Issue of January 14, 2018

Panagbenga Flower Festival
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Creative City’s “bahala na” attitude towards artists

On Jan. 3, while Baguio was just recovering from New Year hangovers, the Creative Council of Baguio (CCB) was convening at the Tourism Office (East of Burnham Lake) to discuss the launch of Unesco’s “Creative Cities” title during the upcoming Panagbenga.

At City Hall, city officials were addressing the urgent issue: How would management of Panagbenga by the Baguio Flower Festival Foundation Inc. (BFFFI) be shared with the city council? Tremors from the east side were being felt in our west side meeting since the common topic was Panagbenga.

Only after 5:30 p.m. could we have a window at City Hall to consult with the mayor to know the possibility for CCB to use Malcolm Square for the launching of “Baguio, the Unesco-designated Creative City.” Only after I had introduced (on behalf of CCB) our interest in Malcolm Square for the launch did I realize that the dust had not yet settled from the earlier earthshaking talks between BFFFI and the city council.

“Kailangan pag-usapan ng mga stakeholders yan!” was how Mayor Mauricio Domogan opened the conversation. Which is just what the CCB had caucused that afternoon. We did have an initial brainstorming – to complement the city government’s annual celebration via a curated exhibition to inform Baguio’s visitors and citizens about the “Creative City” label.

The mayor added, “In fact Country Club’s Anthony de Leon is willing to give up their prime space atop Session Road.” I began to wonder if the good mayor perceived our creative sector visit was to demand a choice spot for our launch. “Why don’t you exhibit at Panagbenga Park?”

Three days later, the Jan. 6 Baguio Chronicle headline screamed: “Artists wants bigger say in Panagbenga.” The article itself calmly reported our courtesy call. But I wondered, had I contributed to this uncomfortable perception by the Mayor’s Office?

Let’s review: At the CCB meeting earlier, I had lamented the city managers had not institutionalized a respectable relationship vis-à-vis the artists sector. Unlike City Hall’s spelled-out relations with market vendors, jeepney driver’s associations, chambers of commerce etc. our sector was always treated with sporadic bahala na attitude. Every year we start at square one, begging for funds or institutional support. (Mabuti pa ang maralita may regular item sa budget.)

I realized that since 1998, Baguio Arts Guild had got Baguio recognized worldwide as the home of the Baguio Art Festival (BAF). As it was 30 years ago, today we are still lining up to beg city support for artistic activities or recognition.

At the Department of Tourism, I got emotional, when I gave as an example the Baguio Day celebrations. Yes, every year we attend the planning and meetings. We organize ourselves. Pero on Sept. 1, neither there is no budget support for artists’ transportation, or for food. But more crucial, not any allocation for the chalk, so creative kids can draw on Session Road – the centerpiece of Baguio Day. Pati ‘yung chalk na P50 kailangan pang i-squeeze out. Parang last drops out of a toothpaste tube.

At least, during Session Road in Bloom, Malou Galiste gives us artists comfortable support. She respects how the artists liven up Session Road with our yearly giant art installations and performances. Patok at maligaya.

Pero yearly, ganoon ang treatment sa artists ng city. As an elder, how can I encourage our young artists towards volunteerism when they are met with City Hall’s barat attitude towards artists? “Insulto na talaga yan!” That outburst, I blurted at the CCB caucus. (I apologize to Budget Officer Letty Clemente representing City Hall for my loss of cool.)

It’s a Jurassic attitude since the ‘80s. Yes, the BAF doesn’t generate millions like Panagbenga. In some small way, it generated modest hotel bookings, and restaurant revenues. And more significantly, BAF spurred a lot of national press reports, and internationally too! Baguio Arts Guild put Baguio on the world stage of respectable art events.

Okay, let’s stop juxtaposing the quantifiable impact our art festivals. Little “Davids” shouldn’t be compared to Panagbenga’s Goliaths, when Baguio’s hotels are bursting to the seams (and the traffic too). While the effect on elementary kids and high school students to appreciate their Cordillera heritage are unquantifiable. That’s the problem.

Unesco’s goal: The “creative economy” recognizes the unquantifiable contribution of local art/culture to the measurable output of businesses that use the talents of artists. But why should the calculations of per-capita incomes become the politicians’ sole criterion of the value of artists’ contribution? Siguro, artists will be accorded solid recognition, only when our balance sheets – like those of malls and call centers are acknowledged in the city’s coffers? Hallelujah!

So why did I decide to help in the inter-sectoral ferment of the Creative Council of Baguio? Perhaps along the way, Unesco’s clout can affect our officials’ mindsets – like stop viewing us artists as negligible pockets of voters.

City Hall should adopt Unesco’s frame that artists have incalculable contributions to future generations (yes, to the ;anaks, and apos of each councilor, mayor and congressman of Baguio.)

To be fair, I must acknowledge that city officials always accord me respect. Yes as a Baguio-born son of former mayor Gene de Guia. And thanks for the congratulatory city council resolutions and Outstanding Citizen trophies.

With the Unesco CCB initiative among the creatives of Baguio, I began to dream that all Baguio artists – big and small (not just the Bencabs and Kidlat Tahimiks) be regarded as crucial to Baguio’s sustainable future. And sana, respetuhin kaming mga artists kasi we have more to contribute to Baguio than those “artistas” on floats (who hijack attention of fans from the flower artistry of Panagbenga.)

By the way, that opinion about movie stars was an incidental topic I had broached with the mayor. He respectfully replied to me “Yes, I agree that movie stars can take away attention from the artistry of floats, but…” and he elaborated on the right of corporations (who spend up to P750,000 for their floats) to squeeze out whatever advertising mileage they can on their investment. Yet another instance where economic arguments overrule the aesthetics of the Panagbenga.

I did not debate the marketing agenda. I tried to point out that Panagbenga is big enough to set rules of curation. (Even TV giants have to respect the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board’s protocols.) Very diplomatically, I reminded the mayor that in Panagbenga 2005 (the only year BFFFI did not run the Flowerfest), when I was the artistic director, we made rules for floats: Strictly no overt advertising on floats (like no giant cellphones or giant soft drinks/ hamburgers made of flowers.) No film stars or candidates can be allowed in the parades. In 2005, corporate participants respected the rules. Yes I forcefully yanked out the Eat Bulaga “Sex Bomb” dancers on a float from the parade (but that’s another story.)

Panagbenga is big enough to create its artistic protocols so that the theme of bulaklak is not lost to overeager advertisers who hijack the Panagbenga into a parade of products made of flowers. The organizers should be self-confident it can implement rules. And Manila big-time contestants do comply because the prestige of our Pangabenga is legend. Why cheapen the “flowerness” of Panagbenga with mileage agendas of commerce? My brother, Damaso Bangaoet, the “father of Panagbenga” must be rolling in his grave.

After that brief digression, the mayor’s meeting got back to the topic of CCB launch -- now joined by councilors Elmer Datuin and Mylen Yaranon. It was a clear signal to dialogue with the new partners of BFFFI. CCB had to talk with the city council.

An interesting point came out when Councilor Datuin said that the CCB could use Malcolm Square – “subject to usual rents.” Although he added “…at subsidized rentals,” the mayor countered that CCB booths could be for free. Yes, Virginia, it still boils down to getting every tiangge peso out of every participant.

Precisely, this was the main point before we left the Tourism Office. “We should not go to City Hall begging for space.” Baguio is the main beneficiary of the Unesco honor. It is in support of this award, CCB’s proactive initiative should be viewed. We are not the normal commercial tenant (e.g. cellphone companies or shawarma stalls.)

Perhaps this was perceived as being “demanding” just as the Chronicle headline “Artists want bigger say in Panagbenga.” Perhaps the politicians read it in terms of power-struggles. Palibhasa sobrang big grosser ang Flowerfest.

Do officials feel threatened because they read in the headlines “Artists want bigger pay in Panagbenga?” How can we convince them otherwise? Sorry, pero most of us just want to see an innovative/relevant festival not so overly commercialized that you don’t smell the flowers anymore. We just want our opinions to be considered. But, you officialdom will have the final say if having John Lloyd or Anne Curtis on the float will increase the prestige of your city. We just wanted to steer the aesthetics of the events away from the “Eat Bulaga” tastes promoted by crass commercialization. That beautiful Panagbenga vision that the late Damaso Bangoet had envisioned should not be compromised.

Yes, there is always a variety of tastes. And artists do not have a monopoly of beautiful taste. But our collective expertise should be weighed in (like if Ambuclao Dam would bog down, you would consult electrical/hydraulic engineers to solve an energy crisis). We are not out to usurp any power from our officials. We wish to empower them with our special eyes/hearts in the assessment of beautification of the city or embellishing the float parade or enhancing a park by volunteering our humble expertise. You can listen and then craft policies based on your real politik frame. Be confident that the power remains with you as elected officials. The power over budgets remain with you.

Your efficient allotment of resources can be improved by listening to those who have some specialized insights to contribute. In the end you can use or ignore our suggestions, but if at least you listened with respect then your mandate to your citizenry is exercised by getting the best from all worlds – not just from those who can build malls or create jobs.

Mr. Mayor, a decade ago just before Baguio’s centennial, I had offered you to form an advisory council of artists to be consulted regarding all those centenary monuments proposed for (obelisks, busts, parks etc.) to allow curation by the city over donated statues and memorials. Remember, I offered you my services for P1 a year. We would have no economic power or veto power on proposed centennial projects – just an extra opinion to help the city’s decision ride with some artistic guidelines.

Today, that is what I see in the creative council – the possibility of an institutionalized exchange with your creative citizens. It can function as an official pipeline for legislative and executive to access guidelines in beautifying our city. Yes, a council of various opinions you could listen too, and yes so you can deflect any criticism of the public like the last Christmas Tree. Like you said, so that not everybody blames the mayor for everything.

But at the last meeting, I saw that even the executive and legislative could not even agree on Panagbenga rental policies. It seemed to me there was a continuing lack of appreciation for our unquantifiable contributions even in the simple difficulty of agreeing on a CCB space (where to be? Should we pay rent?), which to me shows commercialization of Panagbenga reigns supreme.

And so whatever the headlines suggest and no matter how we assure you we are not part of the power struggle such perceptions will continue to contribute to the artists being in the peripheries.

For this I feel it will be a waste of time for me to sit in with the creative council’s wish to join Panagbenga. Also, as a passionate voice I do not want to jeopardize the Creative Council of Baguio’s vision in working with the city council during Panagbenga.

So, I will continue to support the Creative Council of Baguio in their long run goal to make Unesco’s title a permanent one, even as I pull myself out of this current situation.

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