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June 30, 2003


Last June 25, 2003, five individuals in the fields of literature, visual arts, theater and film were added to the roster of National Artists. President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo conferred  the National Artist Award to Virgilio S. Almario (Literature), Alejandro R. Roces (Literature), Jose Joya (Visual Arts), Eddie Romero (Film) and Salvador F. Bernal (Theater & Production Design) at the Palace Ceremonial Hall in Malacañang.

This was already the second time for President Arroyo to bestow the said award—the first was in June 2001 with then awardees F. Sionil Jose, Ang Kiukok, Ishmael Bernal, and Severino Montano.

Since its inception in 1972 (Proclamation No. 1001 signed by former President Ferdinand Marcos), the National Artist Award has been bestowed to forty-five (45) Filipino individuals. To date, the category with the highest numbers of awardees is the Visual Arts with eleven (11)—with Joya now completing the “magic 12” –closely followed by Music with ten (10), a number now matched at the Literature category with the addition of Almario and Roces to the list.

The Award is administered by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) and the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP), and conferred by the Government of the Philippines upon recommendation of both institutions. The Award honors Filipinos who have distinguished themselves and made outstanding contributions to Philippine arts and letters. The very first award in 1972 was conferred posthumously to Fernando Amorsolo.

At present, every National Artist is entitled to a “medallion and citation; a one-time cash award of one hundred thousand pesos (P100,000.00) net of taxes; a monthly life pension; life insurance coverage (for awardees who are still insurable); a place of honor at state functions, national commemorative ceremonies, and other cultural events; and arrangements and expenses for a state funeral.” A posthumous award consisting of the medallion and citation and P 75,000.00 in cash shall be given to the deceased awardees’ nearest kin or a representative designated by the family. When the NCCA assumed administration of the award in 1990, the Commission increased the monthly life pension from P2,000 to P10,000. In December 1997, this was further increased to P24,000 a month.

What exactly is a National Artist? By definition, a National Artist is a Filipino who has made significant contributions to the development of Philippine arts in the fields of Music, Dance, Theater, Visual Arts, Literature, Film, and Architecture. He is someone who should have been awarded the highest national recognition for the arts: the National Artist Award. In Filipino, its proper name is the Gawad Pambansang Alagad ng Sining. So, the next time you feel the urge to append the title to an important-looking artist that arrives at a party, bite your tongue clean.

What it takes to become a National Artist

The criteria for candidates to the National Artist Award is composed of at least five points with two already delineating the weight attached to the title — they should be (1) artists who have distinguished themselves by pioneering in a mode of creative expression or style, thus making an impact on succeeding generations of artists; and (2) artists who have created a substantial and significant body of works and/or consistently displayed excellence in the practice of their art form  thus enriching artistic expression or style.

Looking at the background of this year’s crop of awardees would give you an idea on what it takes to become a National Artist.

Virgilio Almario, also known as Rio Alma, is a poet, literary historian and critic, who has revived and reinvented traditional Filipino poetic forms, even as he championed modernist poetics. In 34 years, he has published 12 books of poetry, which include the seminal “Makinasyon” and “Peregrinasyon,” and the landmark trilogy “Doktrinang Anakpawis,” “Mga Retrato at Rekwerdo” and “Muli, Sa Kandungan ng Lupa. He also has 10 books of criticisms and anthologies, among which are “Ang Makata sa Panahon ng Makina,” “Balagtasismo versus Modernismo,” ” Walong Dekada ng Makabagong Tula Pilipino,” “Mutyang Dilim” and “Barlaan at Josaphat.”

Jose Joya is a painter and multimedia artist who distinguished himself by creating an authentic Filipino abstract idiom that transcended foreign influences. Most of Joya’s paintings of harmonious colors were inspired by Philippine landscapes, such as green rice paddies and golden fields of harvest. His legacy is a large body of work of consistent excellence which has won the admiration of artists both in the local and international scene.

Eddie Romero is a screenwriter, film director and producer, is the quintessential Filipino filmmaker whose life is devoted to the art and commerce of cinema spanning three generations of filmmakers. His films include “Ganito Kami Noon…Paano Kayo Ngayon?,” “Aguila,” “Kamakalawa,” and “Banta ng Kahapon.”

Salvador Bernal is a theater designer who has designed more than 300 productions distinguished for their originality since 1969. To promote and professionalize theater design, he organized the PATDAT (Philippine Association of Theatre Designers and Technicians) in 1995 and by way of Philippine Center of OISTAT (Organization Internationale des Scenographes, Techniciens et Architectes du Theatre), he has introduced Philippine theater design to the world.

Alejandro Roces is a short story writer and essayist known for his widely anthologized “My Brother’s Peculiar Chicken.”  In his innumerable newspaper columns, he has always focused on the neglected aspects of the Filipino cultural heritage. His works have been published in various international magazines and has received national and international awards. 

What are the processes involved in naming a National Artist?

First, the process involves a nomination, based on the criteria, either by an individual or a group.  The NCCA announces the opening of the nominations at the start of the year (as for National Artist 2005, the nomination starts on January 2004).There is also a Special Research Group, composed of commissioned art experts, which identifies possible candidates, complementing these nominations coming from the various art sectors. The Council of Peers, composed of highly regarded artists, art critics, scholars (including cultural philosophers and historians), researchers, and other knowledgeable individuals, does the actual deliberation and screening. Of course, all previously-named National Artists sit in this council as permanent members.  

On top of all of these is the Award Secretariat headed by the NCCA Executive Director and is composed of two representatives each from the NCCA and the CCP. This secretariat not only plans and implements the awards, but also takes charge of disseminating information, receiving, screening, and processing of nominations, as well as searching for other qualified nominees.

The selection of the composition of The National Artist Award Council of Peers in itself is a complex process. The composition for each category or discipline of the council—dance, film and broadcast arts, literature, literature, music, theater, and visual arts—is carefully balanced with members coming from both the provinces and the National Capital Region.

Twenty experts in each of the seven categories are selected by the award secretariat and approved by the NCCA Board based on the cited criteria. From the list of twenty experts, the secretariat, by drawing lots, picks a maximum of twelve and a minimum of seven experts to sit in each category. Again, National Artists are automatic members of the twelve and need not join the drawing of lots. An independent observer sits in the drawing to ensure a fair and honest selection.

Any nominated council member who is related to a nominee up to the fourth degree of consanguinity or affinity shall inhibit her/himself from the deliberation process. Likewise, any member may decline participation in the deliberation. Any member may also be removed for just cause upon recommendation to the NCCA Board by at least two-thirds of the members of her/his category. If this happens, the secretariat again draws lots until the panel is completed.

The deliberations

The screening of the council has two levels—the first and second deliberation. During the first deliberation, members of the council are grouped by category and screen only the nominees falling under their respective category (i.e. literature and music nominees for the council of peers for literature and music).

For the second deliberation, the members of the first deliberation panel choose by secret ballot three members from among them to represent their respective category.

The members of the panel for the second deliberation decide the final list of nominees forwarded for the consideration of the NCCA and CCP Boards. The second deliberation process is chaired by the NCCA executive director and co-chaired by the CCP president.

The NCCA and CCP Boards are convened in a joint meeting to make the final approval of the list of nominees. The list is then forwarded to the President for approval of recipients.
“We have to admit that the selection process is not foolproof,” explains former NCCA executive director and newly-proclaimed National Artists for Literature Virgilio Almario, “but NCCA has already instituted vital changes. The institution of the Special Research Group, for example, came about because during one screening, scholars and artists who sat in the panel lamented many nomination oversight of the various sectors. The NCCA has also done away with the presentation involved with the nominations in reaction to the comments that the award depended also on the persuasive skills of the assigned presenter.”

There is also clearly an increase in the number of recipients these past few years because the NCCA has seen to it that the award is given every other year unlike in the past when the awarding was erratic and the selection rather arbitrary. 

This year, the Award did not escape controversy especially with people questioning the inclusion of Alejandro Roces’ name in the list of final awardees as his name did not even surface during the first deliberation. The NCCA limits itself to the explanation that such a decision is a prerogative of the President. 

Still, the positive thing that the Award brings is that it has made and is making Filipinos aware (so much so that even “sexy” actor Dante Balboa is said to have quipped in an interview that he wanted to become a National Artist in the future) that we have excellent and true artists in our midst, providing a veritable standard by which our future artists can measure their own strengths, ensuring the way for the continued burgeoning of our arts as a people.