Are the National Artists really appreciated?

National Artist medallion
Mervin Concepcion Vergara

After 46 years, are the National Artists really appreciated?
By Herminio S. Beltran Jr.


The year 2017 marks the birth centennial of five National Artists: Nick Joaquin (1917-2004, Literature), Cesar T. Legaspi (1917-1994, Visual Arts), Jose M. Maceda (1917-2004, Music), Leonor Orosa-Goquingco (1917-2005, Dance), and Daisy H. Avellana (1917-2013, Theater). As these exemplars of Philippine art are remembered, the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) and the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP), which make up the National Artist award secretariat, face challenges anew as new nominees are considered.  As in the past, the deliberating bodies must ensure a smooth implementation of their mandate to achieve the goals of the awards project.

Forty-six years after the National Artist (NA) title was first given in 1972 to Fernando C. Amorsolo (1892-1972, Painting), do Filipinos really know their National Artists? Do they treasure their artistic legacy?

In 1991 Armida Siguion Reyna, singer, actor and producer, speaking during the Pagdadalamhati ng Bayan in honor of National Artist Honorata “Atang” de la Rama (1905-1991, Theater and Music), lamented the demise not only of the queen of Tagalog zarzuela but also of Tagalog zarzuela itself and the kundiman. The kundiman had been supplanted by pop songs like “Humanap Ka ng Pangit” which were then in vogue.

In 2002 thousands of fans formed a long queue at the wake of popular star Rico Yan whose sudden death was national news and whose funeral received wide television coverage. That same week, two National Artists, Levi Celerio (1910-2002, Literature and Music) and Lucio D. San Pedro (1913-2002, Music), lay in state without the same amount of media coverage and public attention, showing people’s lack of appreciation for artistic excellence and cultural heritage.

The need to increase awareness and appreciation, especially among students and teachers, of the life and achievements of National Artists has often been discussed in the CCP and NCCA. To address this concern, Anvil Publishing, CCP and NCCA jointly published the book The National Artists of the Philippines in 1999, followed by a second volume in 2003. This effort was not enough, however.  Teachers needed reading and teaching materials that their students could readily understand.

Platform for centennial celebrations

In 2016, during the birth centenary of NA Francisco Arcellana (1916-2002, Literature), CCP, NCCA and Adarna House came up with a platform to celebrate National Artists’ centennials. Activities included the production of a Binder of Lesson Plans for Senior High School using selected works by National Artists. These plans were to be drafted by artist-teachers representing various art forms and pre-tested in workshops conducted by resource persons and attended by teachers and students. The binder was launched on November 19, 2017 after the pilot workshops conducted at the NCCA.

The binder and the workshops aimed at making teachers and students more aware and appreciative of the accomplishments of the National Artists. Inspired by the best works of Arcellana, they did new works responsive to contemporary times. The workshop exercises were designed to instill creativity among the participants. It is hoped that the publication and use of the binder will encourage the production of more teaching materials on National Artists for use in all levels.

Other activities planned for centennial celebrations include the printing of commemorative postage stamps, performances, exhibitions, tertulias, lectures, multi-media productions, and book launchings with National Artist honorees.

National vs. regional

Another issue the NCCA and CCP have to face as implementing bodies of the National Artists Award is the “anomaly” where regional writers are “kept out of the ‘short list’ from which the National Artist for Literature is chosen.”

In his keynote address entitled “‘National’ Literature and the ‘National’ Artist Award” at the Nakem Centennial Conference in 2006 in Honolulu, Hawaii, NA Bienvenido Lumbera (1932, Literature) said: “The anomaly of a national award that…has failed to honor a writer using a language other than Tagalog/Filipino or English cannot continue. The CCP and NCCA… will have to find a mechanism that would overcome the anomaly. The swifter the anomaly is corrected, the better for justice that has been eluding regional writers all these years.”

The mechanism calls for the translation of works by regional writers nominated to the award. This requires competent translators who must do justice to the original works. Having served as a member of the panel of experts (then called Council of Peers), the body that conducts the first-level deliberation on the nominations, this writer bore with the frustration of not being able to evaluate properly the merits of some regional writers. It has been suggested that a translation bureau be formed to address this problem.

But more important perhaps than a well-budgeted translation machinery is the wide participation of scholars, researchers, artists, and cultural workers in the regions who should assert the significance of their nominees in any art form or category at all stages of the selection process. The larger value of such interventions is in the projection of a consciousness-raising discourse on regional culture as being a necessary part of national culture and art.


The awards have been hounded through the years by controversies. Cultural leaders have claimed that the Office of the President has several times interfered with the selection process. For instance, one president issued an unnecessary Executive Order declaring his friend (kumpare) a National Artist, failing to respect the nomination, screening and selection procedure that has clearly been in place since 1987. Another president added his friend and neighbor to the short list of candidates and created a new category to justify the choice.

The award was not given in 2009 because a legal battle ensued after cultural workers and artists, including some National Artists themselves, protested some questionable inclusions and exclusions seen in the short list submitted jointly by the NCCA board of commissioners and the CCP board of trustees after the second-level deliberations. The list of awardees announced by the Office of the President was perceived as another political stunt that could destroy the awards’ credibility. Some members of the panel of experts felt that some of those included in the list actually deserved the award. Dragging their names to the scandal was seen as an injustice. Many believed that the nomination and screening procedure and deliberations had to be respected and protected. Some suggested that to avoid such scandals, the Committee on Honors which, as provided for in Section 9 of Executive Order No. 236, is tasked with “assisting the President in evaluating nominations for recipients of Honors,” should be asked to participate in all levels of the deliberations.

Before 2009, the awards were last given out in 2006. The guidelines require that “the selection and conferment of the National Artists take place every three years,” but because of the controversies, no awards were handed out in 2009.  Three of the 2009 nominees were eventually declared National Artists (Manuel Conde for Film and Broadcast Arts, Lázaro Francisco for Literature, and Federico Aguilar Alcuáz for Visual Arts) in 2014 when the award was conferred again. They received the award together with the 2014 awardees: Alice Reyes (Dance), Francisco Coching (Visual Arts), Cirilo F. Bautista (Literature), Francisco Feliciano (Music), Ramón Santos (Music) and José María Zaragoza (Architecture).

After 46 years, the National Artist Award has barely begun opening the eyes of Filipinos to the importance of their most outstanding artists and the value of their artistic legacy.


Herminio S. Beltran Jr. edited the book The National Artists of the Philippines Volume 1 (published in 1999) and Volume 2 (2003). He was a member of the National Artists Award Panel of Experts/Council of Peers for Literature in 2003, 2006 and 2013. He received from NCCA in 2002 the Gawad Alab ng Haraya for outstanding published feature on culture and the arts. He retired as head of the CCP Intertextual Division in 2016, after more than 36 years of government service.

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