During the first decade of this century, there was a series of deaths among artists, many of them middle-aged or old. Hospital bills and coffins could not be paid. Artists and cultural administrators, some connected with the Cultural Center of the Philippines, passed the hat around, dug into their pockets, spread the word around and tried to raise funds as best they could.
“There were also stories about artists who gave their lives, skills and craft na naging taong grasa, sa kalsada nakatira (living on the streets),” recounted character actor Nanding Josef, artistic director of Tanghalang Pilipino and president of the Artists’ Welfare Project Inc.
He added: “Some of them were really recognized artists, respected during their prime. Actors can work until they are old, but dancers particularly have a short life span as professionals. Ever since, the more dedicated ones were so dedicated they were not too concerned about their future. And it was when they grew old that they realized they had basic needs like food, health and shelter.”
Against this backdrop the Artists’ Welfare Project was born, with Josef as president and ballet dancer Lisa Macuja-Elizalde as treasurer. Among the members of the board were singer Bayang Barrios and actress Mae Paner.
Annual dues are around P1,000 and membership is over 200, although not all are active.
The main objectives of the organization were to raise funds and to develop policies that would provide assistance to the members, like health, educational, long-term housing loans and even burial services.
“In other words,” said Josef, “preparing for old age particularly and for emergency needs of the artists. Through the help of Macuja-Elizalde particularly and the rest of the board members we were able to raise P1.8 million. Not too big, not even enough to pay for a cancer patient. But we couldn’t come up with policies on disbursement or to issue funds to the needy.”
It was not for lack of interest but for lack of time, because all the board members were busy with commitments. And other expenses, like compliance with a secretariat and Securities and
Exchange Commission requirements, were eating into the fund.
Wanted: Full-time exec
The choice was to dissolve, turn over the remaining funds to an organization that could help artists, or hire a full-time, salaried executive director.
Fortunately, singer Grace Nono had just arrived from her doctoral studies in the United States, and she accepted the position. This was announced at a recent press conference at Sev’s Café at Legazpi Towers.
“Grace is now taking care of projects which, in her view and in consultation with the board, can promote the artists’ welfare among the old and growing old (‘medyo tumatanda’),” Josef said. “The original objectives will continue, and there is a need to entice, to engage the entire artistic community in discussing this welfare sector.”
Activities lined up for the rest of the year include talks and workshops on intellectual property rights for writers, composers, visual artists and performers; “financial literacy,” arts management, bookkeeping; a medical mission, wellness and preventive care; and legal information.
A long-felt need is for legislation on artists’ welfare. “The government should provide all kinds of assistance for artists in emergency cases and as we grow old,” Josef said. “Who is going to take care of us when we grow old?”
Thus, he said: “We would like to call the attention of the government and the public to the contribution of the artists both to human development and to our cultural heritage. They (the government) have a lack of concern for our welfare. We are not asking for much. We are soldiers of culture. Like soldiers and teachers, we do our part as artists in social transformation. We deserve to be given the same welfare services as needed.”