Photograph by Pat Mateo
Culture Spotlight

Dr. Joven Cuanang on achieving well-being through art, culture, and nature

Neurology, the arts, and ecology may seem like subjects from different ends of a scale. But for the Pinto Art Museum founder, these can find balance in one another—and this balance can bring about good holistic health. 
Bam Abellon | Jul 12 2019

In the 1960s, Dr. Joven Cuanang began a relationship with the arts—he just didn’t know it then. During that time, he became friends with a guy three years his junior named Benedicto Cabrera, now known as the National Artist for Visual Arts “Bencab.”  Back then, the Ilocos-born student was only focused on pursuing a career in medicine. He graduated cum laude in 1962, at the University of the East, College of Medicine in Sta. Mesa, Manila. Then he finished his graduate studies at the Harvard Medical School-Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

 

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It was only in the 1990s when the doctor started collecting works from the young artists who would hang out in his house in Antipolo. The youth were attracted to the city because of the rising art scene molded by the Antipolo Foundation for Arts, Culture, and Ecology. Now called Silangan Foundation for Arts, Culture, and Ecology, the group was co-founded by Cuanang as a follow-through on the 1986 EDSA Revolution. “What can we do for the country after the revolution?” says the always-smiling doctor. He shares his experiences with Cedie Lopez-Vargas, executive director of the Lopez Group Foundation, in the latest episode of Heroes and Titans, ANCX's video series on making the world a better place. “We’ll do art, culture, and ecology.”

Cuanang then invited these students to his house and served them lunch. Naming themselves Salingpusa, the members of the group would become some of the country’s most influential contemporary artists: Elmer Borlongan, Jose John Santos, Mark Justiniani, Manny Garibay, to name a few.

The generous doctor then decided to put up a gallery. “We used to call it Sampayan Art,” he recalls. “Because we hung the artwork on clotheslines.” To spread the word about the artwork, he invited his friends to come over to the gallery—many of whom bought the paintings.

Soon, word about his collection and the young artists he was supporting went around. But his friends kept saying, “Ang layo diyan sa Antipolo.” Considering the requests from interested patrons, he turned his apartment on Boston Street in Cubao into a gallery. It would eventually be the place where Borlongan, a Thirteen Artist Awards recipient, would have his first solo exhibition.

In 2001, the Antipolo gallery had enough visitors—from patrons to painters—that he decided to open what is now known as the most Instagrammable gallery in the whole country: the Pinto Art Museum. The name, Cuanang tells Lopez-Vargas, means, “A door for new possibilities; a door for showing new artwork; a door to the rest of the world.”

 

Neurology and Ecology

Growing up in Batac, Ilocos Norte, Cuanang has always been fascinated with plants and trees. He tells Lopez-Vargas of his memories of being surrounded by chico, coconuts, and langka. It is for this reason that he made sure the Pinto Art Museum had gardens in between the six—going seven—galleries. Naturally, he is also a big advocate of saving the environment.

In 2018, the Pinto Art Museum and the Lopez-lead firm Energy Development Corporation (EDC), spearheaded a campaign to save endangered indigenous tree species. Around 20 species of those trees now thrive inside the Pinto Art Museum.

The gallery is a beautiful garden itself. They have native ferns, begonias, and orchids adding verve to an already dynamic space. “You can see the birds coming, pag may butterflies daw the air is clean,” he reveals, with his unwavering jovial voice.

In the coming years, his passion for the arts and culture has reached the textile industry. Dr. Joven is one of the biggest supporters of the indigenous Ilocos fabric, inabel. He sponsors activities that raise awareness of the importance of the fabric to our culture. He shares that his team is currently helping cotton farmers become more sustainable.

The philanthropist tells Lopez-Vargas that his ventures is not just for the good of mankind. They also serve his mental and physical health well. “I’m a very busy practicing neurologist, and you know we encounter little problems. But when I go back to Antipolo and make rounds at the museum, I sit down under the shade of the trees,” the former medical director of St. Luke's in Bonifacio Global City says. "It’s a healing process actually."

According to the good doctor, there’s a study that shows that, when you see art and nature, your blood pressure goes down. “There’s science to it already. It has already been proven. Also it provides happy hormones in your body, and pleasure comes about. And that’s well-being, and that’s what we want to share in the end.”

Cuanang’s exposure to different fields allow him to create balance in his life. He may be a servant of the medical field, but he also believes in what he calls complementary medicine, “based on the influence of art, music, dance, and very good literature.” He says that there is a new branch of medicine called neuroaesthetics, which is a study on how a brain reacts to art and its interactions with objects

“For me, the most important thing about medicine is promoting health and avoiding disease,” he says. “It’s less about curative medicine. Art, culture, and nature can help in the healing. So our work is not finished yet.”

 

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