Karen Flores at the Center: An Interview

Father’s House/Beautiful Moon/Mother’s House

BY JAY BAUTISTA For their gift of nurture and grace, Filipinas have always headed our government cultural institutions. The National Museum, The National Commission for Culture and the Arts, Intramuros Administration to name a few are now handled by competent and well-respected Pinays who have shown a significant progress in advancing the cause of Philippine arts and in keeping the Filipino soul of our heritage intact.

Ms. Karen O. Flores is the new Officer-in-Charge of the Visual Arts and Museo Division (VAMD) of the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) replacing Sid Hildawa, who passed way last year. Karen brings with her a wealth of experience to the post having been a visual artist since she graduated with the Fine Arts degree in Painting at the University of the Philippines in 1989. A known feminist artist, Karen has four solo exhibitions to her name and had international exposure in international art circles in Australia, Japan, United States, Singapore and South Korea. Locally she has been involved with local communities in Sta. Cruz in Laguna, Lipa City in Batangas, Vigan in Ilocos Sur and Negros.

A CCP 13 Artists Awardee herself in 2000, she also writes on art and artists and would be best to know the real impulse and issues facing our contemporary artists as she became part of various art collectives like Salingpusa and Sanggawa art community and recently TutoK art group. She recently received the Metrobank Award for Continuing Excellence and Service (ACES).

We checked on her how she is adjusting to her new position at the CCP and this is what she sent us though email:

We have known and admired you as both as an activist and artist, was there a need of convincing for you to work for the government or at the Cultural Center of the Philippines at that? Or it was more of someone has to step in for the artists? Looks like you have come full circle?

I remember that it was a big part of our discussions in Tutok back in the last half of 2009– the fact that CCP has invited me to take over the visual arts office. Bogie warned me that it was going to be an excruciating choice, that I would be in effect saying goodbye to making art, that I would have little time for anything else, including my family. He is of course, very right. This is not a career move that would exactly fit right into my present life and work situation. This also meant departing abruptly from my work in TutoK, which is just about 3 years old, still very much a fledgling art group.

But yes, I felt very strongly that someone among us in the visual arts sector had to step into the CCP. At the very least, I thought, someone has to start the ball rolling again since a good number of months had already passed after Sid’s demise. I do have a number of matters in mind that I hoped to help reform. After all, if I cannot contribute to change, then what would be the point? The CCP is mainly a performing arts center, and there are still present indications that the visual arts is very challenged to assert itself strongly amongst the disciplines and operations emanating from this Center.

Three months into the job, I realize that the problems are more immense than my initial projections. It’s a given that bureaucracy burdens the work process, that budget constraints demand a lot of creative streamlining when it comes to planning and implementing projects. But I find it tougher to deal with the relationship issues that stem from my sudden entry into established office and institutional dynamics. I find it frustrating that I am not familiar nor equipped to handle the CCP Museo– and that I may not have the immediate opportunity to recruit the right people and secure the basic requirements to be able to take care of the collection. It is a position that denotes heavy responsibilities within and outside the institution, but actually promises very limited power and means to undertake the tasks within those responsibilities.

So then it’s best if we turn our attention to whatever psychic rewards the job has managed to bring. My weakest point has always been PR. I’m not naturally comfortable with a lot of people. I still get stage fright attacks. That’s the more testy aspect of the job for me. But I am naturally a projects person, and I have gained over the years the trust and confidence of a reliable network of art practitioners who have helped me do my work. I find that I am depending a lot on these networks once more to get the tasks done, and overall, I get a lot of assurance of support. The consultative and collaborative process that had ruled most of my life’s work and career has found a good application here.

Sid Hildawa had big shoes to fill, how are you holding up at the CCP? What exactly do you as Officer in Charge of the CCVA? Can artists send their proposals for possible exhibitions there?

Yes, it’s hard to fill in for Sid, but it’s doubly hard since I’m also filling in for Onet, who resigned from her post at the end of 2008. At the moment I am at the helm of the CCP Visual Arts and Museo (VAMD), a division perceived more as an administrator of CCP exhibition spaces and custodian of a trove of treasures ranging from museological and anthropological pieces of the CCP Museo and the landmark modernist and contemporary pieces of the CCP Art Collection. It is not so equipped now to operate as a coordinating center for the visual arts; it is not functional in performing visual art work outside of the CCP. So I guess I’m the one bringing in my own coordinating resources and skills into the position. Fortunately, while I do not move in all the circles that Sid belonged to, we are equally familiar with a good number of people in the visual arts; hence, a sense of continuity is also assured with my presence here.

Yes, we have been informally accepting proposals for 2010 in the VAMD, but soon I will be making a formal call for such so that we can have an interesting lineup for the next year. We can tell everyone here now to start proposing for projects in the CCP spaces– the Main Gallery (Bulwagang Juan Luna), the Small Gallery (Bulwagang Fernando Amorsolo), the Fourth Floor hallway (Pasilyo Victorio Edades), the Third Floor Hallway (Pasilyo Guillermo Tolentino), the Second Floor Hallway (Pasilyo Vicente Manansala) and the Little Theater Lobby Wall (Pasilyo Carlos V. Francisco). We will be accepting proposals till the end of September 2009, in order to program a schedule for 2010. As always, accepted proposals will get a venue grant, plus a small budget that basically covers invitations, notes and captions. Guidelines on how to exhibit at the CCP are available at the Visual Arts and Museo Division at the 4th Floor of the CCP. I will work on how to get this info online to make the information more accessible.

Manananggal 1: Puso, 2002

The CCP is celebrating 40 years old this year and your exhibition “Suddenly Turning Visual” is part of the celebration. What are your succeeding shows to look forward to? Are there long term plans of the CCVA or CCP for that matter.

The exhibit “Suddenly Turning Visible: The Collection at the Center” curated by Patrick D. Flores appropriately opened the anniversary year with its thematic presentation of selections from the CCP Art Collection. It has been extended until April 26, 2009. This is a very fortunate development for audiences since this is only the third time that the collection is being presented within a curatorial premise. The project has also mined valuable exchange and recommendations from among the artists and curators who have worked with the CCP. I hope to present the transcript of those conversations in a CCP publication or online zines like Judy Freya Sibayan’s Ctrl+P (Journal of Contemporary Art). We are also looking for proposals that would interact with pieces from the collection. We invite artists and curators to let us know of the next ideas.

“Uncommon Sense (Trauma Interrupted, Too)” will be showing at the 2nd and 3rd Floor Hallways from April 2-30.

For Earth Day 2009, the front lawn of the CCP will be the site of a public art competition and installation of conceptual trees called “Juan for Trees (143s) where students of fine arts, design and structure will be asked to construct works that are each made up of 80 percent recyclable materials to be contributed by participating corporations. The installation will be launched and winners will be announced at the CCP Earth Day on April 22.

Kasibulan’s anniversary show Pasyon Nasyon will be showing May 14 to June 21 at the Main Gallery. CANVAS, Inc.’s second installment of the “Looking for Juan” project will be on from May 12 to June 7.

On July 9, the Thirteen Artists Awards and Exhibit Opening will take place starting at 6:00pm. The event will be part of the CCP Anniversary program of presenting “Brave New Works” for the months of June and July 2009, wherein the various art disciplines will showcase new and original works by young Filipino artists. Parallel to the Thirteen Artists would be a readings and enactments of works by young playwrights (Virgin Labfest), experimental performances of pieces by young choreographers (WiFi Body), Musik Underkonstruktion will be about innovative musical compositions, and Word Jam will be series of spoken word events organized by the CCP Literary Arts Division. The Thirteen Artists exhibit is curated by Wire Tuazon with Louie Cordero designing the trophy; it will run till August 16 and will be on view during the run of the 2009 Ciemalaya Independent Film Festival in July.

Treena Alison Wong David presents her solo exhibit at the Small Gallery and the 4th Floor Hallway from August 13 to September 27.

On September 8, CCP’s main celebration of the anniversary will open with “Daloy,” the CCP Timeline Exhibit at the Main Gallery (curated by Noel Soler Cuizon and Claro Ramirez, Jr.) at 6:00pm and the opening of the CCP Gala Night at 8:00 pm at the Main Theatre.

“Katawhan,” a joint exhibit on Philippine myths and folklore by Brenda V. Fajardo and Nonoy Estarte will be shown at the Small Gallery from October 15 to November 22.

Philippine Art Educators Association (PAEA) holds its annual show at the 2nd, 3rd and 4th Floor Hallways on November 15 till before the holiday break in December 2009. Likewise, the Main Gallery will cap 2009 with the 40th Anniversary Show of the Printmakers Association of the Philippines (PAP).

In the long run, with the help of our networks, I hope to come up with a comprehensive program, which is not just about scheduling exhibits, but about having CCP as an integral player in art and community development.

I have always viewed the CCP 13 Artists Award as one of the more prestigious contemporary art awards for a Filipino artist. The awardees were announced recently, for everyone’s benefit, can you take us how the process goes? Who nominates the artists? Who gets to be the judge? (Off the record: Sid was part of the previous selections and you weren’t. Did you abstain since you had friends who were nominees?) Can you comment on the current winners?

Thank you. I agree with you, whether or not I have been an awardee, and regardless too, even if I am not with the CCP today.

Nominations to the Thirteen Artists is submitted by art councils, art groups, heads/deans of art schools, museums, gallery curators and directors, art critics and past Thirteen Artist awardees. Those who are qualified to be nominated are artists who can answer to the following requirements:

  • Body of work characterized by artistic integrity, innovativeness and forcefulness of ideas
  • Responsiveness to contemporary realities
  • Evidence of sustained artistic activity demonstrated by a track record of individual exhibitions and group shows for the past three years
  • Engagement with contemporary visual art forms including, but not limited to, painting, sculpture, multimedia, installation, performance art, photography, digital imaging and printmaking
  • Filipino citizenship
  • Less than 40 years old on the year of conferment

This is part of the template established by Sid since Thirteen Artists 2000. Since the nomination process for 2009 happened in 2008 before I came in, my only intervention in February was to ensure the jurors will be composed mostly of artists (Lao Lianben, 1976 Awardee; and Mark Justiniani, 1994 Awardee) and an art critic (Eileen Legaspi-Ramirez). Not only that I know many of the nominees, I myself nominated three artists last year. My choice of jurors also required that they did not nominate anyone. I think I would like to keep inhibiting myself from the jury even in the future. My facilitation of the selection process and the exhibit production would suffice as my part in the award.

The jurors must be credited for patiently combing through 56 nominees’ portfolios in the course of three days. They also agreed that each awardee would be unanimously chosen. As I witnessed it, they went through 5 rounds: the first 3 was about who was common in their shortlists, then the last 2 rounds resulted from deliberations.

Since we are discussing awards, I do need to end this with a critical thought. Awards are good and do play a vital role in promoting excellence, but more than awards what we primarily need are more platforms for development and exchange, where an equal ground is established whatever school or place you come from. In fact, it is vital to have such platforms where diversity could be beneficial. Such opportunities come with the NCCA CVA’s Sungdu-an, now on the way to its 5th installment.

Karen Flores with Portrait of H.R. Ocampo by Alan Cosio, Met 2007

How can we democratize the process in order for nominees are well represented from the provinces Visayas and Mindanao ?

Yes, beyond the Thirteen Artists Award, there’s a need for us to seek ways to connect strongly with the regions. We need to call actively for proposals and to be active in outreach and exchange projects with regional organizations and individual artists. We need to establish these thrusts in our upcoming programs.

Do you still have time to paint aside from teaching and this new administrative work you have?

The opportunity to make art is not just about painting or other conventional modes of ‘making.’ Everything I do is about the making of art. Craft, skills and aesthetics are still part of the administrative work.

Thank you, Jay.