After nearly a decade spent studying and working in the European art scene, Jam Acuzar found herself transplanted back to Philippine soil—and missing the cultural stimulation of her previous experiences almost immediately.
The catch? “I didn’t know anything about the Philippine art scene,” she confesses. “And so I had to delve into my own personal research. I would attend exhibition openings by myself, track down artists that I liked on Facebook, organize studio visits, and for the first time, dabble in collecting art.” Eventually, the self-described complete outsider to the local art community found her place among like-minded souls who taught her much about the Philippine art ecosystem.
Moved by this experience, and by her time in Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar (her father Gerry’s collection of ancestral homes in Bagac), she founded the Bellas Artes Projects in 2013 as something of a personal experiment. “I was inspired by one of the houses in the collection, the former Escuela de Bellas Artes that was built in 1867. It was the first art school in the Philippines where our great masters—Juan Luna, Felix R. Hidalgo, and even Jose Rizal—studied. This structure, rich in historical and cultural importance, inspired me to revive the space as one for art.”
What started out as a venue to display the collections of contemporary artists like Geraldine Javier, Alfredo Esquillo Jr., and Renato Habulan led to workshops with local craftsmen and artists like Dex Fernandez; these in turn evolved into Bellas Artes’s current program of international artist residencies. “Right now, Bellas Artes Projects is a registered nonprofit arts foundation, with artist residencies, workshops, and exhibitions curated by artistic director Diana Campbell Betancourt. Our program aims to bring artists from all over the world here to work with our local craftsmen in Bataan and to produce museum-quality works that we can show in our Manila space, Bellas Artes Outpost.”
The gallery formally opened in March with an exhibition by Mexican artist Carlos Amorales. It is one of the latest additions to the bustling complex of The Alley at Karrivin. A repurposed warehouse, the space shares a sort of spiritual commonality with its headquarters in Bataan. “It’s interesting to see the connection of what we do in Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar and the process of converting this into a contemporary art space,” Acuzar reflects.
Mark Wilson of We Design, who collaborated with Acuzar to bring the gallery to life, was inspired by the cultural exchange inherent in the artist residency program. “A very important part of the vision for Bellas Artes Outpost is how artists in residency interact with the craftsmen who run the workshops there. How can exposure to the way an artist thinks and does things change the way a craftsman thinks and does things?” he muses. “Craftsmen in our country are not treated with great respect, so I was curious about this aspect. It led me to use the workshops and their materials in new ways. You can see this specifically in the cement tile, which is mounted on the foyer walls in two variations of thickness, so that it pushes and pulls as you walk by; also on the Salon floor, which is my homage to the topography of Bagac. Both these instances of using cement tile were new and challenging to the workshops and exposed their craftsmen to a new way of thinking about what they could do.”
This fundamental exchange of ideas and fostering of an open relationship with untapped audiences is exactly what Acuzar hopes to achieve. “Our aim is to make people feel welcome to discover new things. All of our exhibitions and programs are free and open to the public because I wanted to break away from this misconception of art being exclusive,” she says. “It’s our way of embracing the art audience with open ears and open arms—by providing spaces for discovery to a wider audience.”