The pleasures of a superior company

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No company gives Proust greater pleasure than one that is cultured and refined.

While he would find us redundant in those two adjectives — cultured and refined — Proust insists on using them together, not so much to stress the obvious as to mean exactly two different things. First, that this company I am referring to is polite and gracious, and second, that it is one soaked in the arts.

Not only are they enthusiastic about the arts, they actually make things happen in the world of arts by ensuring that our Filipino artists are exposed to the greater world out there.

It was among this sophisticated set that Proust found himself when he attended the recent press conference hosted by the Asian Cultural Council (ACC) at the Milky Way Restaurant.

CULTURAL worker Mercedes Zobel.

The working lady

“Some days are divinely lucky,” Proust couldn’t help exclaiming to himself, for as soon as he sat down in his far corner of the Milky Way, where this press conference was being held, he spotted Mercedes “Dedes” Zobel in the choice table at the center of the room.

Thus, when I was asked who I wanted to interview, I requested to be introduced to Dedes, who gamely stood up from where she was safely ensconced and gave me a few minutes of her time.

We sat closer to the “Portraits of Andres Barrioquinto” that will be exhibited from 8 to 15 November at the President Sergio Osmena Hall of our very own National Museum of Fine Arts.

Dedes is, of course, the daughter of the late Enrique Zobel or EZ, which is to say, Proust was literally tete-a-tete (as in “one on one”) with an A-1 lady of substance.

For the last four years, Dedes has been active on the board of the Asian Cultural Council and recently she joined the ACC Board in New York, making her one of only three Filipinos to join this exclusive body, the other two being Josie Natori and Ernest Escaler. Josie, by the way, organized the Philippine ACC at the start of the millennium.

It was Josie who got Dedes into the Board, both in the Philippines and in New York, a choice that could not have been more apt, not only because Dedes is known hereabouts as a truly generous lady with enough wherewithal to share to her favorite causes. Her education too, which includes studies in the history of art, allows her an excellent grasp of the ACC’s goal: “To advance international respect and understanding between people and cultures through transformative cultural exchange.” Or to be specific, ACC awards fellowship grants to artists, people whom Dedes knows very well.

Dedes shared that other than her formal studies, she has also been involved in the arts through her profession as an interior designer, which she first practiced in Singapore, creating some of the most beautiful yet functional spaces in commercial establishments including hotels, banks and corporate offices. She is now based in the Philippines.

Proust, ever innocent and wide-eyed, asked Dedes how it is like for a member of the privileged class to be working so hard, and she replied with a smile: “I am just a normal person. When you’re working, you’re working. No matter how you look at it.” To which Proust, of course, agreed somewhat sheepishly, while recalling it was Dedes’s late father, the legendary EZ, who reminded yesteryears’ Filipino activists who were fighting the ills of society to differentiate between the idle and working rich. To the latter, of course, belonged and continue to belong the Zobels.

Of her volunteer work with the Asian Cultural Council, Dedes said, “We intend to promote more a lot of artists around Asia in 26 countries, and exchange them with the US ones.”
She is involved in the Outset Contemporary Art Fund, which is London-based. “We actually donate to museums and established artists for art biennales. We’ve been doing this for almost 15 years,” she said.

I noted that she probably inherited her interest in the arts from her mother, Rocio, a painter. She reminded me that it wasn’t just her mother, but “also my Uncle Fernando, my Uncle Jaime, and my cousin Sofia, a ballet dancer, who are artists in the family.

“Hopefully more of the young ones would be active in the arts. My daughter Ava also, who is based in Madrid.”

I asked her about what she thought about the Philippine art scene today. She said, “I think it is very exciting, and there’ a lot of interest in Asia. So it’s a good possibility that the Philippines will stand out.”

Before she stood up, giving way for the other trustees to be interviewed, she hinted, “We have a big show in London this coming 11 April. I can’t tell you who the artists are but it will be a big show.”

GOURMET Cafe founder Ernest Escaler.

The organic farmer

I next interviewed Ernest Escaler, chairman of the ACC in the Philippines. Two years ago, he was elected to the ACC Board in New York.

I asked Ernest, a businessman, if he was an artist. He said, “I am a frustrated artist myself. I am basically a businessman now. My main business is the Gourmet Farm, where everything is organic. We don’t use preservatives.”

On what exactly the role of ACC is, Ernest explained: “What the ACC does is it broadens the horizon of any artist, whether it’s visual or performing, when they get trained and see the other side of the world. They are able to get the best of that and convert it into the Filipino soul. We have seen a lot of ACC grantees becoming National Artists.”

He shared his observation that there is a “major growth in the artistic scene here. Primarily because of the commercial success of Filipino art. So, I am glad for the artists that they no longer have to be starving.”

To my question of whether he is a collector, he said, “Yes and no, not in the level of Paulino Que or Butch Campos. Those are really collectors. I buy when I can and I sell when I can. If at a certain point, I have to make room in the wall, I also sell some of the pieces in an auction.”

Ernest confided he does not have a favorite artist. “I just know what I like.”

BAGUIO’S heritage and environmental activist Maribel Ongpin.

The activist from Baguio

It’s always a pleasure for anyone to meet Maribel Ongpin for the first time, and that’s exactly what Proust said as soon as they sat together for the interview. Not only because she’s the kind who smiles sweetly. She reminded Proust of an affectionate mother but a no-nonsense one. Of course, her reputation precedes her all the time and that makes the privilege of meeting her extra-special.

I asked Maribel if her interest in the arts went all the way back to her childhood, and she said with a smile, “No. Only when I became educated.”

By education, I assumed her Assumption education, and she said, “Yes. Probably in Assumption. We had art courses and art history, and we all had the performing arts there. I am sure all my classmates were in the same boat; we used to act in plays. Our teacher was Miss Poblete.”

Having grown up in Baguio, she had not shed off her mountain skin a bit. I mean both her beautiful skin and her love for this mountain city, notwithstanding the traffic, proliferation of buildings and all.

“I have an identity with Baguio,” she proudly declared.

She commutes between Manila and Baguio, so to speak, where, in the latter, she and her friends founded “a pine cone movement. We’re trying to preserve the environmental and historical legacy of Baguio, because people are forgetting.”

Another favorite cause of hers right now is the development and preservation of indigenous textiles. The chairperson of Habi for the last few years, she recalled to me how it started when “I was the president of the Museum Foundation of the Philippines, and the Indonesian Textile Society came to Manila looking for a Philippine Textile Society…wala (none).

They wanted a symposium because every two years there is an Asean symposium on traditional textile, and they wanted it here. So, we hosted it, but immediately after that, I said, we need to found a textile society and that’s how Habi started.”

As everyone knows, Maribel’s family, the Vallejos, used to run that famous hotel in Baguio.
“Our grandfather was Spanish. When he first came to the Philippines, he was a soldier and he stayed. When he got out, he went to Bicol and met my grandmother, so they were from there. Then they came to Manila, then they went up to Baguio.

“He started the hotel because at that time the colonial government was encouraging tourist institutions like hotels and restaurants. They were developing Baguio so he went and they stayed.”

Maribel thinks of Filipino artists of today as being “very vibrant, very active and very universal. They’re modern, up-to-the-latest and educated. They have strong dynamics among themselves. We have a great art scene.”

I wondered aloud if being indigenous is also being universal, to which she replied, “Yes, in a way. Indigenous means you have your own identity. And you can very well juxtapose yourself in other identities. You can either accept or reject what you want.”

Maribel was one of the founders of ACC in Manila. She related, “Josie Natori came home and said we have to start because ACC has always been in Asia which used to be called Rockefeller Brothers Fund. That was since after the war yet. Then when these Asian countries like Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong prospered, they started their own branches. So, it was also time for us.”

Yes, she’s very happy with art patronage in the Philippines. “It is getting more sophisticated, more active and more willing to spend money and time on art.”

If there’s anything that’s needed, she voiced out the “need for a little more government support for public schools. I think it’s time to do a little more art education.”

PROUST with theater enthusiast Malou Gamboa Lindo.

Restaurateur-cum-cultural worker

The fourth member of the board of the local ACC whom I met was Malou Gamboa Lindo who acted as host of the press conference, her family being the reputable owners of Milky Way.

Of her family, she shared: “My mother and her sisters started Milky Way in 1962. The one in Malacañang was my mom’s that’s why we grew up there on Rafael Street right beside Philippine Cancer Society.” The one along Arnaiz (Pasay) Road was built in 1981.

That the restaurant remains to be the favorite of Manila’s elite, she attributes to “our having the same chefs from before. So even our customers belong to several generations — grandparents, parents, and children, and now, great grandchildren.”

Aside from her work at the restaurant, Malou said, “Art is my passion. I was in theater in college at Tanghalang Ateneo. My mom brought us to museums at an early age. I am also on the board of Tanghalang Pilipino for the last 10 years, with Tony Boy Cojuangco as our chairman.

“I acted just once, but I was always interested in theater. I just love watching it. Imagine, I was on stage once, and I even sang. I was with Kris Aquino and Eric Quizon, in a Rolando Tinio play, Buhay sa Tambakan. Our director was Joey Aquino.”

Two of Milky Way’s regular diners, Maribel Ongpin and Ambassador Isabel Caro Wilson invited Malou to work with them in the ACC Board. “They called me one time and told me they were gonna ask me something but I was not allowed to refuse. And I couldn’t refuse because I like working with the arts. Besides, their daughters, Joana Ongpin Duarte and Claudia Wilson, are close friends of mine, and it’s from their daughters that they probably learned about my interest in the arts. So, here I am with them to this day.

“I am one of the youngest in the group, along with Rajo Laurel. They’re like our older barkada (gangmates) and the only way we would stay is if these ladies continue to work with us.”

Of course, she and Rajo brought with them their “youth and energy, and our knowledge of how to get things done nowadays. From their old style, we’re a little faster. We know our social media, and we have our own connections to other sectors, including our younger friends. We are also their chaperones when we travel.”

Malou enthusiastically spoke about Philippine art today “being vibrant and at its peak. I think that our artists’ exposure tends to be faster now. Instantly, you don’t even have to wait for something to be printed, it’s already online. The moment you click a button on your phone, it is already out there. And that has generated a lot of awareness of and exposure to what is out there in the world.”

Of art patronage, she exclaimed, “It is so strong! A lot of it starts in the home. That’s how it started for me, and then in schools. I really encourage school programs in the arts — to make sure students see Shakespeare, Tagalog plays and museums. Because that’s how it starts, through exposure.

“Now, everyone is expected to react, produce and respond immediately. But really, we should be able to stop, ponder, appreciate, take it all in, and that is what we do in the arts.”

ACC, she shared, “is doing its part in its small big way. You know, it is very hard in Third World countries where the priorities are the most basic, such as education and shelter, so, how are we going to go around asking people for money. Can I ask for money so I can send a ballet dancer to the States? So, they’re like, what? But then, corporations and individuals now realize the value of the arts. While they give importance to giving jobs and feeding mouths, they do not neglect their obligation to feeding the soul. And so, they give to our cause because the arts give soul to a country and meaning to the lives of the people.”

Next week: Nando Ortigas and his father, Don Paquito.

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