We are brown, we are queer: Silverlens gallery owners Isa Lorenzo, Rach Rillo ready to conquer New York

By Ces Oreña-Drilon

September 8 is going to be a big day for Philippine art and for gallerists and partners Isa Lorenzo and Rach Rillo.

Manila-based Silverlens will be opening its first gallery in New York City, the center of the art world.

Located in the heart of Chelsea, New York’s famous art district, the new 250-square meter gallery occupies the ground floor of 505 West 24th Street.

It’s not the first overseas venture of the 18-year old Silverlens, dubbed by Artnet as “one of Southeast Asia’s powerhouse galleries.”

From 2012 – 2016, Silverlens operated an outpost in Southeast Asia’s finance capital Singapore, just as the island nation was establishing itself as an art hub. Isa says they opted to close when the lease ended.

“We didn’t see opportunities for growth there at the time and the audience was not yet ready,” said Isa.

I think they were ahead of the explosion of art in Singapore, whose government in the 1990s identified art as one the drivers of its economy.

“We certainly learned a lot from Singapore- like the need to integrate the local community. But SG audiences are not really into art. But I think if we did it now in SG, it would be a success. Timing lang,” she said.

It’s a totally different ball game in New York. This time, Silverlens owns the space and its timing could not be more perfect. Property prices in the middle of the pandemic opened this door for Isa and Rach.

I happened to be in New York after attending an environmental conference, at the same time Isa and Rach were finalizing the deal to acquire the Chelsea space.

Over coffee and bagels, which Rach so thoughtfully prepared with assorted flavors for a tasting, I asked them why they were strangely silent about being in New York, (on Instagram that is) and they broke the exciting news to me.

Apparently, my timing was also perfect. This move is a giant step for Filipino artists, living in the Philippines, and even overseas. And now finally, I can write about it!

Isa says opening a New York gallery was something she had considered since 2004, but felt that it wasn’t the right time. She felt invisible: “The wrong gender, the wrong Asian, the wrong minority.”

But one has to start somewhere. So in 2004, Isa instead began Silverlens as a photo gallery in the dining and living area of her Pacific Plaza apartment in BGC. Fifteen years ago, they realized they needed to grow.

“Isa had to close it, she needed to expand and that’s when I came in in 2007, when we started to represent artists and join international fairs,” Rach revealed.

Silverlens then opened its gallery at the old Yupangco piano factory on Chino Roces Avenue. And barely a year later, they built a bridge to connect to another space to cope with Silverlens’ growing business.

It is now located further up Chino Roces in a sleek space designed by Anna Sy at the Lorenzo-owned Lapanday Center.

Isa and Rach say the decision to open in New York is borne by the strong demand for Southeast Asian art in the US in the past years.

Rach, whose half of the gallery covers media, creatives, and exhibitions says: “This felt like the perfect moment to expand to a global art hub packed with discovery. We are Asian, we are Latin, we are American, we are brown, we are queer — there is energy here for us and we are thrilled to show our artists in the world’s biggest market.”

For her part, Isa does the gallery’s programming, business and artists communications.

The couple’s bold foray into New York was almost two decades in the making. You could say Silverlens Chelsea is the baby of Rach and Isa – a celebration of being together for 15 years as a couple.

The inaugural exhibit will feature two mixed race artists, Martha Atienza and Yee I-Lann. Martha was born in the Philippines to a Dutch mother and a Filipino father and hails from Bantayan, Cebu. Yee I-Laan hails from Sabah, Malaysia and was born in Kota Kinabalu.

The work of these two artists delve around their island communities’ culture and heritage.

Expect the New York art gallery and museum habitués to be at the opening of Silverlens Chelsea. This is also one exhibit and milestone, Manila-based art collectors will not want to miss.

You can reach @cesdrilon on Twitter and Instagram