Arts & Culture

Ricky Francisco
 on the Earnestness of Objects

Curating guests’ emotions towards a work

Words by

This year’s Art Fair Philippines welcomed nearly 50,000 visitors into four storeys of parking space that has been converted to house 500 participants from South East Asia. Among the fair’s most controversial scenes is Anton del Castillo’s Inferno, exhibited by Galerie Stephanie.

As Del Castillo garners more acclaim for his precise use of materials and meditated philosophical themes, seasoned curator Ricky Francisco showcases the artist’s recent dystopian series. After eliciting emotions from guests, the exhibition piques curiosity and prompts reflection.

An unconventional education

Ricky didn’t always find himself between studio visits, hours of conversations and first-hand reactions with artists. As a collections manager fresh out of university, the bright-eyed apprentice recorded data behind the scenes and took care of pieces belonging to museum archives.

Since then, Ricky has organised art shows and delivered cultural lectures in his hometown of Manila and Singapore. A towering figure who is usually dressed in block colours and a pair of sneakers, Ricky has also curated for a number of galleries and museums, including Fundacion Sansó, the Lopez Museum and Library, and the Purita Kalaw Center. His social media feed is inevitably as colourful as the galleries and events he attends, save for the photographs of his pet corgi Hambert.

Hailing from a generation that did not have programmes like arts management and curatorial studies to choose from at universities, Ricky picked up the trade by working closely with fine art curators like Geraldine Araneta, a prime mover in Art Fair Philippines. From Dr Nina Baker and Sandra Castro, Ricky utilised anthropological and sociological theories he studied to make sense of exhibitions. Owing much of what he applies as an art curator to the husband-and-wife team of Eileen and Claro Ramirez of Lopez Museum,

“I learned how to work with space,” says Ricky. “I learned how to lay objects out in both a cohesive and systematic manner that leads the eye from one piece to another.”

Beyond a compendium of pretty things

A successful exhibition is determined by the goals set prior. “But as a general rule, if the audience was engaged and the exhibit articulated the artist’s thoughts — that, for me, is a successful exhibit,” says Ricky who takes it upon himself to express the merits of an artist’s unique insights.

The curatorial process kicks off as he finds inspiration from a museum mandate or the collection itself. He then identifies artists who might be a fit for the exhibit. This initiates a series of negotiations between artists and the museum management. “From there it would take anywhere from three to six months, or even years, depending on the complexity of the material,” says Ricky.

Independent galleries, however, may commission a curator for a specific project. “Sometimes, though, the process simply begins by discovering an artist then leading them to a suitable gallery and pitching it,” adds Ricky, describing it as putting into motion a mix of elements to get an exhibit into fruition.

Creating a space for conversations and connections

Ricky’s approach in selecting pieces varies largely according to the space he is given to tell a visual story. If putting on a show implies knowing one’s audience, Ricky bridges multiple facets: “for the audience to be engaged, the artist to be understood, and the gallery to be consistent with its standards.”

The task of a curator is a one that creatively merges logistics with event planning and marketing.

Ricky believes he is responsible for unifying points of view and bringing about new perspectives.

Anchoring the exhibit in theory when needed, he becomes an instigator of creativity and a catalyst in the figurative conversation between the artist and the audience.

“Often through the objects in an exhibit, through a play of light, space and colour, the curator must be able to engage or even flirt with the audience to encourage them to come out of their comfort zones with imagination and empathy.”

Ricky fulfils this for an exhibit entitled Still for Vargas Museum, in collaboration with the Japan Foundation. He enthusiastically looks back on this five-installation exhibit of artists’ responses to natural disasters as his most distilled work to date.

Grounded in an ever-changing scene

Despite opportunities to make a career elsewhere, Ricky has committed himself to Filipino art. He has seen the landscape evolve into what it is today. “The local market is bustling. This gives impetus for artists to produce more,” he observes. “But I hope that it doesn’t trap artists into just making art for the market, which often results in lack of creativity and risk-taking.”

A decade ago, Ricky remembers that “auction houses in Singapore and Hong Kong were only beginning to auction Filipino art, mostly the moderns.” And he has witnessed contemporary Filipino art gain a foothold in the region, citing “the highest selling artwork in South East Asia is actually by a Filipino.”

After gaining strength at the turn of the century, “realism has been around since artists like Ronald Ventura, Andres Barrioquinto, Geraldine Javier and Nona Garcia had popularised it among others.” Francisco notices that the trends today lean towards “works which strongly critiques society, being supported by local patrons.”

Hopes for home

Recognising globalisation’s effect on art, the curator reflects on the country’s tumultuous history and a myriad of other influences. “The Philippines is an archipelago that’s been colonised thrice with over a millennia of trade with Asian and Western cultures. It has a dizzying number of religions and belief systems that render our contemporary art as varied and complex.”

During his travels, Ricky is inspired by “the way artworks are mounted and why they’re mounted in the first place”. Then in his own backyard as a canvas for curation, he engages in the diversity of local art fairs compared to the homogenising trends abroad where the same artists are sold by the same galleries.

In the context of the socio-political climate of the Philippines, Ricky worries about the widening wealth gap.

“I believe social justice includes making experiences and information accessible to more people,” he explains.

And in an effort to cater to this issue, he has successfully petitioned some museums to waive entrance fees.

Meaning in the making

Directing shows that plant seeds for thought and conversation starters, Ricky correlates increasing empathy to encouraging critical thinking. He is passionate about historical themes that leave audiences contemplative.

While he enjoys conceptual pieces, as well as academic and romantic works, he adds that “from time to time, I see the artistic merit of indigenous creative expressions, like weaving and basketry.” Eclectic in taste, Ricky never ceases to look for sincerity in a work. “It’s an odd word to describe art, but for me, there must be an earnestness and a truthfulness to how it was made.”

Often sporting a goatee and his signature long waves in a half bun, don’t let his rugged look deceive from a gentle warmth that is as constant as Ricky’s dedication to projects. Always on the go, he finds fulfilment in the career and life he has built around connections.

He is currently working with the Helping Hands Foundation on an exhibit set to launch later this year to provide health insurance and medical assistance to artists and cultural workers. This iteration will focus on mental health, a cause Ricky feels strongly about. “I will be working with 50 contemporary artists, the majority of whom are people whose body of work, work ethic and style I admire and respect.”

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