Cuanang behind "Karnabal," the artwork that sparked a museum. Photograph by Berwin Coroza
Culture Art

From accidental collector to art world force

After opening a permanent space in Manhattan for Filipino contemporary art, the neurologist and art patron Dr. Joven Cuanang will soon build another space in his massive art facility in Antipolo to accommodate his acquisitions. The doctor takes ANC-X around the much-Instagrammed property, and sheds light on what really catches his eye. 
Jerome Gomez | Sep 27 2018

To hear Paulino Que say it, one can’t be a true collector if one is bothered by the scarcity of one’s walls. One finds, or builds, a storage space, erects more walls. Or in the case of his friend, the neurologist, educator and art patron Dr. Joven Cuanang, one turns his 1.2 acre garden and residence in the hills of Antipolo into a museum. It is but a natural thing to do, especially when you own one of the biggest, most important collections of Philippine contemporary art—most of them large works, amounting to more than 900 pieces. And the good doctor hasn’t stopped acquiring.

To think that Cuanang is, as he likes to say, an “accidental collector.”

The Pinto Art Museum in Antipolo.

What is now known as the Pinto Art Museum began as a modest residential property in the 70s; an art gallery within its fences was introduced only in the early 2000s. He had been friends with the young artist Bencab in the 60s but the art world had not yet called out to him at that time. It was only in the 90s that Cuanang found himself turning into a collector. A group of young art students who hung out in Antipolo had befriended him and made an informal studio out of his grounds. They happened to be very talented, these young men, and while they had voracious appetites, as the doctor likes to joke—“Ang lalakas kumain ng mga ‘yan, ang dami kong binibiling bigas”—“Manong,” as Cuanang is reverently referred to, took them under his wing.

This group of men would eventually be baptized Salingpusa, a collective that included future Philippine art stars: Manny Garibay, Mark Justiniani, Tony Leaño, Jose John Santos and Elmer Borlongan to name a few. In the beginning, Cuanang would put up a show for them in his property, pinning and hanging their works in clotheslines. He would invite his network of friends, mostly from the medical community to check out the works. “Topnotcher no’n si Mark,” the doctor recalls, referring to Mark Justiniani whose fascination for Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s magic realism then was insinuating its way into his art.

A great part of Cuanang's collection is displayed in Pinto, the most Instagrammed museum in Asia.

Two more shows in Antipolo would follow until, heeding requests to have them in a more accessible location, the doctor would transform his apartment in Boston Street in Cubao into Boston Gallery where the young Elmer Borlongan would have his first solo show. It was a time when pretty and happy was popular in the art market—“That time pa-beauty-beauty ang mga paintings, eh”—which was not Borlongan's style. The art rookie was painting these bald-headed people with weird eyes in somber settings. True enough, sales-wise, the show was only half a success. It was Cuanang who bought half of that maiden exhibition. 

Impressed by the young artists the doctor was showcasing, the esteemed Bobbi Valenzuela of Hiraya Gallery would curate the Boston exhibitions. Still, many pieces would end up in the doctor’s hands. But unknown to him at that time, these paintings would provide the seed for what would be one of the most admired, if not coveted, collections of Philippine art.

A portait of Cuanang's doctor's bag by Jose John Santos III
As displayed in the gallery with the actual bag.

Today, a Cuanang purchase is considered an artist’s arrival into significance.  “He has the best [Philippine] contemporary art collection,” vouches the collector Que. “If your work is not represented in Manong’s collection, wala ka pa. Kasi lahat ng artist nando’n eh.”   

True enough, at the Pinto Art Museum in Antipolo, everyone who is anyone in contemporary Philippine art is represented. The museum consists of six galleries, it’s rooms and hallways filled with the most impressive pieces from artists whose works the art patron admires: from Louie Cordero’s statue of Zuma covered in bubblegum to Marina Cruz’s early portrait of her mother and her mother's twin, portrayed as children in Sunday clothes; from Jim Orencio’s beautiful Impressionistic takes on the Pinto gardens to Tony Leaño’s dark vision of the world from 1987, called “U-Turn” (one of Cuanang’s true favorites); from Geraldine Javier’s embroidered tree of fossilized leaves to Cos Zicarelli’s graffiti that says “We Are The Kids That Your Parents Warned You About” (the most Instagrammed piece in the museum).

Hundreds of people get to see this collection on a daily basis. The museum clocks in an average 1,200 visitors on Sundays. One Valentine’s day, more than 3,000 people showed up. “It is the most Instagrammed museum in Asia, No. 23 all over the world,” says Cuanang proudly.

There’s a gallery dedicated to Philippine textiles, bululs and indigenous accessories; a gallery that houses just Leaño's bamboo garden alone; a section dedicated to Borlongan's works; and an entire gallery made especially to fit “Karnabal,” a commissioned collaborative mural by the members of Salingpusa. Painted four years after EDSA People Power, it is a statement on the political and social chaos the country found itself in despite the bright promise brought forth by a peaceful revolution. 

Click on image below for slideshow

The mural "Karnabal," acrylic on canvas, 1992 

Elmer Borlongan's "The Circle Game," 2015 

Joven Mansit's "Pieta 2," oil and acrylic on canvas, 2014

An early Marina Cruz, "Kambal," from 2006 

Tony Leaño's "U Turn," 1987, a gift from the artist 

An entire gallery dedicated to local textiles and bululs

A work commissioned to Manny Garibay, inspired by the portrait in Nick Joaquin's Portrait of the Artist as Filipino, and The Aeneid by Virgil. 

Danilo Dalena's "Tulo"

For years, the massive piece was on loan to a government institution where, sadly, it came to a point it was already gathering bird poo. In short, it was not being accorded the importance it deserved. “Tayo ‘yan eh,” Cuanang says, looking at the mural 18 years after it was finished. Just as the work is a mirror to post-EDSA Philippines, it is also a touchstone to what the doctor looks for in art pieces. “I don’t want things that are pretty,” he says. “I want things that will provoke a reaction, negative or positive. There should be a discourse…Ano ba'ng nangyari sa atin nung 1986, after the revolution? Bumalik ang oligarchs, lumakas lalo ang religion, no coherence, no direction provided by our leaders.”

His stature may not have its pull in that arena of politics, but Cuanang is a major force in the art world. When he invites artists for a show, like in the recent exhibition in Tokyo put together with the Asian Arts Council, they don't just send what's been gathering dust in the studio; they come up with new work. When he suggested filling what would be the St. Luke’s Medical Center in BGC with art to match the caliber of the hospital’s vision, the hospital's officials told him they couldn’t afford it, because building the structure alone would already cost P9 billion. But Cuanang, then the hospital’s Chief Medical Officer, knew he can make his idea a reality. He invited his chosen artists to dinner and asked them if they were willing to make artworks especially for the institution. “Choose your wall,” he told each of them. “Determine the size of the painting you will give, you give me the price of your painting, and I will give you the equivalent of a medical insurance.” Today, St. Luke’s in BGC boasts an impressive art collection from some of the most sought-after talents in the visual arts. That's the power of this humble Ilocano.

Cuanang in the sala of his private quarters in the Pinto property in Antipolo. Behind him, Borlongan's depiction of a procession featuring the Virgin of Antipolo, 1999.

Walls are the least of his problems. In fact, he is building up new ones: a permanent space for Filipino art in Manhattan just opened last December; and another gallery is set to rise as part of the Antipolo museum soon—something perhaps just large enough for a work the good doctor recently acquired, from a young artist whose time has come.  

 

Photographs by Berwin Coroza

This story originally appeared in Metro Society's Luxury Issue 2018