The Italian beauty in 1977. Courtesy of Galleria Duemila.
Culture Art

Silvana Diaz: from Italian outsider to art world pioneer

The gallerist behind Galleria Duemila talks about her 43 years in the art scene—a small universe she helped transform into a more professional enterprise while nurturing some of its most talented artists
Anna M. Rosete | Oct 05 2018

“For everything, there is a season. And now is the time,” says RM de Leon. “Because how much wagging of our tails do we have to do? Every time we have a show, it’s all about us.  It’s getting boring!” The artist, who knows a thing or two about being the center of attention, having had many shows to his name, is talking about the 70-year old gallerist Silvana Diaz. “I totally believe that now is the time to say thank you to this beautiful lady after all these years.  She has remained steadfast.  She is not bothered by the shock of the new. She’s stood behind us.”

It is late afternoon on a Saturday at Galeria Duemila, the Pasay compound that houses Diaz’s art space and residence, and the mood is festive. De Leon, together with colleagues Jonathan Olazo and Trek Valdizno, has organized a show paying homage to Silvana Ancelotti-Diaz. Called “An Italian in Manila,” it is a tribute to the gallerist’s 43 years in the local art scene—that’s more than four decades of experiencing first-hand, as one of its prime movers, the evolution of Philippine contemporary art gallery practice.

At the center of this opening party is Diaz herself, multi-tasking throughout our interview. She is wearing a crisp white shirt with the collar up. Her ensemble is as lively as the event’s mood—the shirt punctuated with doodle-like embroidery in strategic places, her dangling earrings shaped like paisley. She is wearing silver bracelets that her granddaughter Sienna (daughter of son Marco and the fashion designer Kristel Yulo) is insisting on playing with. “Non toccare,” she tells the girl who she proudly introduces to everyone.

We are here not only to toast Mrs. Diaz but to talk about those 43 years. “It was purely accidental because I really graduated from foreign languages as simultaneous interpretation being my specialty,” she says, in her usual self-assured tone, of how it all started. “Art was really a hobby, and [those days], I was young, there was not really a gallery [like Duemila] and things like that, so I did it.”

At the inauguration of the first Galleria Duemila, from left: May Baddour and a guest, and Gloria Diaz with Silvana.

“It” meaning diving into the work within the local art world, which was then in its infancy—although she also moved to the Philippines from Italy to get married. It was the dawn of the 70s. Her first job was to mount the show of her sister-in-law Isabel. “I was really new, and didn’t know anything.  I researched and looked around for space and Mila Dayrit said, ‘I have space.’” That space was Miladay Art Center in the old Quad I, which was run by the Dayrits and Lino Severino, the gallery’s industrial partner and curator. “Now Mr. Severino [had other duties] so he would be in and out, so actually I worked with the secretary to put up the exhibit,” says the then-gallery assistant. “And thank God it was very good because Gloria Diaz was very well-known.”

Gloria, who had then been successfully riding the wave of fame spurred by her Miss Universe win in 1969, was the subject of her sister Isabel’s paintings. But there was something, too, about the painter. “The way [Isabel] handled the paint was very good. It looked like water color. The transparency was excellent, and [the collectors] liked it.  [The show] was sold out.  They liked very much the exhibition.”

While Silvana grew up in Italy, she always yearned to travel to countries in Asia, and she was able to do so as a flight attendant for Alitalia.

With her first show a hit, the natural progression, of course, was to do another show, and another. But then the Dayrits decided to close Miladay. Diaz was crushed. But the strong-willed Italian eventually found her bearings. Together with her friend Christy Hagedorn, she opened Galleria Duemila at the Vernida Building in Amorsolo Street, Makati in 1975.

 

Stranger in a strange land

On top of her new role, there was her young son, Illac, to take care of. “He was always asking, ‘Why is mommy always out?’” Diaz recalls. As the young boy tugged at her sleeves, a larger world was also demanding her presence. She needed to find a way to be an art worker and have time for motherhood. “Because you know, when you are a foreigner, you don’t know anybody, and you are taken out (by friends).  So they told me that I had to stay home. But you know when you are young and you are independent, and you work very well, and you don’t like to depend on your man,” she says, trailing off. “So, that’s when I accepted it: I started the Pasay space.” That space is Galeria Duemila version 2, its present address: the gallery right inside the Diaz compound, just a few steps away from the family home.

With Bencab in 1994. 

In the early 70s, there wasn’t much of an art scene to speak of. But the artists hung out in the same places and welcomed everyone including foreigners like Diaz (perhaps the way it has opened its arms to Bencab’s first wife Caroline Kennedy, and the fabulous Helena Guerrero). Being a foreigner never stopped the Italian beauty from pursuing the betterment of the world she found herself in. She took on formulating gallery practices, art handling and preservation. She was a pioneer. From 1974 onwards, she relentlessly took active participation in the arts—as member of the Saturday Group; as original founding member and secretary of the Watercolor Society of the Philippines (founded by National Artist Vicente Manansala); and founding member of the Guild of Galleries, sponsored by the Cultural Center of the Philippines. Today, Galleria Duemila is the longest running commercial art space in the country, still staging regular exhibitions featuring both known pillars of the local art world, and new talent. It has in its collection rare works by modern masters including Mansansala, Jose Joya, Cesar Legaspi, H.R. Ocampo, and the two Fernandos, Amorsolo and Zobel. 

With Cesar Legaspi in 1977.

Diaz remembers her earlier years in the Philippine art world with great zeal as if she is speaking about the future. She talks with great passion and conviction about the work, and how she had witnessed contemporary art flourish in the country. Nothing is hesitant or tentative about her. In her still-present Italian accent, she is generous with descriptive details of the past.  

“Before, it was hard because [the general audience] didn’t know [too much} about art, so it was a question of investment, a question of beauty,” she begins. “There were also a lot of older class people that were more inclined [to support], but it was very limited…the art started to take impetus with the little fairs and exhibitions.”

Progress was slow because the galleries got little or no support from the government. “You wanted so much to do things because of the need [for] photographs, documentation, and preservation. You had to learn everything.  Then the way paintings were made… Where would you find color?  It’s not like it is now, where you have the resources. You start the painting, and then you find white, [the next time you go to the store], maybe you can’t find white anymore.”

  

The beautiful life

Still, it was la vita fantastica. “In 1974, I started with the Saturday Group,” Diaz recalls. “We used to meet in Taza de Oro. That was really very important because that was the place where artists met, had a cup of coffee, exchanged ideas. Not only visual artists. Ballet dancers, writers. So that was really very invigorating, very innovative. And then, at the end of the afternoon—normally, you go there at 3:30 pm and then at 4 or 5—you’d go to different patrons. You’d come here, then you go to Sining Kamalig or Gallery Blue, and for merienda, the artist will give you a painting. It was not about making money, but creativity-wise, intellect-wise, it was beautiful.”

Despite the measly resources, it was clearly an electric time for Diaz. She worked on numerous projects simultaneously, with the objective of making the arts relevant to the public: among them a film on Arturo Luz and Victorio Edades, and a documentary on Napoleon Abueva. She was at the helm of the standardization of Philippine galleries’ professional practices. “We sent somebody all over the Philippines to see the standards of Philippine galleries because we had to have a commonality on the business. We had to have a certain ethic. So many things we tried to put together, to improve our business, to make it professional, to make them understand [their purpose is] to conserve the arts, how to preserve it.” She was one of the frontliners. The artists came to them. “You know, at the time, being in this country was very stimulating.  There was so much to do!  You had to build a country. There was no art, in a sense, as a cultural [tool],” she recounts.

In her 43 years in the business, Diaz has fostered a whole generation of contemporary artists.

“Silvana is the missing region in my brain. She keeps me balanced. She's many things to me: believer, supporter, manager, adviser and a very kind but strict ate,” says the artist Rock Drilon who did shows in Duemila. He is now based in Ilo-ilo. “Even when I was running mag:net [the gallery], she was there. My Iloilo relocation is partly sustained and made possible because of her representation.”

“Silvana is intimidating at first but once you get to know her and work with her, you’ll find that she’s a sweet but feisty woman,” says the artist Jinggoy Buensuceso who staged a one-man show in Duemila just a few months back. He also echoes Drilon’s sentiment about Silvana being like family. “She’s a very professional gallerist, a friend and a mom to me. Like a mother, she would tell me good and bad things about my career without any reservation.”

Click on the image below for slideshow

With Julie Lluch, December 2005 

At Charlie Co’s “Deadline,” with the artist, September 2005 

Flanked by Duddley Diaz and Agnes Arrellano, June 2007 

At Edwin Wilwayco’s Exhibit “Whispering Winds,” August 2004 

With Jose "Bogie" Tence-Ruiz in his “Derelict Penthouses,” November 2008 

With Justin Nuyda and Jerry Elizalde-Navarro 

Land Exhibition, January 2007 

Memoirs Opening Exhibit, February 2007 

With Romulo and Jonathan Olazo during the father and son's show, April 2006 

With Ramon and Isabel Diaz, 2012 

With Raul Lebajo in his show, “Celebration,” September 2006 

(Left) With Alfredo Aquilizan, June 2005; (right) with Ann Wizer, October 2008 

(Left) With Arturo Luz, 2015; (right) with Rock Drilon 

 

Following the ground work she and her contemporaries have set in place, Diaz is optimistic about the future of the Philippine art scene. “The arts will go forward because more and more, there is education—with all this new computerization, electronics, science. Actually, internationally, the talent has been spread, the talent has been recognized. It’s beautiful!” she says.

Later in the evening, the party is still in full swing. Diaz entertains everyone like a seasoned hostess, coaxing guests to view the works and have something to eat. “We have good food here,” she would say. In the midst of friends in attendance—Betsy Westendorp, Tokie Tantoco, the Ambassador Giorgio Guglielmino—her attention may be divided but her vision, as she says it, is clear and singular. “It’s always been a question of making sure that I contribute in my small, little way, to the perseverance, the history, the fiber of this nation. You have to go on, you cannot get pulled down.” Forty three years in the art scene, with new and more with-it players around, Diaz might be less of a presence in the parties and the openings but she’s still very much around. “I cry and cry and cry, but I go forward,” she says. “Just like before, I’ll see the most interesting things that are going on around me. There are no prejudices. No barriers. I never had that.”