Cuban Art Aficionados Assess Coming Boom

Joel Jovera’s portraits of Fidel Castro and José Martí made out of Bucanero beer cans (Photos by Maria Sanchez Diez for Voices of NY)

Sandra Levinson, executive director of the Center for Cuban Studies, at the Cuban Art Space in Chelsea.

When President Obama announced the decision to restore full diplomatic ties with Cuba and the thaw of travel restrictions, most people thought about bringing back rum or habano cigars, but others thought of paintings, collages, sculptures and other artworks.

“I think we are going to see a bloom in Cuban art,” said Alberto Magnan, the Cuban-born founder and owner of Magnan Metz, a Chelsea gallery focused on artwork from the island. “I definitely think that Cuban art is undervalued: I see a huge potential for a rise in prices for Cuban artists.”

Magnan said that in the first two days after Obama’s announcement in December, he received 50 or 60 calls from collectors interested in traveling to Cuba. The 12th Havana Biennial, which starts on May 22, expects a record number of collectors and visitors from the U.S. To beat the rush, Magnan headed to Cuba with three potential buyers in early May.

The frenzy is worrisome to Sandra Levinson, executive director of the Center for Cuban Studies. Levinson has been arranging trips to Cuba for decades for Americans, some of them collectors, interested in the country’s history, culture and especially art. Although she too has been receiving more calls, she said she couldn’t care less about the destiny of the art market.

“What I’m actually more concerned about is that Cuban culture is not diluted by its relationship to our culture,” she said.

The space she runs opened in 1972 as a library where journalists and scholars could find information about Cuba. Today it is an art gallery in Chelsea with more than 2,000 photographs and 3,000 artworks, and also a space where Levinson hosts book presentations and screens movies about Cuba.

“We should be a museum,” she said jokingly from her kaleidoscopic office, crammed with drawings, colorful figures, photographs, collages of papier-mache and images of José Martí. During the conversation, she goes through some pictures of her last trip to the island.

To be able to organize the trips legally, the center has shifted its mission over the years as various American presidents have changed restrictions on travelling to Cuba, one of the few remaining enemies from the Cold War period.

Levinson, who considers herself a socialist and stopped counting the times she has gone to Cuba after 300, played a crucial role as a mentor for Cuban art in the U.S. In 1991, she won a lawsuit against the U.S. Treasury Department, after which Americans could legally import original Cuban art.

Still, bringing Cuban art to the U.S. has never been easy. The U.S. government exempted from its embargo Cuban artworks as a form of “informational materials” which have come to be known as “cultural assets.” Although they can be brought into the U.S. legally, they nonetheless had to go through third countries to get to their destinations. It is expected that conditions for bringing art to the United States will be relaxed, especially because of greater ease in travel and the possibility that American financial institutions can open accounts with Cuban banks.

But for some many longtime enthusiasts of Cuban art as Levinson, the lifting of the travel restrictions means more than a mere investment opportunity or a brand new discovery, before prohibited for Americans. Levinson said she is concerned that this predicted “stampede” of art collectors will affect the authenticity and spontaneity of Cuban artists.

“What scares me is that artists in Cuba will start doing what collectors in the United States want,” said Levinson. “My mission as a curator is to convince the Cubans to keep doing what they do and not to worry.”

Ana María Hernández, a Cuban scholar at CUNY and an expert on Cuban art and culture, shares Levinson’s concern. She said Cuban art mixes Caribbean, New York, Spanish, Soviet and Mexican elements and has always focused on social causes and ethnic groups.

“It is possible that, in seek of profit, they lose their identity and start producing an art that no longer has the incisive penetration or the typical questioning of the Cuban reality,” she said.

The difficulties in finding canvases and materials, especially among self-taught artists, has also had a profound impact on Cuban artists’ style, said Levinson. They used furniture, metal, wood, habano cigar boxes and loose parts of anything available, or they invented collages and other creative solutions to make art.

“They are so versatile,” Levinson said while showing Joel Jovera’s portraits of Fidel Castro and José Martí made out of Bucanero beer cans. “Rather than a particular style, what characterizes them, it’s their inventiveness, their willingness to try anything to make a piece of art.”

For renowned Cuban artists things might not change drastically, since their presence in the international market has already been secured for years.

“It is important to consider that Cuba was prohibited only to Americans, while the rest of the world has been able to visit and experience its rich culture,” said Yandro Miralles, the Cuban art curator from the Rubin Foundation, a New York-based gallery focused on Cuban and Tibetan art. “For almost 50 years, it was practically impossible for Cuban artists to obtain U.S. visas, but they continued traveling and exhibiting in other European and Latin American countries, which helped establish their reputation,” said Miralles.

“It is undeniable that this new situation will benefit many of the artists that are practically unknown in the U.S.,” he said. “It will also make their presence in American auction houses possible, which will help to establish international prices for most of them, something that is almost nonexistent at present.”

But Levinson said some of the gallery owners who go to Cuba are not so open to new styles and they look for the kind of art they already know: contemporary art that could easily have been produced in New York.

“I really see as one of our goals showing people that there are many kinds of art that they might like and that it’s more authentically Cuban,” she said.

Some collectors who have approached Magnan and Levinson since December, however, are seeking an essence of the authentic Cuba before it is too late. They want to see old cars from the ’50s parked in the Malecón and old revolutionary billboards of Ché Guevara alongside the roads.

Levinson said they don’t realize that the country has already been changing all these years and so has the art.

“When they tell me that they want to see Cuba before the McDonald’s gets there,” she said, “I told them, ‘You already missed that boat.’”

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