GAME CHANGER | Oscar G. Casaysay: All about culture and the arts

The NCCA executive director with music composer Ryan Cayabyab.

“Culture and the arts reflect our identity as Filipinos, as people. We have to have a strong sense of patriotism so that we can fully embrace our culture, our identity. As it is today, we have a long and arduous way to go before we can say we have a free and genuine Filipino culture. But we are doing a whole of government approach. And the fact that culture is part of the strategy scheme of the government in attaining Philippine Development Goals, I believe we are on the right track.”

The statement comes from the mouth of Oscar G. Casaysay, the current executive director of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA). This author came to know him during their college days at the University of Mindanao in Davao City. They were together in a stage play, “Ang Paglilitis ni Mang Serapio.”

Although he heard about NCCA and its mandate as a cultural and arts agency of the government, Casaysay has no idea on how it operates and the scope of the organization, among other things.

There were some questions in his mind: Will he be able to do it? Where will he stay as he doesn’t have a home in Manila? Will his boss – referring to Governor Claude P. Bautista – approved it? It was also at the height of the pandemic, the Omicron variant.

Casaysay said he didn’t know who recommended him to the position. But to those who know him personally in Davao, it wasn’t a surprise. When Duterte was still the mayor of Davao City, he was managing the community relations and major festivals and celebrations of the city for nine years (from 2004 to 2013).

The purpose of the NCCA is to “promote unity among individuals involved in the conservation of cultural properties, such as art works, ethnographic collections, archaeological artifacts and other materials of historical significance.”

As executive director of NCCA, Casaysay leads the agency in the preservation, development and promotion of the Philippine arts and culture.

In the beginning, he was overwhelmed with the position. “Before I only read the works of National Artists like Bienvenido Lumbera, Nick Joaquin and Ricky Lee. I also only watched the films of National Artists such as Lino Brocka, Ishmael Bernal and Marilou Abaya.

Oscar Casaysay with national artist Nora Aunor.
“I only heard and read the productions of Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) featuring the Ballet Philippines and the Philippine Harmonic Orchestra,” he continued. “It was only when I became the executive director that I was able to watch those productions inside the CCP in the front row and even stand on stage giving out messages. I now meet our National Artists up close and personal. I have the luxury of being introduced to a lot of theater greats in Philippine Education Theater Association (PETA) and other theater productions.”

Being the current executive director of NCCA, Casaysay has the pleasure of meeting such national artists as Alice Reyes (whom he described as “graceful and very down to earth”), Ryan Cayabyab (“cool and very accommodating”), Virgilio Almario (“so dignified”), Ramon Santos (“unassuming”), Ricky Lee (“down to earth and very accommodating”), Nora Aunor (“warm and humble”), and Agnes Locsin (“a friend and very warm”).

Being NCCA executive director is not an easy task though. “My job is to oversee and manage the day-to-day operations of the agency,” he admitted. “And since we don’t have regional offices to connect with our local artists and cultural workers, we have the sub-commissions elected from among the private sector members and each has different committees.”

The sub-commission are arts, cultural dissemination, cultural heritage and the cultural communities and traditional arts.

“What I mean is that ours is a complex network that we have to deal with,” he explained. “A lot of challenges each day. The most difficult part is we don’t have a huge budget although the grants we give out come from the National Endowment Fund for Culture and the Arts.”

The grants are derived from the proposals coming from the civil society organizations, individual artists and cultural workers, other national government agencies, schools, colleges, universities, and local government units for their culture and arts program and/or projects.

There is also international work through the Sentro Rizal Office. NCCA also manages the call and selection and until the awarding of Gawad sa Manlilikha ng Bayan (GAMABA), the Order of National Artists (ONA) and National Heritage Awards.

“So, imagine you have to orchestrate the daily operations of all these at the same time,” he said. “Every day, I have a lot of challenges and struggles to confront and hurdle, still with the most gracious and glamorous style.”

The executive director of NCCA.
Just to give you an idea how tasking the job is, he said of his weekly schedule. “I have to work at the NCCA office from Mondays to Thursdays – about 10 hours a day to complete the 40 hours a week. I have to be at the office by 8 in the morning until 7 in the evening. From Fridays to Sundays, I have to attend other functions.”

Despite this fact, he isn’t complaining. “Culture is the soul of the nation,” Casaysay pointed out. “Without culture, then a nation doesn’t have an identity. Culture refers to the way of life of a nation. Thus, everything that we do as a people becomes our culture. Culture is best manifested through the arts and the arts are said to be the best expressions of culture.”

He talked of seven types of arts: architecture and allied arts, cinema or film, dance, drama or theater, literary arts, music, and visual arts. “All these contribute to the over-all growth and advancement not just of a person but of the community and the nation as well,” he said.

During the pandemic, he was saddened as the arts sector was regarded as “non-essential.” “We cannot imagine the online platform without some of the best online programs communicated through the arts – films, dances, poetry, music, or even Netflix,” he pointed out.

“Other aspects, such of indigenous cultures and cultural heritage, also contribute to a nation’s progress and development,” he said. “Indigenous cultures refer to the knowledge, skills, and practices of our culture bearers that are preserved and handed down from one generation to another, Cultural heritage may be tangible or intangible and are considered the wealth of a nation in terms of its glorious past. All these facets of culture are important in the life of a nation and are essential towards the wholistic advancement of a country.”

The NCCA is very important when it comes to indigenous people groups (IPs). “One of the general functions of the NCCA is to preserve and integrate traditional culture as part of the national cultural mainstream,” Casaysay explained.

On why not too many Filipinos are talking about culture, he replied, “There are many challenges that are being faced by the NCCA in this aspect. To enumerate a few: due to the lack of interest generally by Filipinos on the subject of arts and culture; for many, culture and the arts are seen as something which is not essential; for many, it is something that is only for the elite.

“There is also low appreciation of the significance of arts and culture to the masses,” he continued. “The more pressing challenge nowadays is that there is a higher appreciation by the younger generation of other country’s cultures – like those from Korea or the United States – than in our own culture. But rather than looking at it as challenges or stumbling blocks, the NCCA looks at these as opportunities for improvement.”

Casaysay, however, believed the NCCA has already done a lot of accomplishments in terms of increasing the Filipinos’ appreciation (and even understanding, respect, and love) for arts and culture – in terms of policy formulation, programming, and promotions.

Many laws have been passed to protect the country’s cultural heritage like the Republic Act 10066 of 2009 or the National Heritage Law. The NCCA spearheads institutional programs like National Arts Month (every February), Food Month and Literature Month (every April), Heritage Month (every May), Linggo ng Musikang Pilipino or OPM Week (every last week of July), and IP Month (every October), among others.

“The NCCA is also in-charge of the cultural mapping, and monitoring of the local culture and arts councils in the local government units,” Casaysay said, adding that it needs to intensify its efforts to be able to reach the grassroot levels more through policy, programming, and promotions.

“It also needs to harness and maximize more platforms so that it can reach a larger market or audience, especially our younger generation,” he said. “Presence in the localities or regions can also answer this challenge of decentralizing the work of the NCCA. This can be achieved if a Department of Culture is created or if the NCCA can be strengthened through additional manpower or regional presence. For the international scene, the NCCA has the Sentro Rizal lodged at the various embassies abroad to promote our Filipino culture and the arts.”

Casaysay’s position is co-terminus with the term of the president. “However, I was allowed to continue my service by President Bongbong Marcos when he issued Memorandum Circular 12 on December 29, 2022, which authorized the continuance in service of government officials and employees in the executive branch until we are replaced,” he said.

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