by Stephanie Dychiu

By Stephanie Dychiu

Philanthropist, cultural vanguard, and sometime governor of the Central Bank of the Philippines, Dr. Jaime Laya shares a piece of his collector's mind.

The disease is called collectivitis, and it is infectious and incurable.

Dr. Jaime Laya caught it at a young age, when his father foisted a shoebox-full of used envelopes on him, stamps still attached, to keep him busy and out of trouble. “Since then,” Laya writes in his book Consuming Passions, “I’ve had both continuing passions and casual flings with all sorts of collectibles—animal, vegetable, and mineral.”

The chairmanship of his high school philatelic society was his first managerial role, foretelling an epic future in art and antique collecting that would run parallel with his achievements in business, education, and public service. Retracing these twin paths leaves one feeling that Laya always seemed to be at the right place at the right time, with an enviable knack for spotting talent.

He was certainly born at the right place at the right time. His father Juan wrote the award-winning Commonwealth-era novel His Native Soil, and was friends with the popular painters of his time—Amorsolo, Manansala, and Ocampo. Art and nationalism were fixtures in Laya’s childhood millieu, but he grew up to be . . . an accountant. In the sixties, he became a professor at the College of Business Administration of the University of the Philippines. He struck up friendships with fellow teacher Jose Joya, and radical artist Ang Kiukok. When he became dean of the UP school of business, he cut “ex-deals” with the future masters—paintings for tax deductions—to perk up the school’s dreary walls. In his own office, he hung a market scene bought for P35. The painter was Cesar Buenaventura.

In the mid-seventies, Laya became Budget Minister. To spruce up his department’s mind-numbing annual report, he got an artist to make drawings for the cover. The artist was Onib Olmedo. Thanks to collectivitis, Laya had the foresight to save the original sketches for posterity.

In 1981, he was appointed Governor of the Central Bank and Chairman of the Monetary Board. While grappling with the Balance of Payments deficit, the Latin American debt crisis, and various emergencies wrought by the assassination of Ninoy Aquino, he went on an art acquisition mission (“statistics on growth and trade are not enough to know a country and its people”). Cesar Legaspi, Arturo Luz, Anita Magsaysay-Ho, and Ramon Olazo were prevailed upon to donate works. Priceless pieces from all over the country were rescued from mite, mold, and mildew, such as the only signed oil painting of Damian Domingo found in a bodega of the Paterno family, and a rare interaction work by H.R. Ocampo’s Saturday group of artists, signed by “half a dozen of the brightest lights of Philippine art”, gathering dust at Rustan’s Galerie Bleue. Gold pieces dating back to the pre-Hispanic barter trade were also added to the Central Bank’s Money Museum.

For these and other accomplishments as Chairman of the Intramuros Administration and the National Commission for Culture and Arts, Laya is lauded as the man who gave the nation palpable reminders of its cultural identity.

It was all serendipitous, of course. Laya did not consciously set out to amass the collections he built for public and private enjoyment. In his book, he jokingly ascribes collectivitis to a “hunting gene” that causes people to “diligently search for paint on fraying canvas”, “gurgle over chipped little jars with brown spots”, and “gleefully drag home cannon, bell, plow, or creaky bed”. In prehistoric times, homo erectus stalked rhino and lugged it to his cave. Today, Laya snares “armless, legless, sometimes headless” santos to bring home.

“I was always collecting one thing or another, beginning with stamps, coins, then books,” he says on the afternoon of our visit at his office in Philtrust Bank, where he currently serves as chairman. “The first paintings I ever saw were from my grandmother. She had these two little amateur paintings, done by a friend. Yun ang tinitignan ko nung maliit ako.” The first painting he bought was the 35-peso Cesar Buenaventura that hung in his office in UP. It was followed by an Amorsolo, a wedding gift to Laya and his wife.

Naturally, collectivitis made Laya itch to find companions for his lonely Amorsolo. Budget was tight, so he researched before making any purchases. He took note of the pieces art galleries chose to exhibit, and observed what knowledgeable friends bought. He studied the works that won competitions. He played secret judge at shows, comparing his personal picks with the works critics praised or vilified in the newspapers.

“People were more fortunate before, when there were real art critics in the newspapers,” he says. “Today, what’s published is simply a biography of the artist, and a plain description of the exhibit. ‘This gallery opened, this artist exhibited, he’s a graduate of UP, or UST, he’s exhibited before, and he paints flowers.’ Ganun lang. There’s no judgment. Before, we had critics like Leo Benesa and Rod Paras-Perez. They didn’t care who got mad at them. They just said what appealed to them and what did not. And it helped develop the judgment of readers like me who were uninformed. This is why Contemporary Art Philippines is an important contribution. Through it, people can have an idea of what is good or bad. They don’t necessarily have to believe it, but at least they will see how other people think.”

Art enthusiasts feel a constant need to have their judgment validated, and Laya says even he still feels that need up to now. Price is the most obvious indicator of value, but his rule these days is “maganda at mura”. Better to acquire a nice work by an unknown, than a lousy work by a famous name. In his book, he cautions against “artists not above mounting their own publicity campaigns”, who build careers out of media hype. He also laments the practice of producing “large-format books lavishly illustrated in color with so-so works”, done by some dealers to hock mediocre work to people who go for “book pieces”.

With these ploys proliferating, what becomes of authenticity in the art market? “That’s the traditional question that has never been answered,” Laya chuckles. “Rembrandt, for instance, was very popular in the early stages, but eventually, nobody bought his works anymore. In the end, it was his works that nobody wanted that stood the test of time. Same with Van Gogh. In his lifetime, I think he sold only one painting, but now he is the record-breaker. So to me, collectors should just collect what they like, and painters should paint what they think is best.” He says he has never bought a painting he didn’t like but thought would appreciate in value. “Swerte na lang that most of them did.”

Wish lists no longer plague him. “Painting is just something I enjoy. Okay lang kahit wala akong makita. In fact, better nga kung wala akong mabili eh, at least the money is still with me! If I find something, I’m happy. If I don’t find something, I’m not unhappy.”

Things have a way of finding their way to him, anyway. “Sometimes it takes twenty years. There was one watercolor I saw in a book printed in 1958. Nakalagay doon kung sino may-ari. I kept track of it. Painted by Jose Honorato Lozano, a nineteenth century artist. It took thirty years. Tinatandaan ko lang siya. Serendipity lang naman yan.” He points to a small Santo Niño kept under glass on one table in his office. “I saw that in a book on Philippine religious imagery by Fernando Zobel in the late sixties. I got it in the eighties. Twenty years. Inabangan ko lang siya.” How to hunt for a random relic seen in a random book? “Lagi mo lang i-on ang radar mo, baka sakaling nandiyan. When I’m really interested in something, I remember. I don’t necessarily pursue, but I remember. And then"—the power of visualization—"it shows up."

Will he ever open more of his personal collection to the public? “Well . . . there are better things in the Intramuros Museum, but nobody goes there,” he hedges. “How many visitors are there in the National Museum? You go there at any one time, siguro you have less than a dozen willing visitors. Yung mga unwilling, yun ang mga estudyante na nakapila na ikot ng ikot.” And why is that? What prevents art from gaining a broader audience? “First, it’s a matter of education. Why does the elite appreciate art but the masa does not? Because teachers in public schools are less interested in art than teachers in private schools. Maybe the thing to do is to improve teacher education, so it has more elements of art and culture. Second, maybe the media should have greater coverage of real art criticism. Newspapers, television, they cover fashion and cooking very well, they cover home décor, makeup, skin improvement. Maybe they should also have greater coverage for fine arts. Interiors is a good starting point, because you have visual arts there.”

Laya has accummulated countless masterpieces for the national patrimony as well as his personal collection, but one of his top three favorites is still the amateur painting that fascinated him as a boy. “It shows a woman walking toward the viewer on a street. May bamboo trees, may nipa hut. Very ordinary. But it reminds me of my grandmother.”

Collectibles, he says, are “keys to memory”, “handed by someone reaching across time and eternity”. This thought is echoed in the Juan Luna pen-and-ink stationery design he donated to the Central Bank many years ago. It shows a country girl holding a book with the words non omnis moriar—“not all of me shall die”—taken from a verse Horace wrote two thousand years ago to equate his poetry with immortality:

I have created a monument more lasting than bronze,
And higher than the royal site of the pyramids,
Which neither harsh rains nor the wild north wind can erode,
Nor the countless succession of years,
And the flight of the seasons.
Not all of me shall die,
My praise shall grow and never end.

Away from the critics and the pundits and the galleries and the auction houses, collecting, like all art, is simply a yearning to remember and be remembered. Nearly fifty years since he bought his first painting, Laya is far from done. At his office, we spot a freshly bought canvas leaning sheepishly against one wall, still swathed in bubble wrap. “The normal person stops adding to his paintings when his house and office walls are full,” he writes in his book, “but collectors are not always normal. Some follow the jeepney driver rule: there is always room for one more.”

(This article originally appeared in the April-May 2009 issue of Contemporary Art Philippines magazine.)