Ricky Francisco is a Museum Director in Manila Who is Not Afraid to Mix Art With Issues of Mental Health or Showing it in Malls
I took the position of director of Fundacion Sansó in February 2019. I have been working as the curator of the museum since it started in 2014, while still working as a curator at the Lopez Museum. In 2013, I curated a show there that included early works by Juvenal Sansó. Seeing it, the chairman of the board of Fundacion Sansó told me that Mr. Sansó needed me. “He needs to be understood by this generation. Can you help us ensure his legacy?” he told me. It sounded like a good and challenging project, so I accepted. When the previous director left, I gave up my work at the Lopez Museum to be the director of Fundacion Sansó.
Fundacion Sansó is a small, private museum created to house the personal collection of Juvenal Sansó, a Spanish-born painter who grew up in Manila, and created and exhibited art in Paris, Madrid, some parts of the USA, and Mexico. The museum makes that available to the public, and collaborates with contemporary artists and institutions on themes relevant to the collection such as trauma, war, healing, and nature. The foundation also gives scholarships and micro-grants to Filipino students studying Fine Arts. Since I took over in February 2019, I had to make Fundacion Sansó even more relevant to its immediate community and to the greater audience of Metro Manila, by focusing on programs that connect art with mental health. Last year, in our Ideas Platform, we focused on what people, who have family members or friends going through grief or depression, can do, activities included “Love in the Time of Grief” with grief coach Cathy Sanchez Babao. We always have more people calling to reserve than we can accommodate. We do this while trying to raise funds for the operations of the museum because we are self-funded.
I usually cheat and take my breaks before the day even starts. Metro Manila traffic is really, really bad. So instead of staying on the road, I enjoy a long breakfast at a coffee shop near my house, and read books, magazines, or check social media, allowing my mind to wander. Then I go to work and focus on what I need to do for the day, and usually I try to finish between 1PM and 3PM. Then, I either go home, or go to my other independent projects, which include exhibition design in galleries, writing about artists, doing exhibitions in other museums, and putting up art exhibitions in malls. I convinced the board to give me the freedom to work outside of the museum. I get new ideas, enlarge my network and keep my ears to the ground. It benefits the museum when an opportunity arises. Last year, for example, I wanted to activate a collection of letters that Juvenal Sansó and his peers—other important artists in the Philippines—exchanged between the ’60s and the ‘80s. Thanks to work outside the museum, I found out that contemporary artist Ling Quisumbing Ramilo was creating a library-installation made of wood taken from old demolished houses around Manila. Working on another project, I saw the frottage of an entire house made by Ronyel Compra from Cebu—a city an hour’s flight from Manila. I put the letters and these works together for an exhibit called “Palimpsests”, which explored what stays and what’s lost when we archive (the show also included works by Marrione Contreras and Pancho Villanueva). Ronyel’s work was later shortlisted for the prestigious Ateneo Art Gallery award. Things like these happen because I go out and get immersed in what’s out there.
Very emblematic of Fundacion Sansó is the façade. It has parallel jagged vertical white flanges that distinguishes it from the predominantly gray concrete houses and condominiums in the rest of the neighborhood.
But my personal favorite is the small garden behind the museum where we grow orchids and multi-colored caladium plants with the staff.
I reconcile my personal taste with the mission of the museum by extending the programing. One such was “Soap, Sense, and Sanity” in July 2019, with Gang Badoy, an artist-activist who created RockEd, a famous alternative education program through rock concerts in schools. That particular program was in conjunction with “Festooned” an exhibition that showed Juvenal Sansó’s floral work, one of his more iconic amid his seventy-year practice. “Festooned” focused on the role art-making had in healing Sansó’s World War II trauma. With Gang, we both agree that art and creative endeavors help keep people calmer. We also have targeted call center agents to be part of our audience. They are 1,25 million here in the Philippines. They have erratic schedules, high performance targets, and a large percentage of them focus on customer complaints, which is quite stressful. I think that the only way for us to continue into the future is to make ourselves relevant, not only to our usual visitors, but also to the immediate community we are in, which is lower middle class. And they are often intimidated by museums.
I find that the best way to work with a team is by having regular huddles over food and coffee as a project progresses. Generally, we try keeping everything as open, light, and fun as possible.
I find studio visits very important in order to know an artist. Here in noisy and hot Metro Manila, a lot of artists usually sleep during the day and work at night. I have found myself hanging out with artists and discussing their work in their studios at 1AM, lingering till early morning. It happened with artists such as Marc Gaba, a painter, award-winning poet, and multi-media artist, who whose work I believe in. I also spend a lot of time chatting with artists on Facebook messenger. I usually do this from 8PM to around 2AM daily, even on non-work days. This is how I engage with a lot of the younger artists, and how I ended up working with Anton del Castillo, whose oil over gold leaf paintings I have presented in the Lopez Museum in 2017. Once the rapport is established there, it’s easier to continue the conversations face to face in their studios later on.
I never curate a show without understanding what drives the artist to create art, and how I can stay true to that while I work on a concept. I have to feel this connection, otherwise, I think the project will not be effectively conveyed.
What I love most about this job is how we try to find creative ways to work around constraints. Working for museums in a country where funding for arts is often self-generated is a constant challenge. I like finding ways to meet that challenge. Last year, we raised around USD 24,000 in a few days by putting up a pop-up exhibition in SM Megamall and selling limited edition archival reproductions of pieces from our collection. We managed to get the space for free because the exhibit focused on the friendship between artist Juvenal Sansó and the mall’s founder, Mr. Henry Sy. Not only did we raise funds, but for four days we presented art, and a little art history, to the mall’s estimated 800,000 visitors during that period.
I could do without the many egos that come with the territory, hahahahaha. There are some creatives and funders who have large egos, and sometimes it slows the work down. There is also a lot politicking that is oh so unnecessary.
To keep sane, I sometimes take a break from social media and enjoy movies or train rides or do different kind of studio visits. For opera singers or contemporary dancers, there is something urgent in their practice, knowing that their bodies will peak at a certain age, and go downhill from there. My favorite studio visit is with opera singers or contemporary dancers, such as Ea Torrado. Watching them rehearse, seeing their dedication, and absorbing the way they express art through their bodies reminds me of why I am in the field. Oh, and I also go to videoke with my friends. Here, in the Philippines, karaoke is just audio, while videoke includes a dedicated room, meal plans and videos. Filipinos love to sing and drink alcohol while eating, videoke is common for both small groups of friends and entire groups of co-workers from the same business department.
When I am not working here I can be found in a coffee shop, in a mall, or a book shop.
If I was an art collector I would collect young, contemporary Filipino artists’ works. And I actually do. I am keen on young artists who can articulate their works visually and verbally. A lot of the artists I collect are queer, such as Marc Gaba, Ginoe, and Jun-jun Sta. Ana.
My latest favourite books are “The Age of Earthquakes: A Guide to the Extreme Present” by Douglas Coupland, Hans-Ulrich Obrist, and Shumon Basar, and “Ways of Curating” by Hans Ulrich Obrist. I just got them online a few days ago.
In curating, when I need to go back to basics I disengage shortly by immersing myself in a scene or an art-form I have not been able to participate in because of work. I return to work after I had my fill.
My perfect holiday is three to five days on a beach with my partner. I usually just go to another part of the Philippines. We are an archipelago of more than 7,000 islands. Another option is to go to other ASEAN countries and just be a tourist, it is easy to organize with little to no planning, no visa needed, each country is culturally unique, and it’s really affordable.
I have a life outside the museum by working with artists and galleries that are not within the usual scope of my institution. I also actively support a local opera group called the Viva Voce Voice Lab, which soprano Camille Lopez Molina and her husband Pablo Mariano Molina started. The group has had more than twenty classical singers join and get into local productions already, and we have been able to send four young singers to study at The Guildhall School of Music & Drama in London to further hone their craft, in the past two years.
If I wasn’t curating I would be a teacher who joins either theater or choir on the side.
Director of the Fundacion Sansó, Manila
Ricky Francisco is a museum worker, currently Director of the Fundacion Sansó, who also maintains an independent curatorial practice. He is based in Manila, Philippines but has worked with Singaporean, Indonesian, Malaysian, and Japanese artists and institutions. He is also in the Collections Asia (CollAsia) Program, a network of museum professionals trained by ICCROM in preventive conservation. He started working for museums since 1999. The exhibitions he curated include Julie Lluch: Irresistible Grace (2020), The Empty Chair Project (2019), Allison Wong David: Space (2018), Hudyat! (2017), The Given Order (2017), Pauses of Possibility (2017), Allison Wong David: Refuge (2017), Sansó: Setting the Stage (2016), Drawing the Lines (2016), Open Ends (2015), Etched in History (2015), Unveiling Sansó (2015), A Child’s Memory (2015), and co-curated “Complicated” (2015).