Considering Access with Joselina Cruz

Joselina Cruz is currently Director and Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design (MCAD), De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde, Manila. Cruz has worked as a curator for the Lopez Memorial Museum in Manila (2001-2004) and the Singapore Art Museum (2005–07). She was a co-curator for the 2nd Singapore Biennale (2008), and a networking curator for the 13th Jakarta Biennale, 2009. She curated the Philippine Pavilion for the 57thVenice Biennale in 2017.  From 2012 she has produced exhibitions with artists such as Michael Lin, Paul Pfeiffer, Lani Maestro, Manuel Ocampo, Tiffany Chung, Michael Lee and Maria Taniguchi at MCAD in Manila (Philippines). She has been invited for curatorial visitorships and residencies amongst which include Asialink, the Mondriaan Foundation, Office for Contemporary Art, (OCA), Norway. and the Center for Contemporary Art (CCA ) in Singapore, and is a Fellow of the Nippon Foundation’s Asian Public Intellectuals Grant. She is currently an Asian Cultural Council Fellow 2019-2020.

MCAD distinguishes its position as a “non-collecting institution”. In a landscape where collections have historically been and continue to be perceived as the raison d’être of museums, why is such a position important or advantageous? What, then, grounds MCAD’s programme and practice?

MCAD was initially positioned as a laboratory for students to experiment, but at the same time there was at its core a proposal to create a collection on the history of design, thus the use of the word “museum” in naming the space. The latter never came to fruition, and when I took on the position as Director, I proposed for it to follow the framework of a kunsthalle (a temporary art space, not-for-profit, and one which, usually, does not have a collection) which allowed for curated exhibitions which would also allow for the space to create an identity or brand. I think at the time when I came in it was important to acknowledge the landscape of the art scene in Manila, and the Philippines in general. Most spaces – museums or otherwise – were collecting spaces, and had been formed from collections by private individuals or families, focusing heavily on Filipino work (historical and contemporary). This was the general pattern amongst spaces in Manila.

One has to realise though that collections are incredibly demanding, of manpower, space and financial backing; and despite the visionary decision to conceive the current space of MCAD, the college still had not realised the potential of their idea with that sort of space. It was an opportunity to engage with another trajectory of institution-building, and being part of a young art and design college that was open, flexible and truly forward-looking, it seemed like it would be a good fit. MCAD, after Marian Pastor Roces, had become an ‘events’ space which would accommodate everything from fashion shows, embassy shows to concerts, independent art events, even becoming an enrolment area. It had turned into a shell, a large industrial space where things could take place, without a distinct idea. I initially proposed a programme of temporary contemporary art exhibitions that would engage with ideas and artists within categories of the local, regional and international. Curatorially it was necessary to engage a wider set of publics and artistic practices, and at the same time have exhibitions and/or artists that considered the architecture of  MCAD. There were, then, few spaces which were looking at bringing in international work, or even the scale of the space that MCAD offered, or afforded contemporary art works.

The programming, at the moment, for MCAD is three exhibitions per year at the space, and one external project. Each year we work on a monographic show, whether retrospective, new commission, or survey (or a combination), and an exhibition which deals with the Philippines. The latter has largely been exhibitions with Filipino artists,  but I have been thinking recently of expanding what it means to produce a Philippine exhibition; what does it mean, what it can become, what it could look like, etc. This is one of the things which has been preoccupying me lately.

As a kunsthalle , MCAD programming has the space to produce large scale contemporary art exhibitions that engage with global concerns through artmaking. The exhibitions are planned way in advance; however, we allow ourselves the flexibility, seeing as we have the capacity to speak to current events and engage with the now, and not end up producing exhibitions which may appear reactionary. The MCAD team is purposely small which allows us to be more flexible, more agile, more responsive.

The notion of access, in its various facets (social, physical, intellectual), characterises MCAD’s vision. What is access to you, and how should it shape the posture of an art institution?

My team and I have now been looking at the manners and meaning of access in an art institution. What is access? I think access means many different things, and does not always redound to audience numbers (although that too is important in other ways, as we all know). But access for cities like New York, London, Tokyo, and Hong Kong surfaces differently from a context like the Philippines. And we become more specific: what is access for us, here at MCAD, which is on the ground floor, which has its main entrance on Dominga Street, whilst housed in a 14-storey college building where students and anyone entering the College need to go through at least three security protocols to enter? This is access, physically. Access to our exhibitions — MCAD is committed to showing contemporary art in its many guises, through independently curated exhibitions, but we are also only one space, thus only one exhibition at any one time. Such specificities and distinctions are important to us.

We have a continually robust public and education programme, which not only address our many publics, but I insist, the many knowledges that enter our doors. Sometimes exhibitions can be so tightly curated, or even over-curated, that there are no spaces where your audiences can ponder on their own terms. The exhibitions are curated with a conceptual backbone, and the works and the artists invited to be part of the show, to engage with the show, necessarily speak to the (exhibition) concept.  While the concept is overarching, there are always various trajectories and many entry points where the audience can question, agree, disagree. And from this sort of curatorial gesture, the learning programmes are shaped. We have produced exhibitions where the conceptual frame questioned the very core of the show, and invited the audience to share their knowledge on the ideas presented by the show with us. A museum is a learning institution, but there are many kinds of learnings, many ways of teaching, and in all directions must permeate the generosity of ideas.

How have the museum’s location within and association with De La Salle – College of Saint Benilde shaped its programming? What are some projects, past or ongoing, that seek to engage with the communities right at the museum’s doorsteps?

Continuing from the previous question, I think the presence of a museum with a conscious direction for learning, gives the College and its constituents a built-in alternative to formal learning, and a space where new ideas can be tested. The college is our first audience. Not just the students, but its faculty and its support staff, the president and his vice-chancellors, everyone who is part of the College of Saint Benilde. We then have our immediate community, which are the barangays to which we belong. We have had artists, speakers and resource people choose to directly speak to the barangays. I have to say that our most direct one was the project we produced with Michael Lin, who was so invested in creating a unique engagement with the surrounding communities that we had pedicabs riding into MCAD to pick up passengers. This was a fantastic opportunity, and while we had already sought to work with the communities before that, this gave us a way to ‘break’ through.

After that, we have continually had visitors from the community come, with less hesitation. We have an Open House each year, where we post fliers inviting the immediate community and only those who are from the barangays get to come and take part in the activities for that day. We now have school children and really, our neighbours (the museum is located in a street of residential homes, student dormitories, a public school, also our entrance faces a sliver of a street which is also a public thoroughfare) who come to the museum to watch our film programme, see the exhibitions, and the children who come use the activity worksheets. The same ones return, time and time again. Often they end up bringing other friends who may not be from their school.

Thinking about audience engagement and outreach at MCAD – we can’t help but notice how put-together and engaging your social media channels (particularly Instagram) are. What are some of the strategies the museum is employing to approach and attract an ever-evolving range of publics?

We have tried to be consistent with our identity, but one that is flexible across all platforms and publics. We have an in-house designer, but each of those announcements, truth be told, gets seen by the entire team. At least once, whether these be Instagram posts, email blasts, etc. An opinion is generated before it’s sent out to the ether. Each one of us in the team is part of a variety of communities, and we take that into consideration; on top of that, we know not only the museum’s publics, but also the publics who use these specific media. I think understanding that your public, as you recognise and say, is ever-evolving, is key to figuring out how to deepen initial contacts and how to bring in a wider audience.