Cover The insignia of the Order of the National Artists is a Grand Collar with a medallion as a central badge | Photo courtesy of Cultural Center of the Philippines

Tatler looks into this highly covetous award given by the government, its importance and the controversies that surround it

Just a month after the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) and Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) called for submissions to the National Artist Award in February, social media was already abuzz with names of “official” nominees. Names such as Eddie Garcia, Ramon Revilla, Vilma Santos-Recto, Peque Gallaga, Ricky Lee, Pitoy Moreno, Ben Farrales, Joey Ayala and Isagani Cruz were floated.

But much to the dismay of the lobbyists, the NCCA and CCP released a statement clarifying that no official list of nominees has been released yet.

Why such a scramble for a nomination? What is in store for someone who receives the highest national recognition in Philippine arts?

“To be conferred the Order of National Artist [ONA] means that you are recognised for your significant and outstanding contributions to the development of a national cultural identity which have made an impact on future generations of artists,” says Benedicto Cabrera, National Artist for Visual Arts.

See also: In Memoriam: The Legacy of National Artist Arturo Luz

Going with the title and the award are numerous prizes, perks and privileges that an artist of such stature can enjoy the rest of his life.

National Artists are entitled to receive material and physical benefits such as cash award, personal monthly stipend, yearly medical and hospitalisation benefits, life insurance and a place of honour in state functions, national commemoration ceremonies and all other cultural presentations.

They are also given a gold-plated medallion, known as the Grand Collar, minted by the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas. They are likewise entitled to a state funeral, arranged and paid for by the government. The legal heirs of posthumous awardees will receive a cash award.

“I always tell friends and family that as a National Artist, my funeral arrangements should not be of their concern as the government will take care of my state funeral, although I don’t particularly care to be buried in the Libingan ng mga Bayani together with some questionable ‘heroes’,” Cabrera comments. 

With prizes at stake so high, so is the process of selection so steep for this triennial award.

The Award is given to seven art disciplines: Dance; Music; Theatre; Visual Arts; Literature; Film and Broadcast Art; Architecture, Design and Allied Arts. The NCCA and the CCP, the two main bodies in charge of the process, come together to form the Order of National Artists Award Secretariat (ONAA). The Secretariat then forms a Special Research Group composed of at least ten members from the private sector, experts in their respective fields, to ensure impartiality during this pre-screening stage.

For the nominations stage, a Panel of Experts and a Jury of Experts are created to screen the pre-screening recommendations. These two bodies, tasked to serve for three years, are composed of experts, scholars, critics, researchers and other knowledgeable individuals.

The Panel of Experts has a maximum of seven members from each of the seven art disciplines of the ONAA, with the addition of living National Artists. This group will evaluate the report submitted by the Special Research Group.

The Jury of Experts, on the other hand, is composed of a maximum of three members from each of the seven disciplines. As the second deliberation panel, this group evaluates the short-listed nominees from the Panel of Experts.

To be conferred the Order of National Artist means that you are recognised for your significant and outstanding contributions to the development of a national cultural identity which have made an impact on future generations of artists
Benedicto Cabrera

The recommendations from the Jury of Experts are then presented for final selection by the joint NCCA and CCP Boards. This final list is then presented to the sitting Philippine president for confirmation, proclamation and conferment.

And there’s the rub. Favouritism has been known to exist in this highest political level. Still fresh in the memory is the 2009 National Artists Awards during the term of former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

See also: José Joya: Why The National Artist Is A Pillar Of Philippine Modern Art

On that year, the ONAA submitted four names— Manuel Conde for Film, Lazaro Francisco for Literature, Federico Aguilar Alcuaz for Visual Arts and Ramon P Santos for Music. On the day of proclamation, however, President Arroyo proclaimed seven, a source told Tatler Philippines. Excluding Santos, she added Cecilla Guidote-Alvarez for Theatre, Magno Jose “Carlo” Caparas for Film, Francisco Mañosa for Architecture and Jose “Pitoy” Moreno for Fashion Design.

This caused a stir not only in the artistic community but across the whole nation. One of the causes of public consternation was the fact that some of these artists weren’t even able to reach the third stage of the selection process; Caparas and Mañosa reportedly did not pass the first stage while Moreno allegedly reached just second stage, a source revealed.

But perhaps what enraged both the arts and culture sector and the public even more was seeing Guidote-Alvarez, the executive director of NCCA at the time, included in the list. According to the rules, members of the NCCA-BOC and CCP-BOT, including the NCCA and CCP officers and staff and NCCA National Committee, are ineligible for nomination. 

The protests reached the highest court of the land. To appease an infuriated public, the Supreme Court decided to invalidate the proclamation of Guidote-Alvarez, Caparas, Mañosa and Moreno as National Artists. This decision came down only in 2013, causing the National Artists Awards to lose one term.

The Awards resumed in 2014—so did the lobbying. On that year, Ramon P Santos was rightfully bestowed the award along with Francisco Feliciano for Music and Francisco Coching for Visual Arts, Cirilo Bautista, Jose Maria Zaragoza for Architecture and Alice Reyes for Dance.

Read more: National Artist Ryan Cayabyab Shares His Thoughts On The Current State Of OPM

[Being a National Artist for Music] means that I have been given a platform to amplify my advocacy in shaping the direction of music in the Philippines, and to use this platform to continue using the power of Filipino music to inspire our people
Ryan Cayabyab

Reyes has always found the award “humbling yet so meaningful because it is essentially one given by your peers”.

She continues, “I treasure it. I take it as a directive to do everything I can to make sure I am able to inspire, to encourage and to mentor dance artists and choreographers all over our country so their generation can keep growing the good works that so many had done before us.

“I hope to join forces with as many educators and government officials who share my passion and respect for our Filipino folk arts and culture, so that together, we can build cultural centres to serve as homes for our dance communities where they can continuously collaborate with fellow artists from all the fields of the arts.

“And perform old and new works that speak of our Filipino spirit.”

Ryan Cayabyab, who was conferred the National Artist Award in 2018, believes that the rank comes with a significant responsibility. He says, “[Being a National Artist for Music] means that I have been given a platform to amplify my advocacy in shaping the direction of music in the Philippines, and to use this platform to continue using the power of Filipino music to inspire our people.”

This year, a new search has started for the National Artists Awards. The lobbying is as fierce as years gone by, fuelling the excitement and anticipation surrounding this much-coveted award. After all, to be in the company of illustrious names in Philippine arts such as Fernando Amorsolo, the first artist to receive the award in 1972, is an honour both in life and in death.