Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — In 2006, when Silverlens Galleries first opened its doors on Pasong Tamo Extension, there was nothing but car shops on the avenue. The advertising agency Ace Saatchi & Saatchi had not yet opened. Nor had Whitespace, the popular events space, nor Hope Christian School and Ecoplaza.
"Well, there was also," Rachel Rillo quips, "no traffic."
Gallery directors Isa Lorenzo and Rachel Rillo opened Silverlens Galleries on Pasong Tamo Extension in 2006. The space, which used to be a music school, was located above what became a car shop. "The landlord said, well, if you can build the stairs, you can get that place for cheap. And if you can build a bridge, you can get that place for cheap," Lorenzo says. "That's how it happened."
"I really wanted to move into a warehouse space and this was the closest [within the Makati area] that had warehouses," she continues. "That's something that I think we pioneered [in terms of local art galleries]. At the time, the rent was so low, it was nothing."
"When Silverlens opened in 2006, we did a press launch and no one showed up," Rillo says, laughing. "No one! I was so traumatized. I told Isa, 'What are we doing?'"
Almost 11 years later, Silverlens — which closed shop in September 2016 — reopened a few doors down from its original location. "A lot have confirmed," Lorenzo says about the press launch. It's a relief but it's not exactly unexpected. "We've been building it for over 10 years," she adds.
In the last 10 years, Silverlens Galleries has confidently established itself as one of the top galleries in the country. In the Ateneo Art Awards, one of the most prestigious local art prizes, the gallery has been known to dominate. Several Silverlens artists have garnered international recognition through the years — Maria Taniguchi won the prestigious Hugo Boss Asia Art award, Patricia Perez Eustaquio held a solo show in Palais de Tokyo, one of Europe’s top contemporary art museums, and Martha Atienza has recently been shortlisted for the Asian edition of the Benesse Prize. Gregory Halili has been featured on international taste-making blogs like High Snobiety. And in the last Singapore Biennale, four of the five artists who represented the country were from Silverlens.
The gallery's omnipresence is so that even in the recently concluded Metro Manila Film Festival, the trophy — a sculpture with the map of Metro Manila rendered using mirrors at the bottom — was designed by Ryan Villamael, a Silverlens artist, in a take on his "Behold A City" show.
The move to a bigger, better space then, comes at the perfect time for the gallery. "Well, our landlord kind of kicked us out," Lorenzo admits, laughing. "That's the catalyst … When we were renegotiating the rent, which had now become three times what we were paying in 2006, the landlord's like, 'We want to tear down the building,' — which is I think code for 'We want to double the rent.' We couldn't afford so we decided to look for another dead space. And this was a dead space. They weren't using it. It had been empty for two years."
"I think we really had to move out of that space because we had already outgrown it," Lorenzo continues. "That space just kept on growing as we grew. We would rent more and more. With this space, at least we got a bigger space that we could design ... this space is a culmination of everything we've learned about a gallery, having a gallery space,” she says. “It's not just the gallery, you know, you have to have viewing rooms, and VIP rooms, and storage, an area that feels like a living area."
Manpower had also become a big concern toward the end. "When we left the other space, what was our parang library area was already staff area. There was no more room," Rillo says. "When we started, that area was built for four people. But when we left there were already 14," Lorenzo continues.
The new Silverlens has a main gallery, a small gallery, a room for private viewing, a proper library, a bigger office for the staff, storage areas, a pantry and kitchen, three small studios, and a workshop space — a full service gallery.
"Pio Abad was here, the first artist who saw it, he passed by yesterday," Rillo says. "He goes, this is such a great space because you could put one thing or you could put many things and it would hold and I think that's good. Because you can have a big space and it can be daunting. Artists are always so worried about filling up a space. But I think this one can hold something — whether it's small or big, a lot or few."
"When we started Silverlens in 2004, the galleries were the size of this room, which is why we did 20 square [space]," Lorenzo adds. "Because all galleries were 20 square meters. Many of them were mall-based or really just an office where they put art up on the walls. So when the warehouses started, when we started, Finale [Art File], Manila Contemporary, artists thought that they needed to make big work. Horror vacui eh parang lahat dapat may laman, diba?"
"It was sort of naive,” she adds. “It was a naive thought that because the space is large, it has to be full. But artists have also learned that, okay, if a work is small but it can carry a space, it's strong enough, it's well done enough to carry a space, that's enough. That was what Pio was saying.”
For Silverlens' new home, Lorenzo and Rillo turned to the same person they worked with on the first gallery — architect Anna Sy of CS Design. Lorenzo initially found Sy when, looking for an architect, she chanced on a friend's new home and saw someone with an interesting mind. "It was a very unusual house in that, you enter what looks like the back of the house. You enter through the garden, through the pool, through the lanai, and then there's the house. So I thought she would make an interesting architect [for the gallery]. She thinks differently."
True enough, upon meeting Sy, they discovered that the bulk of her work was exactly what they needed — clean and minimal. "I think with her particularly, in comparison to other architects, it's really about space," Rillo says. It's not about the details and the claddings. It's really about volume."
Built within an empty warehouse at the back of the Lapanday property — which Lorenzo's family owns — the new structure promises to once again make Manila's gallery-going public reconsider what an art gallery is supposed to look like.
In the main gallery, for example, massive LED panels give the impression of a skylight, of natural light wafting into the gallery giving light to the art. They ordered the lights from an Italian supplier and it was the first time that the supplier made the panels this big. "I think I gained 15 pounds since from the stress of the lights," Rillo says. "That was a little daunting because it hadn't been done here."
Some of the structure's other unique touches are smaller but no less apparent. "Our project manager was so freaked out that our restroom upstairs is communal," Rillo says. "'Kasi po, ang mga lalake…' Because they also don't know that the people who will come in won't mind. We don't care. People we know who'll come won't care… And there are bathrooms downstairs that are 'male' and 'female' if they're worried about that, labels. It's a different way of using space in general."
The new Silverlens opens with Translación, a group show featuring the gallery's represented artists curated by Gary Ross Pastrana, and Echo, a solo exhibit by Gregory Halili. For the group show, Lorenzo says each artist will have one or two older work alongside their new work. "It's a full circle."
"It's really exciting," Lorenzo says. "We wouldn't have known what to do — what we needed — even five years ago with this space. But it feels like we want to live here. You come in here and it's so contained. You just want to hang out. That's the feeling that we wanted to get."
Silverlens Galleries is at 2263 Chino Roces Ave Ext., Makati, 1231 Metro Manila. The new location will open on Saturday, January 7 at 5 p.m. Visit the official website for more details.