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Amid Art Fair Season, Whose Work Goes Unseen?

“Please eat <3”

During the Singaporean art fair ART SG, I saw these words handwritten on a Post-it and stuck on the wall of our gallery booth’s storage room. The storage room is often a dark and dusty place, cramped with artworks, toolkits, bubble wrap, and trash. But for me, as a gallery worker, it became a respite—a quiet place to catch my breath between hours of standing, chatting, and trying to sell art. When I saw this sign, I smiled. I appreciated the gentle command. It’s easy to forget to eat during what is arguably the busiest, most exhausting, and most exhilarating period of the year for art workers: fairs.

It’s art fair season in Manila. Art Fair Philippines, now in its 11th year, closed on February 18. ALT Philippines, a newer fair established in 2020, opened to the public three days later. And Art in the Park, known as one of the country’s more affordable art fairs, launches mid-March. On the surface, these fairs exude glamour and fun. Loud, vibrant works of art—at times worth six figures in US dollars—compete for your attention. VIPs don bright and outlandish clothes, looking almost like artworks themselves. Everyone seems to have a wine glass in hand.

Art fairs see throngs of enthusiastic visitors. All images courtesy of Art Fair Philippines.

But is it glamorous for everyone? Behind the scenes, hundreds of people—gallery staff, art handlers, and cultural workers—form the backbone of these fairs. And this backbone at times does literal back-breaking work. In their art project Proof of Work, Cebu-based art collective KoloWn invited strangers to fill-up a timesheet, recording their day’s activities. One particular sheet reveals a day in the life of an anonymous “gallery serf”. Tasks included: Carry 100 kg in heels. Suddenly become a curator. Survive art fair with a daily meal of one dry croissant and a coffee. The pay? Minimum wage. “Be prepared to be invisible in the art scene,” the gallery serf wrote in their notes. “But remember to only do it out of love.”

Passion and pressure

I spoke with Philippine art workers during this chaotic season, coaxing them out of the shadows.

“Don’t get me wrong—this is my dream,” says Gwen Bautista. She is currently director at the Manila-based MONO8, which has participated in Art Fair Philippines since 2020. Before her art career, she worked in a corporate environment for 15 years. But there was not a single day when she believed she would stay there. Her heart was in the arts. “This is the job that I really wanted to do … Now I’m experiencing a lot of growing pains,” she says. When she began working at the gallery, she was the only employee. She restructured the gallery’s operations, oversaw its move to a new location, and arranged its inventory. Living the dream, at one point, entailed sleeping in the gallery for months.

Fair workers in action.

For art workers, fairs represent the culmination of months of labour. Jemaimah Campos is a manager at the Bacolod-based Orange Project—one of the few local, artist-run galleries from outside the Metro Manila region that participate in Art Fair Philippines. She says she feels butterflies in her stomach before every fair. For gallery staff, there is the pressure to execute a good booth—but, as the face of the gallery, to look presentable, too. “[You must look] like you didn’t just sleep for two hours,” she says, laughing.

In the weeks leading up to the fair, gallery workers frantically meet deadline after deadline. They submit exhibit concepts to organisers. They coordinate with artists to create new works. They pack and deliver dozens of works, then carefully install them at their booths. But they feel the greatest pressure on the actual fair days—the pressure to sell.

Where do the profits go?

According to the 2023 Art Market Report by Art Basel and UBS, galleries reported that they derived 35% of their business in 2022 from participating in fairs. For spaces like Orange Project, Art Fair Philippines is especially crucial—collectors are concentrated in Manila, and harder to come by in the country’s other regions. “That’s why we’re also trying our best to present a really great show,” says Campos, “so that we can sustain the whole year at Orange.”

MONO8 participates in international fairs such as S.E.A. Focus and Art Dubai, but Bautista shares that Art Fair Philippines is their biggest fair of the year. “It’s kind of a make or break thing,” she says. As with Orange Project, fair sales sustain their operations for the rest of the year, including their exhibition and mentorship programmes. The profits also allow them to explore more ambitious projects. “[A]t the moment the market is probably not favourable to these practices,” says Bautista, “but they’re important.” 

A quiet moment.

Teams of artists, assistants, sales people, designers, and installers thus work overtime to present stellar booths. Yet, when galleries do succeed, the rewards don’t always trickle down. Sayoka Takemura, curator and head of projects at MONO8, observed that those who exert the most manual labour, such as art handlers, tend to receive the smallest share of profits. “Which I find really strange,” says Takemura. “Because even with the artists, and even if the director and curator have ideas in mind, [these are] all just ideas if no one’s able to put it up for them in the way they want.”

I remember seeing an artwork years ago, which vividly captured this jarring contrast in the art world. The painting, titled Babala sa Abala, is by social realist artist Antipas Delotavo. A gold, ornate frame is painted on the centre of the canvas — but the image inside it is pure white, almost as if it were erased. Instead, Delotavo directs us to look outside the frame, where he paints the banal, everyday lives of workers. A woman looks down at her broom; a man holds a rag like an extension of his arm. Below the gold frame, a labourer rests. In English, the rhyming title roughly translates to: “A word of caution to the busy.” The work reminds us that the polished frames and floors of the art world always come at a cost. 

Chaos and joy behind the scenes

Lester Amacio has been an exhibition preparator—one who ensures the safety and proper handling of artworks—for 10 years. He works for the logistics company Hasenkamp, and has worked with renowned institutions across the world, from the Louvre Abu Dhabi to the Guggenheim Museum. He is also an artist. He sees his day job as a means to keep his family financially stable—a path he encourages other Filipino artists to take. There is a long-held stigma that having a day job as an artist is a mark of failure, but Amacio says that having money enables you to do more as an artist. “I can call [someone] and say hey, can you do a stretcher like this?” He tells me that many art handlers he works with abroad are artists, too.

During fairs, Amacio sometimes works 19 hours a day, installing works for 12 to 15 galleries. It’s a physically and mentally demanding job. When there is no curator, he takes charge. He constructs walls. He builds pedestals for sculptures. He solves problems on-the-spot, figuring out if he needs to bore a hole underneath a sculpture, or reinforce a wall if it cannot carry a work. “As an exhibition preparator, you need to research and research and research,” says Amacio. You have to be good at math and physics. You have to make formulas that work for you. Sometimes, you have to deal with other workers who steal your drill.

Despite the challenges, Amacio finds joy in being behind the scenes. “Even when there’s lots of shouting,” he says with a laugh.

Months of work go into readying the booths for visitors.

Campos, too, is content with quietly working in the background. “You are part of the success of something, even if you’re just at the back. You are part of it. Even if your name is not mentioned, you are part of it.”

She believes that, as a cultural worker, she is here to help artists.

She tells me about a moment during last year’s Art Fair Philippines which remains vivid in her memory. A high-profile patron visited their booth. The participating artists who flew to Manila from Bacolod for the fair—many of whom were young—began to explain their works to her. Campos witnessed both the patron and the artists become teary-eyed as they spoke. 

“This is what I appreciate the most in my work,” she says, “when I see artists move an audience.” 

Oftentimes, the efforts of art workers go unnoticed.

These cultural workers are the backbone of art fairs—and perhaps more broadly, the art world. Backbones are beneath the skin, invisible to the eye, but they dictate the shape of our bodies. They help us stand tall.

As galleries increasingly rely on art fairs to survive, this metaphorical backbone—as well as  the literal backs of our workers—experiences strain and fatigue. “This is no way to run an art world,” art critic Jerry Saltz writes for Vulture about the continued dominance of art fairs. “But it’s what we’re stuck on now.” 

But if the art fair isn’t going anywhere, how can we make this system more humane? Can a fair look beyond mere profit to take better care of its workers—the backbone without which the whole thing would crumble?  

Perhaps we can start by returning to that gentle command. We can look among ourselves, and ask: Is everyone here able to eat?


Read our article on another Philippine art fair here.

Header image: Behind the scenes at Orange Project’s booth.

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