Visual artist and gallerist Soler Santos on celebrating West Gallery’s 35th Anniversary with his biggest show yet

For the 35th anniversary of West Gallery, the 12 x 9 x 35 show features nearly a thousand works from close to 300 artists


Visual artist, co-founder, and co-director of West Gallery Soler Santos. Photo by MM Yu.

What started as a daring idea by the late Mauro “Malang” Santos, West Gallery has evolved into one of the country’s trailblazing contemporary art galleries.

Led by the husband-and-wife tandem of Soler and Mona Santos since 1989, West Gallery has emerged as one of the staunchest champions of the development of Philippine contemporary art, serving as a launchpad for the careers of promising young artists and as a home to mid-career and established artists.

A segment of the nearly 1000 works on view at West Gallery’s 12x9x35 show

READ: The Santoses: A family of artists talks about their creative processes

Having survived the Asian Financial Crisis in the late ’90s and eventually surging to become one of the most influential galleries in the Philippines today, West Gallery’s 35th anniversary exhibition stands as a testament to the deep and meaningful relationships forged by the Santos family within the Philippine contemporary art scene.

The 12 x 9 x 35 show will occupy all four exhibition spaces. Photos by Patrick de Veyra

This year’s iteration of West Gallery’s seminal 12 x 9 show is the largest, most ambitious, and most talked-about yet, signaling that the gallery’s best years are still ahead.

Visual artist, co-founder, and co-director of West Gallery Soler Santos sits down with artist and curator Patrick de Veyra to share his insights about leading the country’s pioneering artist-run gallery, curating a massive exhibition of almost a thousand works by nearly 300 artists, and nurturing a healthy ecosystem for Philippine art to thrive.

As curator and organizer, can you walk us through the preparations for the massive “12 x 9 x 35″ exhibition featuring nearly 1,000 works by around 300 artists?”

We really planned for the 35th anniversary of West to be special, and it seemed like the only option was to revive our 12 x 9 exhibition because we can invite a lot of artist friends. The last time the 12 x 9 show was held was in 2010. For our 35th year, it’s really about celebration. I started inviting artists as early as September last year. The challenge was the number of works to be hung. But I really enjoyed seeing the works slowly filling the space.

The 2009 edition of the 12×9 show at West Gallery, Megamall. Photo by MM Yu

Take us back to 1989, the birth year of West Gallery. What was your original vision for West Gallery 35 years ago?

Being a gallerist was not in our plan. First of all, I’m not a marketing person, I’m an artist. My father offered a gallery space for us, rent-free. He also consigned his works to keep us afloat.

Roberto Chabet at the first 12 x 9 exhibition at West Gallery

As the pioneering artist-run gallery in the country, navigating obstacles has been integral to your growth and understanding of both the business and the complex art ecosystem of the Philippines. Can you share the greatest challenge you ever faced as a gallerist?

We opened West Gallery in 1989 when the market was really down. There were really only a few collectors and they only collected works by masters. When we opened a branch at SM Megamall, it acted a little bit like social media at the time in the sense that a lot of people who don’t usually go to galleries or museums got to see art for the first time. I think it really helped a lot in educating the public as far as art was concerned. When people say that the art market is down, I don’t share the same awareness of it or give it so much attention kasi I’m not as focused on numbers or revenue as the end point of mounting shows or maybe because sanay kami sa state ng art scene nung ’90s.

Led by the husband-and-wife tandem of Soler and Mona Santos, since 1989, West Gallery has emerged as one of the staunchest champions of the development of Philippine contemporary art

After surviving the Asian Financial Crisis, how would you describe the ethos driving West Gallery today?

I just want West Gallery to be known as a gallery that respects artists and is fair and honest to them, and also as a gallery that respects the collectors who support us and the artists. One of my personal goals is to educate collectors to support new, young artists so they can continue with their practice. To take their time and decide which works speak to them. To develop their own taste and preferences based on the artwork itself.

For the 12 x 9 x 35 show, Mona Santos, co-director and co-founder of West Gallery, presents some of her latest paintings. Photo by Patrick de Veyra

Your extensive, awe-inspiring body of work attests to your discipline and vision as an artist. How did your studio practice shape your role as a gallerist, and the other way round?

I’m an artist first, a gallerist second. With regard to the gallery, we work as a team. I delegate work to people, and we run as one unit. My wife, Mona, is basically in charge of finance, inventory, and paperwork. My son, Luis, is on top of design and documentation. Carina helps with the write-ups and Isabel helps in the West Gallery Shop. I would like to especially mention Sol Noble who is in charge of sales. She has been with us since the very beginning. This year also marks Sol’s 35th year with West Gallery.

I’m not a typical gallerist. I seldom attend dinners and social functions. I’m basically a very shy person. I just enjoy attending art openings, talking to artists and friends, and looking at art.

Phantom Images by the author. Photo by Patrick de Veyra

What do you feel is the legacy of West Gallery in the Philippine art scene?

It’s hard to explain but I’m just happy that a lot of artists at work now have exhibited at West Gallery early in their careers. I guess I’m just happy to be part of their art journey, na dumaan sila sa West at one point in their careers.

There is a Chinese proverb that states ‘Wealth does not pass three generations.’ Yet, your family has successfully passed down the artist/gallerist discipline across generations. What did your father  Mauro “Malang” Santos teach you about longevity, and what have you imparted to your children regarding West Gallery’s stewardship?”

Tatay was very disciplined with his practice as an artist. He showed us by example and encouraged us to paint or draw every day. He was also very serious about us developing our own style, and would always buy books and art magazines. Our travels were always to see museums and galleries, even when the kids were small and seemed uninterested at that time.

Now, they are the ones who are more informed about important art shows and events and have taken us to new galleries and museums. West Gallery was Tatay’s idea, and he asked us to run it. He didn’t involve himself with the actual running of the gallery but was always there to support us in terms of consignment of his works, which helped us tremendously during the time that sales of new or upcoming artists were very few and far between.

The Santos family (from left) Luis Antonio Santos, Soler Santos, Mona Santos, Carina Santos, and Isabel Santos. Photo from Soler Santos

What are your goals and dreams for West Gallery and the Philippine art scene?

My goal for West in the beginning was to provide a venue for young artists to show their works. I remember Sir Chabet was very happy to hear that we were putting up a gallery and said that we could now give good young artists a place to exhibit. We didn’t know anything about the business but ran it on instinct and guidance from Tatay and Sir Chabet.

We were hardly concerned with sales but were more interested in coming up with good, interesting shows because we had the support of Tatay. These young artists, I’m proud to say, are doing so well today and have become much sought after. These are the same goals we have today, to be able to show good works of new and talented artists. We feel so blessed that we have been able to manage the gallery for 35 years, and still continue with our own art practice, and have our children doing well as well.  Our only dream is to be able to continue to do this for as long as we can.

Has there been a particular quote, proverb, or scripture that has been a steadfast anchor for you, guiding your journey as an artist/gallerist/human being?

I like the verse Proverbs 16:9 which reads, “In their hearts, humans plan their course, but the Lord establishes their steps.”

Can you spot the solitary work by Elmer Borlongan? Photo by Patrick de Veyra

Why are you an artist?
I was surrounded by art all my life, not just by Tatay, but also his peers like Manansala, Legaspi, Olazo, Kiukok, etc… As a teenager, I would hang out with Tatay during his on-the-spot sketching sessions with Mang Enteng, Mang Cesar, Mang Ola, and Ninong Ang. One day, I decided to bring a sketchbook and asked them to do some artwork.

These artworks proudly hang on top of our headboard in our bedroom. This triggered my desire to hang out with artists and quietly learn from them. I was also inspired to do art when I saw my eldest brother Steve following in Tatay’s footsteps. When I was in 3rd year college, I was very fortunate to have my first solo exhibition at the Luz Gallery. So this is probably why I have a soft spot for young and upcoming artists, and that is what led me to have that goal for West.

Also, when I choose who to exhibit, my choices are based on if I like their works and other artists’ recommendations. A lot of these artists have become like family to us, so we support each other through the years.

“I was surrounded by art all my life,” said Soler Santos. Photo by MM Yu

 

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