knocked down traditional barriers and gatekeepers.”

“There is still some art that isn’t so great, but I think it can only get better. Like some of the films we’re showing at the fair are really different,” Lopa says. “I believe if more people get exposed to it, then artists will start creating work like that too.”

When asked about the possible effects digital art could have on more traditional forms of art, Lopa remains optimistic as well. “It will never replace (traditional art), and traditional art will only get better,” she says.

“One year on in the pandemic, there are really many traditional artists who are just coming out with really great work,” says Lopa. “Auction houses have reported record sales in 2020 and galleries have managed to continue doing business. Great work has been propelling the industry forward.”

“Whatever human conditions are, art will always find a way to sprout,” says Lopa.

A gallery in the time of COVID-19

Art collector Andrew Tung Borlongan says that he has been actively collecting artwork on his own for four years. While he has never attended an auction himself, he tells me that he has bid on artwork through his phone or on a website.

“My primary means of collecting is through my relationships with galleries,” he says over email. “Before the pandemic, it would be such an experience to take a peek at artworks as they were being installed in the gallery, attend openings, and visit shows even post-opening.”

“But with our current situation, you would have to mostly rely on soft copy images of the works being sent to you for appreciation,” Borlongan says.

Art collector Andrew Tung Borlongan with Annie Cabigting's “Block of Wood” (oil on wood). This was purchased through the Art Rocks/Art for Life Viber group auction.

While shows were postponed and limited to appointment-only, renowned artist and president of West Gallery Soler Santos says that sales were consistent. “Halos same lang,” Santos says over a phone call when I ask about art sales. He tells me that many of the gallery’s sales came from already-established relationships that the gallery had with its collectors.

“But things were different at the start,” Santos says. When the lockdown was first declared in March 2020, the focus at the time was finding ways to help, including donating to the Art For Life Viber fundraising. But he tells me that it was also a time for him to spend whole days at his studio.

“Usually most of my day is spent fixing things for the gallery, but I suddenly could spend whole days in my studio,” Santos says. “The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that napaka-fragile talaga natin. It’s been a humbling experience for a lot of people.” But as the country transitioned into leaner lockdowns, the gallery had to adapt. “Siyempre kailangan mo tumuloy kasi maraming artists na umaasa sa’yo.”

The shows that were scheduled in March and April were pushed to June, specifically the shows of Ryan Rubio, Neil Pasilan, Mark Andy Garcia, and raffy t. napay. Now that shows have been ongoing, Santos tells me that one of the biggest changes is that viewings are by appointment only. “Wala na rin opening reception,” he adds with a laugh. West Gallery also opened Backroom, an online catalog of the gallery’s current collection which are available for sale.

West Gallery opened Backroom, an online catalog of the gallery’s current collection which are available for sale. Screenshot from the WEST GALLERY WEBSITE

While Santos personally doesn’t like auctions, he says he admires the efforts of Art Rocks and Art For Life. “They mobilized very quickly and they got to help a lot of people,” he says. “But personally, I don’t like auctions because the focus of the conversation becomes whether an artist sells out or not. Compared to whether a show or an exhibit was really good.”

Santos worries that young artists might become discouraged to continue their practice if the mark of success is a sold out show. “Say you have a show and nothing sells, that shouldn’t mean it is a bad show,” Santos says. “Sales are important, but it’s also about your practice. Art is a marathon, not a sprint.”

Beyond the price tag: Taking risks, and finding care in art

Visual artist and educator Alfred Marasigan’s primary medium is livestreaming. For him, it is an intersection of performance, sculpture, and installation. Livestreaming allows Marasigan to challenge how digital space is utilized and how stories are told while using the moment as artwork.

Marasigan, whose work has been exhibited both here and cities abroad like Paris, Melbourne, and Berlin, feels that his own practice has had to undergo a lot of introspection and changes during this time. “It is an artist’s job to articulate or fill in the gaps of the things that we are wrong or lacking in the world,” says Marasigan over a video call.

“For me, these days, lalo bumigat ‘yung responsibility of making it. Even the medium that we use has weight, especially if you go virtual. Ngayon, kalaban mo Youtube, social media. Your very relationship with your audience has to be reconfigured.”

When asked about the resiliency of art sales in the time of the pandemic, Marasigan believes it is partially because of the need for new experiences that aren’t canned. But he acknowledges that the monetary value we attribute to art can seem staggering in a pandemic.

“My students often ask me, ‘Aren’t there more important things in the world?’” says Marasigan. “Because when you see the prices of art, they can be shocking. People could very much spend on other things.”

But Marasigan talks about the effect of auctions on the artists. “Auctions are a real-time appraisal of your artwork’s value,” he says. “And if walang nag-bid sa artwork mo, that can be a blow to your ego. Because art can be highly personal sometimes.”

“But I think the call to action during this time are two things: If you’re willing and able, you can risk more for art, whether that means money or time. The second thing is care. Look at how you can best engage with an artwork. Give it time and give yourself time to encounter it.”

Marasigan believes money is just one of the many ways to uplift art and to support artists. “Give artists an opportunity to be heard in the way that they made the work. Big issue ‘yan ngayon: How to care for the artist? Minsan talaga oras,” says Marasigan. “If you reduce an artist to that one price tag, it might become a template for how you interact with that artist in the future.”

"Woman" by Mauro "Malang" Santos. This work was donated for the Art Rocks Viber auction. Photo courtesy of SOLER SANTOS

“Pero if buhay pa ‘yung artist, pwede mo naman kausapin or to interact with their work,” Marasigan continues. “Money isn’t always the bottomline of why many artists make art. Give time for art and give yourself time to encounter it, especially now that you can’t always encounter it in space.”

In a time as tumultuous as now, Marasigan believes that art is a way for humanity to evaluate how we have been living our lives. “We’re literally at war, internally, externally, internationally. Art should help you reevaluate and put all the things that you believe in up in the air. It should put you in touch with who you are, who you were, and who you might be.”

“Madalang na talaga ‘yung mga things that help us evaluate our life on that scale,” he continues. “Art gives us an exciting complexity that we can challenge ourselves with so we can be ready for whatever bullshit comes our way.”