The panel on “Mapping the Development of Cuban Art in Miami.” From left: collector Peter Menéndez, collector and Cuban Art News publisher Howard Farber, gallerists Frederic Snitzer and Ramón Cernuda, and moderator Dr. Juan A. Martínez. At the podium, Dialogues in Cuban Art organizer Elizabeth Cerejido.
Courtesy Rafael DiazCasas

Janet Batet reports on the two-day symposium that took place in Miami at the end of April. Here in Part 1, she discusses the panel on Cuban art in Miami, with the report on the artists’ and curators’ panels to come in Part 2.

Between April 28 and 29, the Dialogues in Cuban Art symposium was held. Sponsored by the Knight Foundation and hosted by the Pérez Art Museum Miami, the conference was directed by Elizabeth Cerejido, curator of the project.

According to the Dialogues in Cuban Art website, the program—which is the culmination of visits by Cuban-American artists to the island on May 27–June 5, 2015, and by Cuban artists and curators who visited Miami this past April 20­–29—is intended ” to provide a discursive and expository platform that facilitates intellectually engaging dialogue between Cuban and Cuban-American artists and other cultural actors, specifically from Miami and Havana, in an effort to expand an understanding of Cuban art beyond geographic demarcations.”

Undoubtedly, the most substantial and structured panel of this core symposium was Mapping the Development of Cuban Art in Miami: Private Consumption, Public Circulation, moderated by Dr. Juan Martínez, with the participation of Ramón Cernuda, Fredric Snitzer, Howard Farber and Peter Menéndez.

Their enlightening presentations succinctly outlined vital moments in the history of Cuban art in Miami through collecting, promotion, and commercial activity since the first wave of Cuban immigrants arriving in the 1960s to the present day. It was an opportunity that we rarely have, even in South Florida, where there is much still to do in terms of the systematization and study of Cuban and Cuban-American art, as well as its impact on the development of the arts of in this region.

Ramón Cernuda and Dr. Juan A. Martínez
Photo: René Azcuy

Dr. Juan Martínez, in his masterly introduction, referred to different generations of Cuban artists in South Florida in the last 50years:

In the case of Miami, you have different groups. You have the group of Cuban-Americans who emerged in the 1970s and 1980s in the city; you have the Mariel Generation; you have Cuba’s 1980s generation, both of them who worked at the beginning and the end of the decade; in fact many of them came to live here in Miami and still do their work here. And then you have the people post-2000, some [who came] to live, some of them passing trough, but in both cases, exhibiting and selling works of art in here. So there are these specific groups that perhaps also can be alluded to in some detail.

Ramón Cernuda´s relevant and articulate presentation Cuban Art in Miami. Past, Present and Future: Fifty Years In Fifteen Minutes pinpointed essential moments in this half-century in the city of Miami. Among the highlights: the central role of the Bacardi Art Gallery, founded in 1964, the first gallery devoted to Cuban art exhibitions in the city; the pioneering role played by the Forma Gallery, founded in 1977, the first commercial gallery devoted to Latin American art in Miami; the Meeting Point Gallery and the founding of the Cuban Museum of Arts and Culture, founded in Little Havana in October 1982, which became the new epicenter of Cuban culture in the city as local Cuban art collecting continued to grow.

The Bacardi Building, Miami, in the 1960s

Other key milestones singled out by Cernuda was the first presentation of Sotheby’s Latin American Art Auction in Miami in 1984; the creation of the Art Miami fair and its role in the promotion and marketing of Cuban and Cuban-American art in the city; and the support of critics such as Rafael Casalins and Norma Niurka from the pages of El Nuevo Herald.

Drawing a parallel of dark years on both sides of the Florida Straits, Cernuda noted that Miami also had its quinquenio gris—referring to the rarefied atmosphere that prevailed in the city when, in 1988, Miami was presented for the first time with the work of an artist living on the island. This incident brought controversy, death threats, and terrorist acts, followed by an FBI investigation. (The artwork, El Pavo Real by Manuel Mendive, was burned in the street, and the Cuban Museum was bombed two weeks later.) It also led to the civil suit CERNUDA v. HEAVEY. The decision in this case helped pave the way for the promotion, exhibition, and sale of art produced in Cuba within the United States. Cernuda noted in his speech:

The Judicial case Cernuda versus the US Government, case No. 89-1265 from September 1989 opened up the roads and cleared up the way for the legal and unobstructed arrival of Cuban art from the island to the Unites States of America. That day, it was ruled that the Embargo Laws cannot be applied to the art.

This case, based in Florida, served as a vital precedent to the lawsuit presented in federal court on June 5, 1990m to the US Treasury Department by the National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee (NECLC).

Howard Farber, in his speech, talked about the work of the Farber Foundation, since his first incursion into Cuban art in 2001, when he and his wife, Patricia Farber, first visited the island as part of an organized cultural exchange sponsored by Metropolitan Museum, and then his visit to Miami:

A visit to Miami soon revealed many fabulous, thriving Cuban artists living right here. It was heaven. I met them and bought works by them all.

Howard Farber speaking about The Farber Collection. The image is Ciencia e ideología: Che (Science and Idiology: Che), 1987–88, by Arturo Cuenca.
Photo: René Azcuy

In 2001, The Farber Collection was born. The year 2007 was vital for the collection in its crucial mission, which deserves to be mentioned in this context.

The Farber Collection is an international collection. It gathers together works by Cuban-born artists residing in many countries: Cuba, of course, but also Mexico, Canada, the United States, Germany, and beyond. The impulse to acquire these works did not arise from political motivation. Rather, it began as an effort to recover and preserve the art of an era—art that, to my mind, was in great danger of being lost.

Many artists left Cuba in the early 1990s thinking that their fame in Havana would easily translate elsewhere. Several did achieve international success, but others struggled to re-establish their creative lives under unexpectedly challenging circumstances. Some, in Cuba and elsewhere, abandoned art for other careers. In many cases, work was left behind. Several pieces in the collection have never been publicly exhibited, either in Cuba or abroad.

In 2007, Cuba Avant-garde: Contemporary Cuban Art from the Farber Collection, a traveling museum exhibition, highlighted the cohesive nature of the collection and its vital role in the recovery of a culture:

When I saw [the exhibition] for the very first time, I realized something really profound. The artists in The Farber Collection live everywhere in the world, but their art is about Cuba. And then the theme emerged: the artworks spoke of a time and a place in Cuba, of the people who lived, and loved, and struggled there. It was very moving to me and very powerful, and started me thinking, once again, of the next move.

Howard Farber speaking about projects funded by The Farber Foundation.
Photo: Cuban Art News

The Farber Foundation began to provide scholarships and residences that were not limited to the visual arts but included other creative disciplines such as ballet, music, books, and  documentaries. And in 2009, Cuban Art News was founded.

Cuban Art News is an online publication that reports the news on Cuban art from everywhere in the world, to everywhere in the world. We report on visual arts, shows, and events, auction news, dance, music, new publications, architecture, and even philanthropy. The need was there. Curators, gallerists, collectors, students, writers, and artists from everywhere have made it their go-to reference to what’s happening in Cuban cultural life.

Six years later, in its mission to recognize, promote and reward the contemporary Cuban art, The Farber Foundation launched another vital project, the Cuban Art Awards. It is noteworthy that, although awards dedicated to Cuban art already existed—the CINTAS Fellowship (established in 1963 by the CINTAS Foundation) and the Premio Nacional de Artes Plásticas (established in 1994 by the Cuban Ministry of Culture), to name two notable examples—these important awards, which safeguard and encourage Cuban creativity, are framed within geographical limits (again, the unfortunate dichotomy of inside/outside Cuba). This dichotomy emphasizes the division of a unique and very rich cause, which is ultimately Cuban culture. The Cuban Art Awards, created from a global perspective of contemporary Cuban production, discards this territorialization of Cuban art and recognizes the diaspora of contemporary Cuban art and its global nature.

Alexandre Arrechea accepting the first Cuban Art Awards prize for Artist of the Year at the Havana Biennial in 2015.
Photo: Ladyrene Pérez

With this conceptual framework, the Cuban Art Awards have eight nominators and eight jurors, drawn from all corners of the world, who recognize the work of Cuban artists regardless of where they currently reside. The first edition, presented during the Havana Biennial in May 2015, presented awards to Alexandre Arrechea and Celia-Yunior, in a determined attempt to continue erasing those phantom boundaries that have been impeding the development of  contemporary Cuban art. During his presentation, Farber announced his interest in holding the second presentation of the Cuban Art Awards in Miami.

Peter Menéndez´s presentation focused on the personal and well-advised character of his collection, which includes such vital names as Félix González-Torres, Ana Mendieta, Carlos Alfonzo, José Bedia, Tomás Esson, Carlos Rodríguez Cárdenas, Luis Gispert, Leyden Rodríguez Casanova, Bert Rodríguez, and Rafael Domenech, among others. His presentation was the only point in the symposium that made reference to the exhibition Fifteen Cuban Artists: Pilot Exhibition, presented in 1991 by the Gallery Ninart, as a vital milestone in the history of contemporary Cuban art.

Fifteen Cuban Artists has the indisputable merit of linking the production of Cuban artists within and beyond the island, including the work of Cuban-American artists like Félix González-Torres, Luis Cruz Azaceta, and César Trasobares. In the foreword to the catalogue Nina Menocal said:

For the first time from the start of the Revolution, the exhibition that we present does not distinguish between artists based on the island, those who work temporarily in Mexico, and those that have gone to the United States or developed there. I am filled with joy that these artists—found in Cuba, Mexico, Miami, and New York—agreed to participate. Wherever they settle, the Cubans of the new generation are imbued with a creative spirit that breaks with the rules of the past. Quince Artistas Cubanos is a pilot exhibition, the first to reunite cutting-edge artists of Adentro and Afuera to compare identities and roots.

Menéndez’s presentation also pinpointed another vital moment in the history of contemporary Cuban art, this time referring to the South Florida art scene: The Miami Generation: Nine Cuban-American Artists. Presented in 1983 by the Cuban Museum of Arts and Culture, The Miami Generation was largely the idea of Margarita Cano (Havana, 1932), a tireless promoter of Cuban culture, who entrusted its curatorship to art historian and critic Giulio V. Blanc (Havana, 1955–Miami, 1995). In the catalogue, Blanc described the artists in the exhibition:

For them, Cuba is revolution, exile, coming of age in a foreign land, myth. The country is seen through the eyes of nostalgic parents and in the contradictory pages of newspapers. (…) We have then a continuation of the conundrum faced by previous generations of Cuban artists, the only difference being that the members of the present generation have second-hand knowledge of Cuba and are concerned with the problems of exile and of biculturalism. They must come to terms with their heritage, their lives as members of an exile community, and reconcile this with a North American or European education and customs.

Pablo Cano, La Sebastiana, 1983, one of the works shown that year in The Miami Generation: Nine Cuban-American Artists
Courtesy Miami New Times

In 2014, the NSU Museum of Art, Fort Lauderdale presented The Miami Generation: Revisited, curated by Jorge Sanctis. Dr. Juan Martínez, in one of his concise and relevant presentations during the symposium, acknowledged the role of this institution over the years, and specifically Sanctis as its curator, in the study and promotion of the work of Cuban and Cuban-American artists.

An installation view of The Miami Generation: Revisited, presented at the NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale in 2014.
Courtesy NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale

Then Martínez said, with respect to private collections and the role of institutions in the Miami scene:

If you go to Miami collectors’ homes, you are amazed at the amount and quality of Cuban contemporary art in the walls. It is really amazing, but this is only half of story. If you go to other collectors’ houses, you’ll see an incredible amount and quality of Cuban modern art; probably more than there is in Cuba right now. So, if you put that together, 20th-century Cuban art is represented in Miami as well as in any other city of the world, included Havana.

(…) What it is missing to me in this equation is the public institutions that are not exhibiting it, that are not putting together any comprehensive exhibition of either modern or contemporary Cuban art. (…) I am sure that if we are allowed in the warehouse of this museum, we are going to find quite bit of Cuban art in there, and this is not the only museum in this town. So, what I find that we are missing in this town is the public institutional support, really, for the exhibition of all this art.

In addition to these missing elements, others should be noted: the lack of a systematized approach to at least half a century of Cuban art in Miami, and the lack of a comparative study of Cuban art in Miami dating back to the late 1970s and art developed on the island during the same period. Cuban art in Miami is a body of work that at moments has not been clearly understood within the local art scene, and has been attuned to what was happening in Havana.

In this regard, the pioneering role of conceptual art by artists such as Fernando García, or the irreverent interventions by the art group Nada (Tony Allegro, Janet Paparelli, Fredric Snitzer, Adalberto Delgado, José González Boada y Fernando García), should be acknowledged, along with younger generations of artists such as Luis Gispert, José Parlá, Teresita Fernández, William Cordova, Leyden Rodríguez Casanova, Bert Rodríguez, and many others.

Partial view of Teresita Fernández, Sfumato (Epic), 2014, installed at MASS MoCA.
Photo: Cuban Art News

Next: A report on the artists’ and curators’ panels, and an assessment of the symposium as a whole.