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Arnold Oliva's approach to collecting involves acquiring art that reflects a broad representation of leading contemporary Filipino artists – guided by the idea that art should hold real meaning for those who spend time with it.

by Stephanie Frondoso

Mild Aesthetic Malfunction, 

Manuel Ocampo and Jigger Cruz,

48x36 inches, 2020

How did your interest in art begin?

I grew up in the province–a certified probinsyano. That meant being exposed to Philippine religious art at a young age: the ornate wooden retablos and santos found in churches and middle-class homes, often the indigenized version of European art, and the rich folk art traditions found in our various regions which were hitherto less vulnerable to the onslaught of popular American culture. Years later while travelling in Mexico, I observed aesthetic similarities between Philippine and Mexican folk art, certainly in the shared preference for gaudy colors and the naïf rendering of the human form.

How did you appreciate and learn about art through
the years?

In the UP Diliman of my time, Humanities was a required course for all students. I was very fortunate to have had a kind and quietly passionate professor who introduced us to the greatest achievements of human civilization in the arts, albeit with a certain bias for Western art. The campus is also a veritable museum (e.g. a Manansala mural in the lobby of Palma Hall, a mural by Joya in the newly completed College of Business building and the modern Church of the Holy Sacrifice, a masterpiece by leading Filipino modernists of the 1950s).

What kind of art did you first start collecting? Did you keep these early works? 

Two decades ago, I was first drawn to prominent Filipino artists grounded on figurative expressionism and social realism, frequently rendered in surrealist imagery. They were unafraid to tackle harsh societal issues and raise vexing questions about our culture and society.

Maybe because for me, the images they created looked familiar; they resemble the art of late 19th century Europe when the masses were fighting for higher wages amidst rapid industrialization, ensuing income disparities, and terrible living conditions in overcrowded cities. Most galleries carried their works and they were then relatively easy to acquire. I also collected abstract artists who were outside the commercial mainstream. The seemingly random and frenzied brush work and color permutations appealed to me at the gut level. One or two have since become highly bankable, though the rest are still highly accessible. I have kept some while pruning the collection to sustain current and future acquisitions.  

Artworks by Leo Abaya (image of rice field gallery installation), Rocky Cajigan (large painting), John Santos (cement sculpture),

Johanna Helmuth (metal sculpture)

Has your taste evolved over time? What kind of work
do you collect now? 

Instead of evolving, I prefer broadening my taste in art over time, honed by visiting modern art museums like the Centre Pompidou, the Guggenheim and the MOMA, and by attending art fairs here and abroad, as well as significant cultural exhibits like the Venice Biennale.

I stay away from my comfort zone when acquiring art to encompass different genres, expressions and emerging artists, including those who are not bankable and may never be. For my collection, I aim for a broad representation of the leading contemporary Filipino artists of the post-1990s period. 

In my view, the Peggy Guggenheim Museum in Venice sets the standard for managing a private modern and contemporary art collection. I admire the depth and breadth of the collection, contained within a relatively small space in the only modern structure along the Canale Grande. Despite the limited space, many of the groundbreaking artists and art movements of the 20th century are represented. The sheer diversity of the exhibition is phenomenal, with each piece distinct from the rest. It is hard to be jaded with every corner offering a different perspective of modern art. In contrast to institutional museums, the artworks are relatively modest in size, a scale suitable for display in a residence, not a grand palazzo. I would like this to be the overriding philosophy of my collection. 

What do you enjoy most about having an art collection? 

I consider it a great privilege and responsibility to be able to live with art. I enjoy the curatorial challenge of hanging and grouping the artworks in a way that is unexpected or unpredictable. 

It is a highly rewarding exercise if done right, albeit very time-consuming. By responsibility, I refer to the numerous maintenance, proper storage and documentation tasks involved in managing a collection. 

Where do you think collecting is headed in the future? 

We will likely see more younger collectors; that’s just a function of our demographics. They will gravitate towards art that appeals to the younger crowd. Compared to before, a higher percentage of new collectors will be driven by monetary considerations. I expect more cross border shows that will test the mettle of our artists and promote interest in Philippine art to a wider and more competitive global audience.  

What advice would you give to young collectors?

Not to limit themselves to what everyone describes as “hot” and “amazingly realistic, nice and beautiful” since these are not the only metrics for collecting. If these were the only ones, we would still be stuck in the neoclassical period.

Consider such important metrics as the artist’s contribution to Philippine art, the conceptual underpinning and ideas behind the work of art, and the innovativeness and inventiveness of the artist. Art trends and hype

do not last. Be familiar with global contemporary art movements to avoid being parochial. 



Arnold Oliva

I was also exposed to artists-in-residence, Joya and Abueva, who were still both teaching and highly visible on campus. In graduate school abroad, I took a non-credit elective course in Italian Art History, focusing on the Quattrocento (15th century). I was so obsessed with the subject that for a while, I developed a quasi-expertise on Italian city states, the leading families of the period, and the kind of artists and art they supported.  This obsession lingered such that, even while I pursued a career in economics and finance, one of my travel goals had always been to see the masterpieces of the Renaissance in person. For instance, I was so thrilled to have seen in Venice Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, which is rarely on display, and in Krakow Poland, da Vinci’s The Lady with an Ermine.

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