Do we need a ‘Department of Culture’?

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The establishment of a Department of Culture may be potentially beneficial for artists and cultural workers, but its implementation should also be criticized. Illustration by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — The proposal for a Department of Culture is now making its way through both the House and the Senate. With that, this essay explores how an act for a new government institution might be necessary. It also ruminates on why it deserves to be criticized.

The (current) state of the arts

Since 1992, the Philippine’s National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) has served as the country’s de facto Ministry of Culture, tasked with the preservation, development, and promotion of Philippine artistic and cultural production. This is done largely through policy-making and grant-giving, coordinated with the National Endowment Fund for Culture and the Arts, or NEFCA, a fund exclusively created for the implementation of culture and arts programs and projects.

On top of the grants program, the NCCA is also in charge of two education programs: the School of Living Traditions which safeguards indigenous practices — particularly endangered because of their ephemeral nature — and the Philippine Cultural Education Program, or PCEP, which envisions “A NATION OF CULTURALLY LITERATE AND EMPOWERED FILIPINOS” (in ALL CAPS and italics, as per their website). Finally, the NCCA administers both the Order of National Artists and the Gawad Manlilikha ng Bayan, a responsibility shared with the Cultural Center of the Philippines.

Despite the massive scale and complexity of its mission, the NCCA remains a humble agency. Situated inside the walled city of Intramuros, it houses a small gallery on its first floor and employs a lean staff of about 30 people. From this, plans to altogether abolish the commission and reorganize it to more adequately address the needs of a nation are in the works through Senate Bill 1528, or the Department of Culture (DOC) Act. Authored between July 31 and Aug. 2, 2017, the bill was presented over a year later in Congress as both House Bills 6113 and 6260, receiving mixed reactions and no concrete decision as of yet.

Reorganizing the state (of the arts)

Curator Patrick Flores, who served as a consultant during meetings on the legislation, shares his first impression of the draft as one that needed to be strengthened in terms of theory. Flores points out that “If culture is not adequately theorized, how can the Department craft cultural policy?”

“The main questions in the meetings had to do with the distinction of the Department as an institution in relation to the NCCA and the structure of the Department within which other independent cultural institutions are to find their place,” he shared.

For those already employed in the cultural sector, the DOC would mean greater access not only to career advancement, but to the much-needed legitimization of cultural work.

While the NCCA currently works with six attached agencies, including the Cultural Center of the Philippines, the National Museum system, the National Library, National Archives, National Historical Commission of the Philippines, and the Commission on the Philippine Language (Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino), the new Department will have to coordinate with six additional offices, formerly either unattached, reporting directly to the Office of the President, or currently operating under other Departments. These are the Film Development Council of the Philippines (FDCP), National Book Development Board (NBDB), Intramuros Administration, Nayong Pilipino Foundation, National Parks Development Council, and Design Center of the Philippines.

The linking of these offices to the DOC illustrate not only what will become a broad scope of concern, but the shifting and at times overlapping definitions of culture and the arts in light of the contemporary moment — exactly what Flores was referring to in terms of needing theoretical rigor. In this case, the proposal for the DOC makes it possible to accommodate the popular, the touristic, and the mass-producible, just to describe a few of the sectors which will soon fall under the rubric of a single, centralized office.

A cause of concern, however, is the budget appropriated to sustain the size of the Department upon reorganization. At present, the bill proposes an initial budget of no less than ₱2 billion “for the operation and maintenance of the Department proper.” While this may seem miniscule compared to the spending of other offices, it is enough to prompt lawmakers to seek a possible alternative in the form of new bureaus under the Department of Education.

Rep. Christopher De Venecia (who authored HB 6260) pointed out the inadequacies of this alternative, claiming that education and training formed just one aspect of the proposed bill. Indeed, reorganization under the DOC comes with an elaborate network of new spaces specifically for cultural education. By expanding and subdividing the operations of the School of Living Traditions (SLT) and Philippine Cultural Education Program, the bill appears to attempt evading the usual stigma wherein culture and the arts prioritize elite interests.

By overseeing the growth of the SLT programs to a National Institute of Living Traditions and forming a network of individual workshop schools (or Eskwela Talyer, not to be confused with the existing Escuela Taller under the Spanish Embassy) through the National Institute of Cultural Heritage Preservation, the DOC hopes to take on the massive task of attending to the nuanced concerns of an already fragmented and inherently archipelagic population.

What the DOC could mean for artists and cultural workers

At the bureaucratic level, there are cultural workers who see how a centralized agency, run properly, could be potentially beneficial. Rica Estrada, who is currently in charge of the Visual Arts and Museum Division at the CCP, describes how “If you look at NCCA, they’re also tasked to help us as a cultural institution. Most of the money goes to them … kasi they’re supposed to be the funding arm.”  

But what happens now with NCCA is we have to propose to them, the same way anyone off the street will have to propose to them … which is so tedious, kasi our programs are quite fixed. Every year, we have this number of shows and every year we have this festival.”

The DOC will also form a National Institute of Culture and Arts Management, tasked with training managers, administrators, and professionals. For those already employed in the cultural sector, the DOC would mean greater access not only to career advancement, but to the much-needed legitimization of cultural work.

Curator Patrick Flores regards the proposal with caution. Recalling how — even in the recent past — the state has used cultural production and the arts to mask atrocities.

“Artists should be taken more seriously. Very specialized kasi ang trabaho natin, so we could definitely benefit from some kind of professional regulation and standardization,” says V (name withheld), a museum worker who graduated from the UP Art Studies program.

“For example, kung ma-regulate ang compensation, there would be more interest not only in funding projects or hiring professionals, but in taking the arts seriously,” she explains.

Like Estrada, V has some optimism about how a centralized Department could not only streamline bureaucratic processes, but generally improve working conditions for artists and cultural workers. As described in the bill, culture remains an untapped resource without the structures and systems that institutions and policy could provide. “The fact na wala pa tayong Department of Culture is very telling of how the government feels about us [who work in this sector],” she laments.

Flores however regards the proposal with caution. Recalling how — even in the recent past — the state has used cultural production and the arts to mask atrocities, he warns that “Cultural workers have to guard against the instrumentalization of culture by government that is mandated to foster it.” With this, a Department of Culture would need to be sympathetic not only to the broad and shifting terrain of art practice and aesthetic forms; it would need to remain sympathetic to what makes human — without which there would be no culture.

In light of SB 1528’s Declaration of Policy: to establish a Department of Culture is a necessary step towards unification and modernization, with the goal of nation-building. It is also a means to humanize the nation, a process that may at times resist state prescriptions for unity and modernity.

To conclude (for now), we return to Flores, who states that “How this resistance can be reinscribed into the bureaucracy is an experiment worth exploring.”