Ben Rodríguez-Cubeñas, center, at the first Cuban Art Awards ceremony at Havana’s Wifredo Lam Center in May 2015. Rodríguez-Cubeñas was a juror for the awards. At left, Howard Farber of The Farber Foundation; in background, center, Celia González Álvarez of Celia y Yunior, winners of the 2015 Young Artist of the Year award.
Photo: Cuban Art News

In last week’s conversation, Ben Rodríguez-Cubeñas talked about art and culture on the island, the need for cultural infrastructure, and the challenges facing US philanthropies in their support of island initiatives. This week, the talk turns to the Cuban Artists Fund, the organization that Rodríguez-Cubeñas co-founded in 1998 with Lourdes López and María Caso, and how it is re-envisioning itself in response to the changes in Cuba-US relations. He also discusses his involvement in arts administration for New York City and how it relates to his Cuba-related activities, and reflects on art, human rights, and broader social issues.

Let’s turn to the Cuban Artists Fund. What is the organization’s mission, and how is it evolving in response to what’s going on?

Our initial focus was supporting individual artists and cultural exchanges. We started a re-envisioning process back in August of 2014, before the December announcement. We got support from the Ford Foundation and Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and I was able to hire three top-level consultants.

At the time I knew something was going to happen, but I thought we were getting ready for something five years from now. We got the grant in September, we hired the consultants in October, they started working on it, and the announcement came on December 17. And all of a sudden, things that we were thinking of doing five years from now, we could think about seriously doing now.

Part of the consultants’ plan was to interview about 40 people—on the island, here, experts, non-experts. They got a good sense of everything that’s going on, and they looked at what we’d been doing and what needs to happen.

We commissioned some papers, including one that looked at the infrastructure of associations on the island, and what people are thinking about that. That consultant made a presentation in Cuba with me in the US philanthropy session, and also to the funders who came to the funders’ briefing [here in the US].

He interviewed about 40 people as well, on the island and off the island, and he got a good sense of what people are thinking about in terms of this third sector.

What new directions did the research suggest?

One of the things that’s been made clear is the need to do and share research. There is a need for this raw research that other people are not going to do. The government’s not going to do it, corporations are not going to do it.  One person out there can’t do it. There is a need for some base information that everybody could use.

As part of our research we found that there are at least 30-some-odd organizations around the country that are somehow affiliated or connected to doing something with Cuba Very undercapitalized, and not truly effective because everyone is out there doing their own thing—sometimes it’s a lone professor at a university. So there need to be some opportunities for bringing people together and seeing how they could collaborate.

I’m also working with a group of funders [Atlantic Philanthropies, the Ford Foundation, the Christopher Reynolds Foundation, and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund] who have commissioned a lawyer to look through the regulations—just like the business community does, to see what that means for their particular industry. The communications industry has done it, the construction industry has done it, the pharmaceutical industry has done it. None of the nonprofits or the arts community has done it. No one’s got the resources or has thought about doing it.

We’re hiring a lawyer to do an analysis of what these new regulations mean for cultural exchanges, nonprofits, and philanthropy. Once we get that information, that could also be shared with a larger audience. And there could be forums.

What was good about the US funders’ briefing we hosted this past November was that it was not just one sector. We had the academics, we had the artists, we had the environmental people, we had the economics people. All of these sectors have had a tremendous amount of interchange with Cuba for the last 30 years, in very different ways. It was great to learn from each other. Otherwise, it’s such a silo.

That was an overview meeting. It was clear that we need to go deeper, in each one of these sectors. Certainly in the arts field, we agreed that we need a convening of actors that have been working in this field for a very long time, and new ones that may want to join, about the new realities.

Back in 2001, the Cuban Artists Fund hosted a meeting that brought people from Cuba and groups that were working in Cuba at the time. And we came up with suggestions on how to form partnerships and exchanges. A lot of people have used those suggestions as their blueprint for the work that we’ve all been doing for the last 15 or so years.

I think it’s time now to look at what this all means going forward. We’re in a time of repositioning, re-visioning, re-looking at everything.

The video Black Sun, 2010, by Alexandre Arrechea, projected on the NASDAQ Building in Times Square.
Courtesy Times Square Arts

The most high-profile aspect of the Cuban Artist Fund’s work has been bringing Cuban artists to the US. Over the years you’ve had a lot of visibility working with the Times Square Partnership on projects like Alexandre Arrechea’s video on the NASDAQ building, and installations by Esterio Segura and Árles del Río. How are the new realities affecting that program?

That’s going to continue. Because for me, what’s attractive is that they’re large projects. Fortunately we can support them. There’s not a lot of people or institutions that can spend $100,000 to support a large-scale public art project like that. We have spent close to $700,000 over the last seven years on the Times Square projects.

Those are the kinds of things that we decided to concentrate on a long time ago, rather than to support smaller things. We have a committee that reviews proposals, and we actually just met last week. We had some really good projects presented, and we’re going to try to do two artists. We’re trying to figure out the budget for that.

But the emphasis going forward—and we’re even looking at a name change, perhaps—is not going to be on individual artists. It’s more about institutions. It’ll be about the research, the convening—that kind of thing. Because we can do that now. We can partner with groups in Cuba in a deeper and more substantive way, and we couldn’t do that before.

That’s a pretty major shift.

Yes. That’s where we’re heading.

In fact you’ve already started. Tell us about the project with the Ludwig Foundation.

There are six legal fundaciones—they’re calling them fundaciones. They’re NGOs, Ludwig being one of them. Also the Fundación Antonio Nuñez Jiménez de la Naturaleza y el Hombre, an environmental and arts organization; Fundación Alejo CarpentierFundación Fernando OrtizCaguayo Fundación para las Artes Monumentales y Aplicadas, which is in Santiago de Cuba; and the Fundacion del Nuevo Cine Latinoamericano.

So there are six legal entities. They’ve got statues and the whole thing. They were, interestingly enough, created 30 years ago under the Ministry of Culture. Their heads are sometimes the founders, or related to the founders, but they are approved by the government.

It’s a place to start. These are organizations that have a history, that have projects that could be supported, or that could be expanded if they had the right resources.

Esterio Segura’s Adiós mi amor (Goodbye My Love, 2012) installed in a pedestrian passageway off Times Square
Photo: Nadia Witte for Times Square Arts

This may be getting a little technical, but when a US foundation makes a grant to an international entity, our legal team looks for 501(c)(3) equivalency. There are all these parameters that these organizations would need to meet, so they could meet the test of being the “equivalent” of a 501(c)(3) in the United States. Obviously, if they’re legal and they’ve got some structure already, they have more of an opportunity to classify under that than any other nonbinding, non-legal organization.

So that’s why we’re looking at how to start with what is already in place and go from there, and help support them to do what they’re doing with more resources and training.

You’ve mentioned the term “infrastructure.” In this context, what does that encompass?

When you think about infrastructure, you think about buildings, you think about developing fields, and training, and all kinds of things. It’s physical infrastructure, it’s mental, individual development infrastructure, it’s field-building—it’s all kinds of things.

Overall, there are so many things that need to be done in all these areas that it’s a little mind-boggling in terms of how you prioritize and how you use very limited resources. Just the historic preservation stuff is huge. The amount of human development and training—to a certain extent, Cubans have been pretty much closed off from the rest of the world. We’re talking about now just beginning to connect on a larger scale to the Internet and the World Wide Web. We still need much more work going forward on all these fronts.

In addition to your work with the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Cuban Artists Fund, you play an active role in New York City cultural administration. Tell us about that, and how it might relate to your Cuba-focused activities.

The Cultural Affairs Advisory Commission serves to advise the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs. It’s their advisory board. It has been around forever, and I’m the vice-chair. Susana Torruella Leval [former director of El Museo del Barrio] is the chair.

The Department of Cultural Affairs’ Cultural Plan Citizens Advisory Board is a new entity set up as a result of the City Council passing a resolution to create a cultural plan for New York City by 2017. It’s a new board. We have never met. The Cultural Affairs Commissioner appoints the chair, and [Commissioner] Tom Finkelpearl appointed me. The mayor appoints three individuals, and each borough president appoints three individuals.

The committee is charged with creating a cultural plan for New York City by 2017. Right now we’re in the process of selecting a consultant. We’re going to be looking at everything.

I’ve been somewhat involved because, through the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, we’ve been supporting the [Department of Cultural Affairs] data project on diversity. We’ve also supported Randy Bourscheidt [director of the Archive of New York City Cultural Policy], who’s doing an analysis on the different [New York City] cultural commissioners and administrations and their focus. We started working on that about a year ago, before any of this happened. So we’re getting really great data, information that’s going to help inform what this committee does.

Stepping through silhouettes of Nearness, the public art installation by Arlés del Río in 2014. From left: Sherry Dobbin, director of Times Square Arts; Ben Rodríguez-Cubenas; Arlés del Río; Tim Tompkins, president of the Times Square Alliance; and Carlos Pomares, executive director of the Cuban Artists Fund
Photo: Cuban Art News

It’s a huge responsibility. It’ll be a blueprint for how decisions will be made going forward, how priorities will be made, how budget distributions will be made—all sorts of things.

It’s going to be really important to get input—artists’ input, community input. The issues have been pretty much stated by the mayor and Tom Finkelpearl—diversity, equality. My major concern too is that New York is becoming extremely expensive for artists to work and live here, to produce here.

That’s the paradox—the creative community being the thin edge of the gentrification wedge. By coming into a neighborhood, artists make it unaffordable for themselves and everyone else.

That’s a hard one. Because the developers are onto that. You bring in artists and prices go up. [Before,] if artists couldn’t afford to live there, we had all these other places for artists to move to. We don’t have that anymore. I think you’re looking at finding ways for permanent spaces. We [Rockefeller Brothers Fund] support a project, Artspace, up in PS109, which was converted into artists’ housing and studios. A drop in the bucket, in terms of the numbers of people. There need to be more projects.

It’s really difficult to be an artist in New York City. What does that mean, and how can we change that tide? One of my concerns obviously is the international dimension, and how New York is still a destination for international artists. They still want to work and come and live here. How do we make that happen? Again, because it’s just becoming impossible to do things here.

That’s where we tie in the Cuba thing. Every week, there’s a handful of Cuban artists here. They want to work here, they want to exhibit here. That international dimension of New York City is very important going forward.

Some people think that human rights and censorship issues should be playing a larger part in the discussions between Cuba and the US. What are your thoughts on this? Do you see it playing out in the philanthropic arena?

Philanthropy and international cooperation can certainly play an important role in the human rights area—as they’ve done in other countries, through their traditional mediating and convening roles. So too can arts and culture. Artists can provide social commentary that highlight societal concerns and help spark important discussions.

What is interesting is that Cuba has had an extensive history of performance art, and artists have been very important actors in that history. It’s clear that the government and artist relationships has been quite difficult. But throughout the decades, Cuban artists have brought to light many issues about race, religion, and inequality that others haven’t been able to. This is well documented in a recent book by Coco Fusco. [Dangerous Moves: Politics and Performance in Cuba.]

I believe a grounded understanding of this history is critical to moving forward. My hope is that Cuban artists can continue to add to the discussions taking place now and help foster greater tolerance, diversity, and reconciliation. Art moves society and the spirit in a special way.