Cundo Bermúdez, Figuras con pescado (Figures with Fish), 1953
Courtesy Cernuda Arte

At the Dialogues in Cuban Art symposium that took place at the Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM) this spring, Cuban art expert and longtime gallerist Ramón Cernuda gave a talk entitled “Cuban Art in Miami, Past, Present and Future: Fifty Years in Fifteen Minutes.” Cuban Art News is pleased to present this valuable historical perspective, excerpted from his talk.

It was in Sweden, in 1968, that Andy Warhol promised every one of us fifteen minutes of fame.

I don’t know if this is my moment, but I certainly do appreciate the opportunity of your attention today, as I share my thoughts on a topic that has been central to me throughout my life.

The Bacardi Building in the 1960s

Let us imagine this convocation going back to the 1960s. The first wave of Cuban exiles from the Island brought with us the cultural values and traditions that defined our identity: language, history, religion, culinary practices, music, literature, and certainly the love for the art of our country.

In the early 1960s the political strife and the struggle for survival occupied most of the time and energy of the growing Cuban exile community. By the end of the decade, when it was evident that the return to the motherland would not be immediate, the Cuban exiles entrenched themselves inside their values, culture, and tradition, preparing themselves for the long wait.

The first exhibitions of Cuban art in the late 1960s and early 1970s in Miami were held at the Bacardi Art Gallery, founded in 1964.

Mario Carreño, Fuego en el batey (Fire at the Farm), 1943
Courtesy Cernuda Arte

There, the revered vanguardia artists—especially the first and second generations of this group, such as Carlos Enríquez, Fidelio Ponce, Mario Carreño, Cundo Bermúdez, José Mijares, Daniel Serra Badue, and others—were presented in group shows organized by Vera Wilson, Emeterio Zorilla, and Rosita Abella, oftentimes under the guidance, from a distance, of art critic José Gómez Sicre, then director of the Pan American Union Gallery (today the Art Museum of the Americas) in Washington, DC.

José Gómez Sicre, right, at the Pan American Union gallery with Ángel Hurtado and Shirley Temple Black, 1972
Courtesy Art Museum of the Americas

Cuban art in Miami had found its foothold, in good part thanks to the generosity and auspices of the Bacardi organization.

Then came the museums, the commercial galleries, the private dealers, the art critics, and the collectors—indispensable elements for a healthy and dynamic art scene.

In 1977, Marta Gutiérrez and Dora Valdés Fauli, with the assistance of artist and art historian César Trasobares, ran Forma Gallery, the first Latin American commercial art space in the city.

Shortly afterwards, Meeting Point, a gallery managed by Carlos M. Luis, was inaugurated. Other galleries followed, in response to the growth of private collections in the community.

From the pages of El Nuevo Herald, art critics Rafael Casalins and Norma Niurka gave recognition, and a measure of journalistic credence, to the art exhibits, which featured works from deceased Cuban artists from the past, Cuban exile artists, and younger Cuban American artists. No artists living in Cuba were presented.

The former Miami Art Museum
Courtesy Wikipedia

In October 1982, the Cuban Museum of Arts and Culture was founded in Little Havana. It immediately became the new epicenter for Cuban art in the city. Thousands attended the museum events, and the collector base for Cuban art continued to grow.

In 1984, Sotheby’s Latin American art auction first promoted its offerings in Miami, under the guidance of art historian Giulio Blanc and art enthusiast and collector Dolores Smithies.

Not long afterwards, the Art Miami fair was established, and quickly became a venue for the exhibition and marketing of accepted Cuban and Cuban American art in Miami.

As the market grew, the art community became more numerous and plural. The prevailing norms that had ordained the local art scene began to be questioned and defied.

The unwritten dictum that prohibited the local exhibition of works by Cuban artists from the Island was first shattered in 1988 with the inclusion of a painting by artist Manuel Mendive in a show at the Cuban Museum of the city.

All hell broke loose.

The disruption of the policies of censorship provoked a major social upheaval in the community. Debate, controversy, accusations of treason, violence, physical aggressions, acts of terrorism, and even governmental persecution ensued. It was a dark moment for Cuban art in Miami.

Fortunately, the US federal courts sided with the cause of freedom of expression and artistic freedom. The judicial decision, Cernuda versus the US Government, case no. 89-1265, from September 18, 1989, opened up the roads and cleared the way for the legal, unobstructed arrival of Cuban art from the Island to the United States of America.

That day, September 18, 1989, the courts ruled that the embargo laws could not be applied to the arts.

Under the new legal framework, slowly but surely modern and contemporary Cuban art began to flourish. The people-to-people policies of the Clinton Administration made it possible that Cuban artists—not only artworks—could come to the United States.

Flora Fong, La Llegada de la noche (The Arrival of the Night), 1997
Courtesy Cernuda Arte

In the year 2000, our gallery promoted and popularized in Miami one-person shows of Cuban Island artists, who were awarded US entry visas upon our letters of invitation to attend the openings of their exhibits.

Alfredo Sosabravo, Flora Fong, Miguel Florido, Roberto Diago, Ana Toledo, Vicente Hernández, and others participated in this groundbreaking moment.

Alberto Sosabravo, Mascarada Nocturna (Nocturnal Masquerade), 1999
Courtesy Cernuda Arte

The George W. Bush years, up to 2008, brought about a return to the days of disconnect.

Visas for Cuban artists were again nearly impossible to obtain. The importation of artworks and payment to artists on the Island required so much bureaucratic paperwork, inspections, and licenses, that all but a few galleries gave up.

You could not really survive without a specialized law firm assisting you. We had one.

As everyone now knows, there was light at the end of that tunnel, and the current redefinition of the bilateral relations between the two countries has opened wide avenues of contacts, visits, cultural exchanges, and potential growth for Cuban art in this city and in the whole of the United States.