Art by Chris Clemente
Culture Art

This by-invite-only Viber thread is an auction house, and it helps patients pay hospital bills

A St. Luke’s urologist has turned his passion for collecting art into a philanthropic activity not just for himself but for some really influential people in his Viber group
Bam Abellon | Aug 24 2019

People normally hate Mondays. But members of a Viber group named Art Rocks look forward to Mondays of August, which is the first day of the week when they can bid for an artwork. Art Rocks, one might say, is an art fair and auction house in one, except everything happens in an online messaging application.

This particular Monday, the thread comes to life at around 7:30 a.m. The members, who call themselves Art Rockers, start exchanging pleasantries as if they’re having coffee at a patio somewhere—which is the usual atmosphere in the thread. Someone checks if the thread leader is already up and about. Another one posts a photo of a cemetery on fire. It’s not news, it turns out. 

Dr. Steve Lim stores most of his paintings on the third floor of his townhouse, in an industrial rack he recently bought. He replaces the bubble wraps every six months.

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“Sementeryo nasunog,” the caption says. “Lahat patay.” 

Quips one member: “Double dead!” 

With no ceremony of any sort, the thread gets down to business. What follows are photo posts featuring paintings of artists represented by any from the group’s 26 partner galleries. For a stretch of time, the images pour in, and only the chime of posts coming in can be heard. 

Until a member—a doctor—replies to a photograph of a painting by an emerging resident artist from a Quezon City gallery. “MINE,” the doctor writes. A few seconds later, the photo is reposted, now with the words, “SOLD TO [doctor’s first name]” written under it.

Dr. Lim tells ANCX that he used to ask permission from his wife whenever he wanted to buy a painting. One day, he had his eyes set on a “cheap” 4 x 4 artwork by an up-and-coming artist. His wife didn’t like the piece, so he didn’t buy it. That year, the artist won at the Ateneo Art Awards. The artist was Zean Cabangis. Dr. Lim stopped asking permission from anyone after that.

This goes on for a few hours. A matinee idol’s name pops out, and then a senior vice president of a bank, and then a motivational speaker. We’re not naming names, sorry, but we want you to get an idea of the caliber of people who belong to this thread. They each write down MINE after paintings they fancy, some of which are from up and coming names, some from award-winning artists. 

For a while, the group goes quiet again. The members have got work to do. The doctor has to perform surgery, he informs the thread. In the silence, a TV host replies to a photo of an acrylic toy, with the word “RESERVE.” The host has the entire day to think about purchasing it—unless someone tries to “steal” it from him by replying “MINE” to the photo. In that case, the first one to reserve has to decide immediately if he wants to buy the painting, or it goes to the first person who posts “MINE.”

By the time this whole bustle is done, Art Rocks has already made around PhP 100,000—and it is not even lunchtime. By noon, the Viber group comes into life again. 

 

The doctor is in 

The man behind this technological ingenuity—the one who hasn’t had a decent lunch break in weeks—is Steven L. Lim, MD, FPUA, DPBU, MHA. That abundance of suffixes are a reminder that he’s a urology consultant at the St. Luke’s Medical Center (SLMC) in Taguig City and Quezon City; the former vice chairman of the Institute of Urology in Quezon City; and the president of St. Luke’s Urology Alumni Association. Otherwise, it’s easy to mistake him as a full-time art collector and online gallerist.

Lim is doing all this for charity. At the end of Art Rocks, which happens every August, from Monday to Friday, the galleries who make a sale issue a check under the name of St. Luke’s Urology Alumni Association. It’s buying art with a heart—a guiltless indulgence, or investment, for some.

Today, a Friday, is much like any other for Lim. It is a little after 7:30 a.m., and the doctor has just finished his first surgery for the day—which started at four in the morning. Sporting a boyish grin, Dr. Lim welcomes us to his SLMC-Global City clinics which immediately reveals itself also an art collector’s den. Beside the receptionist is a life-sized painting we recall seeing at one Art Fair Philippines edition; it is without an artist’s signature. A painting by Lui Manaig from the artist’s Closet Cases collection hangs by the waiting area. Inside the doctor’s office are works by, among others, Isko Andrade and Keb Cerda, who recently won at the Ateneo Art Awards last August 18.

Dr. Lim doesn’t like selling his paintings, so it’s up to his kids to decide on what to do with his collection in the future. He brings his kids—13 and 17 years old—to galleries and exhibits.

As we begin our interview, Dr. Lim openly talks about his role in the world of local art and in medicine, with equal fervor and that measured way doctors explain to their patients what’s happening with their bodies. Many times, he injects his sense of humor. He jokingly calls his medical practice his current “sideline.”

“Doctors are generally art-inclined,” he tells ANCX, turning serious. “When we go to conventions, we always visit the museums. It’s an untapped area of collectors because doctors are so busy. They have no time to go to openings.”

 

It began with a Zalameda

In his case, it wasn’t until around 2010 when he started becoming a serious art collector. At the time, he received a 3 x 3 painting from a patient as a gift, which the patient created himself. The giver just happened to be the great late artist Oscar Zalameda.

“When I got that painting, I took a photo of me and Oscar in front of the painting,” he recalls. “Baka sabihin ninakaw ko.” At the time, the painting was already worth half a million pesos. This gift eventually inspired Dr. Lim into studying the life of Zalameda, which eventually led him to the works of other masters like Mauro Malang Santos, Romulo Olazo, and Arturo Luz. He started buying small pieces of their works. “Because the paintings were so expensive, I was buying maybe one or two paintings a year,” he says.

Another one of his influences—his biggest ally in art to date—is his friend, St. Luke’s colleague and easily one of the most important art collectors in the country, Dr. Joven Cuanang. The neurologist and former director of SLMC-Global City was Dr. Lim’s professor when the latter was in medical school at the University of Santo Tomas (UST) in Manila. Their friendship  deepened when Dr. Lim started working for SLMC-Global City.

“Dr. Cuanang knew I was art-inclined because I was buying works from the masters,” Dr. Lim says. The respected patron advised him to start collecting contemporary art. “At the time, I didn’t know what contemporary was,” says Dr. Lim. And so Cuanang introduced him to contemporary artists by first bringing him to Boston Gallery in Cubao, Quezon City, which the older doctor owns. “It was near my house,” Dr. Lim recalls. “So I went. When I saw the artworks, I was hooked. They were a lot less expensive before.”

Now more than half of Dr. Lim’s collection, which now consists of over 800 pieces of art works—sculptures not included—are from Boston Gallery.

Call him what you want, he says, but Dr. Lim has never sold any of his purchases, and he doesn’t buy based on the name of the artist. “If I like it, I get it. And I trust my eyes already. If I see that it has potential, I get it. Eventually, 90 percent goes up in value, but that’s just value on paper because I don’t like to sell.”

 

Auction on Viber

The story of Art Rocks began with the charity division of SLMC. The hospital has a special team that handles social services, who gives patients discounts depending on their income bracket. However, many indigent patients are still unable to afford the discounted fees, and that’s where the St. Luke’s Urology Alumni Association comes in.

Before Art Rocks, the alumni association got minimal funding from events, conventions, and medical companies, to name a few. Now, the Viber group is their biggest resource. The sales are used to pay for all the remaining balance of hospital fees of the indigent families, and for the continuing medical education of trainees.

The group is called Art Rocks because, well, that’s what the doctor thinks art does. Or, as he likes to say, the “rocks” can also refer to the stones the urologic surgeon removes from his patients. Now on its seventh year, Art Rocks started as a three-day art exhibit at the second floor conference room of St. Luke’s Medical Center in Quezon City. Then, three years ago, a new idea entered the doctor’s mind. “I was always on Viber anyway,” he recalls. “I was always talking to people about patients, about art. Why not make a community where I could post the artworks online?” A lot of the doctors he knew were exposed to art as early as when they were kids, and as Dr. Lim admits, “majority are medyo may kaya.” So he tapped his colleagues first and invited them to the group.

He calls the doctors, “the true collectors” because while many buyers purchase artworks for investment, most doctors are not into the business of re-selling. He explains, “They buy with their eyes, not with their ears. They don’t just go for the most talked-about artists. If it appeals to them, they get it.”

Art Rocks, the Viber group, started with around 60 members; now there are 200 of them: doctors, lawyers, actors, senators, reporters, socialites, entrepreneurs, congressmen, tycoons, bank executives, real estate magnates, right-hand men and women of powerful personalities. The prices of the works posted on the thread range from the four digits to astounding seven digits. Sometimes, an underrated artist gets the attention of one member, and the rest would follow. “Iba kasi pag may kaagaw,” observes Lim. 

Apart from direct sales, the Viber group also holds auctions, which are announced three days prior to the event. The artwork that set a record within the group is a Buen Calubayan piece, which sold for PhP 2.2 million.

This Buen Calubayan piece sold for PhP 2.2 million, a record-breaking sale for Art Rocks.

 

What ghost month? 

Every year, Dr. Lim changes the Roman numeral at the end of the Viber group’s name. This year, it’s “ART ROCKS VII AUG 28-30, 2019.” The date is for the on-ground art exhibit which, since the Viber group was born, became the culminating event for Art Rocks.

While most people don’t like doing business in August because it is widely regarded in Chinese folk legend as ghost month, the Filipino-Chinese doctor doesn’t believe in such superstitions. “I think majority of the galleries follow that because they have big Chinese clients. For me, August was the best month because wala akong kalaban.”

Every year, too, he removes the “lurkers” and non-active members of the group, and adds new ones. During my temporary membership for the purpose of writing this story, it seemed like the members are actually good friends in real life, friends who have conversations about art, and maybe exchange pop culture gossip here and there. But in truth, many of them haven’t met each other in person. “When we see each other in galleries, [that’s when] we get together,” he says. The 48-year-old says he wants to keep the maximum number of Art Rocks members to a solid 250. “I’m a one-man show,” he says. “I want a small group of people to be there, or I wouldn’t be able to control it anymore.”

The culminating exhibit will happen on August 29-31, 2019, at the 2nd Floor Conference Room of St. Luke’s Medical Center, Quezon City.

It’s a tedious process. The galleries send him the photos, which he archives in his phone and stores on iCloud. He then sends the photo of the sold painting to the gallery, who will then contact the buyer. He replies to many private messages from members who want to bid for a piece up for auction but couldn’t be online for the allotted days. That’s why he does the selling during his lunch break, and the auctions after dinner, at 8 p.m. “Every August, I lose weight because I don’t get to each lunch,” he says, laughing.

He doesn’t mind, though. “This is passion,” he says. “I enjoy doing it, even though I’m tired. Time management lang ’yan.”

Since he is the president of the group, he is not involved in the finances, and does not accept cash, direct payments, and personal art works—everything has to go through the galleries. In short, he does not earn a single cent from the initiative. “I lose nga money,” he reveals, laughing. What he couldn’t help himself from doing is taking part in the buying. “Of course, I sometimes buy. I buy a lot.”

With the kind of attention Art Rocks is getting, Dr. Lim hopes to have enough funds in the future for the artists themselves. “My dream is to have enough proceeds to fund HMOs [health maintenance organization] for the artists, including their parents.”

We end our conversation when his first patient arrives at his clinic. Before I leave, I ask him what paintings will he be posting on Art Rocks today. He doesn’t have an idea yet, he says. He goes by gut-feel. But maybe he’ll start with a fairly unknown artist whose works are gathering dust at the backroom of a gallery.

Days later, all the paintings have been sold, and that artist whose works were just gathering dust? As of press time, the money from the sale of his artworks makes up one third of this August’s Art Rocks sales. And his days as an unknown are officially over.