Arts & Culture

Ricky Francisco
 on the Earnestness of Objects

Curating guests' emotions towards a work.
Words by

This year’s ArtFair Philippines welcomed nearly 50,000 visitors into four storeys of parking space converted to house 500 participants from Southeast Asia. Among the fair’s most controversial scenes was Anton del Castillo’s Inferno, exhibited by Galerie Stephanie.

As Del Castillo’s work garners more acclaim for his precise use of materials and meditated philosophical themes, seasoned curator Ricky Francisco best showcases the artist’s recent dystopian series. After eliciting emotions from guests, the exhibition altogether piques curiosity and prompts reflection.

An unconventional education

Ricky Francisco didn’t always find himself between studio visits, hours of conversations, and first-hand reactions with artists. As a collections manager fresh out of university, the bright-eyed apprentice recorded data behind the scenes and took care of pieces belonging to museum archives.

A decade since, Francisco has organised art shows and delivered cultural lectures across Singapore and his hometown in Manila. Today, the towering figure clad in head-to-toe black and a corresponding pair of sneakers curates for a number of galleries and museums, including Fundacion Sansó, the Lopez Museum and Library, as well as the Purita Kalaw Center. His social media feed is as inevitably colourful as the galleries and events he attends to, save for photographs of his pet corgi named Hambert.

Hailing from a generation that did not have programs like Arts Management and Curatorial Studies to choose from in Philippine universities, he picked up the trade by working closely with fine art curators like Geraldine Araneta, a prime mover in ArtFair Philippines. From Dr. Nina Baker and Sandra Castro, Francisco utilised anthropological and sociological theories he studied to make sense of exhibitions.  

Owing much of what he applies as an art curator to husband and wife team Eileen and Claro Ramirez of the Lopez Museum,

“I learned how to work with space,” Francisco begins. “I learned how to lay objects out in both a cohesive and systematic manner that leads the eye from one piece to another.”

Beyond a compendium of pretty things

A successful exhibition is determined by unique goals raised prior to its set up. “But as a general rule, if the audience was engaged and the exhibit articulated the artist’s thoughts—that for me is a successful exhibit,” says Francisco who takes it upon himself to express the merits of an artist’s unique insights.

The curatorial process kicks off as he finds inspiration from a museum mandate or the collection itself. He then identifies suitable artists who might be a fit for the exhibit. This initiates a series of negotiations between artists and the museum management. “From there it would take anywhere from three to six months or even years depending on the complexity of the material.”

Independent galleries however may commission a curator for a specific project. “Sometimes though, the process simply begins by discovering an artist then leading them to a suitable gallery and pitching it,” Francisco adds, describing it as putting into motion a mix of elements to get an exhibit into fruition.

Creating a space for conversations and connections

Francisco’s approach in selecting pieces varies largely according to the space he is given to tell a visual story. If putting on a show implies knowing one’s audience, Francisco bridges multiple facets “for the audience to be engaged, the artist to be understood, and the gallery to be consistent with its standards.”

The task of a curator is a creative one that merges logistics into event planning and marketing.

Francisco believes he is responsible for unifying points of view and bringing about new perspectives.

Anchoring the exhibit in theory when needed, he becomes an instigator of creativity and a catalyst in the figurative conversation between the artist and the audience.

“Often through the objects in an exhibit, through a play of light, space, and colour, the curator must be able to engage or even flirt with the audience to encourage them to come out of their comfort zones with imagination and empathy.”

Francisco fulfils this in an exhibit entitled Still for Vargas Museum in collaboration with the Japan Foundation. He enthusiastically looks back on this five-installation exhibit of artists’ responses to natural disasters as his most distilled work to date.

Grounded in an ever-changing scene

Despite opportunities to make a career elsewhere, Francisco commits himself to Filipino art because of shared roots. He has seen the landscape evolve into what it is today. “The local market is bustling. This gives impetus for artists to produce more,” he observes. “But I hope that it doesn’t trap artists into just making art for the market, which often results to lack of creativity and risk-taking.”

A decade ago, Francisco remembers that “auction houses in Singapore and Hong Kong were only beginning to auction Filipino art, mostly the moderns.” And he has witnessed contemporary Filipino art gain a foothold in the region, citing “the highest selling artwork in Southeast Asia is actually by a Filipino.”

After gaining strength in the turn of the century, “realism has been around since artists like Ronald Ventura, Andres Barrioquinto, Geraldine Javier, and Nona Garcia had popularised it among others.” Francisco notices trends today leaning towards “works which strongly critiques society, being supported by local patrons.”

Hopes for home

Recognising globalisation’s effect on art, the curator reflects on the country’s tumultuous history and a myriad of other influences. “The Philippines is an archipelago that’s been colonised thrice with over a millennia of trade with Asian and Western cultures. It has a dizzying number of religions and belief systems that render our contemporary art as varied and complex.”

During his travels, Francisco is inspired by “the way artworks are mounted and why they’re mounted in the first place,” he says. Then in his own backyard as a canvas for curation, he engages in the diversity of local art fairs compared to the homogenising trends abroad where the same artists are sold by the same galleries.

In the context of the Philippines’ socio-political climate, Francisco worries about the widening wealth gap.

“I believe social justice includes making experiences and information accessible to more people,” he explains.

And in an effort to cater to this issue, he has successfully petitioned some museums to waive entrance fees.

Meaning in the making

Directing shows that plant seeds for thought and conversation starters, Francisco correlates increasing empathy to encouraging critical thinking. He is passionate about historical themes that leave audiences contemplative.

While he enjoys conceptual pieces as well as academic and romantic works, he adds that “from time to time, I see the artistic merit of indigenous creative expressions, like weaving and basketry.” Eclectic in taste, Francisco never ceases looking for sincerity in a work. “It’s an odd word to describe art, but for me, there must be an earnestness and a truthfulness to how it was made.”

Often sporting a goatee and his signature long waves in a half bun, don’t let the rugged look deceive from a gentle warmth that is as constant as Francisco’s dedication to projects. Always on the go, he finds fulfilment in the career and life he’s built around connections.

He is currently working with Helping Hands Foundation on an exhibit set to launch later this year to provide health insurance and medical assistance to artists and cultural workers. This iteration will focus on mental health; a cause Francisco feels strongly about. “I will be working with 50 contemporary artists, the majority of whom are people whose body of work, work ethic, and style I admire and respect.”

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