THE FORTUITOUS NATURE OF A CALLING
Luciano Mendez’s Contemporary Cuban Art Collection
The Cuban art collection has a short–standing and fractured history. During recent decades, after national production presented itself to the world with dazzling and renewed spirit, a high percentage of our plastic arts mainly increased in overseas private collections. That is why, Luciano Méndez’s contemporary Cuban art collection has the additional appeal of remaining in Cuba.
More than 500 artistic works and 60 artists are part of such a collection, notable for its high quality pieces of art and for being very as representative, particularly of pictorial art of recent years on the island. Pieces created by Luis Enríquez Camejo, Moisés Finalé, Roberto Fabelo and Kcho, among other renowned Cuban painters, seduced this experienced banker, until he became a collector recognized for his sound judgment.
When and with what purpose did you turn your attention towards Cuban arts?
For work reasons I came to live in Cuba in 2004. At first I began purchasing affordable pieces to decorate the offices of the bank in which I worked and for my home.
I started visiting exhibitions and approaching gallery owners and art critics, and I sensed an authentic explosion of good art, beyond what I have seen in other countries I have visited as a banker. Becoming a collector was not a deliberated decision; instead, I acquired more and more pieces of art, with more economic relevance, that gave me greater satisfaction.
Still a bank office, the workplace is now an exhibition site cherished by employees and visiting clients; some latest, who often visit our office, also do so interested in the new art work exhibited in the bank.
At home things are similar, so, collecting Cuban art pieces became unstoppable for me. The hobby has taken on a considerable dimension. I accept being called a collector.
Do you still purchase pieces just because you like them, or do you consider the commercial potential implicit in collecting artworks?
The commercial potential is present in any economic choice: if you purchase a house, a vehicle or any other asset. All daily human decisions have an economic component. In an art collection, that is not inherited, obtained through work and savings, you have to be cautious. I do not have a commercial purpose. I’m happy with the investment not falling under the mean value.
If I support young artists, new graduates from arts schools because they are part of my collection, and if I support self–taught artists, from the investment view point, to any analyst, it is erroneous. But in my view, a collection and a collector should not only consider the value of a collection in five or fifty years’ time, but should be guided by their defining features.
What are the keys to defining your collection?
First, I solely and exclusively purchase pieces of work by Cubans living and working in Cuba. So, out of the 500 works, some might have been painted away from Cuba, but I would dare to say that all of them were painted on the island.
A few of the pieces were not in Cuba, and in a way, I have rescued them.
I do not collect Vanguardia (avant–garde) or Colonial works. Secondly, I buy solely and exclusively pieces I like.
This means I disregard pieces sold at interesting prices but not to my liking. If I do not like them, they will not be part of my collection.
Thirdly, I get a lot of information, I try to visit many exhibitions; visiting all is impossible because there are many. I read publications, and of course I read Art On Cuba. And I care about critics’ opinions.
I make an effort to personally meet the artists and that is the fourth issue; as a collector it is important to include and interpret the work by knowing about the author, his thoughts and inspirations, his spiritual experiences to create. Artists reflect themselves in their creation, so I need to know both. There are paintings I might collect by all means, because I like them, but I always try to learn about the artist’s perception.
You have bet on Cuban art and its strength is one of the reasons you collect it. How do you believe Cuban art is internationally perceived, both from the commercial and the artistic points of view?
In global terms, in the artistic world justice has not been served considering the quality of contemporary Cuban arts. It is a pending issue. The celebration of Biennial exhibitions is important. In the absence of an Arts Fair in Havana, the coming Biennial could be the most important so far. I would support an arts fair as it would be very powerful. Biennials fill those gaps. The evolution in the last Biennials creates expectation, with an increasing number of visitors, collectors and critics. The focus is slowly shifting to Cuba.
What is your intention when you organize exhibitions with pieces from your collection?
I want the Cuban audience to learn about it. I want not only the bank’s clients or my friends to know about it. Three exhibitions have been organized in Havana, in the José Martí Memorial and there are plans to organize another in January, 2018. I am also organizing the Traveling Cuba exhibition, to take pieces of art from Santiago de Cuba to Pinar del Río. Furthermore,
I am planning an exhibition in Spain for 2019, initially in Barcelona and Madrid.
Why have you always been the curator for your collection?
Because I feel pretty comfortable and committed to taking care of my own collection. Perhaps at some point that will change, but at this stage and since I started the collection to date, I prefer to take on that responsibility, I mean: selecting artists, pieces of art and determining the destination.
Every exhibition has a purpose: in the first one, almost all were acclaimed artists; in the second, we find artists in the middle of their creative work, and in the third exposition, there were acclaimed creators, some others in the middle of their creative work and some beginners. The fourth exhibition includes acclaimed creators, but there is a new element: sculpture.
The exposition in Spain will incorporate photography and video. The exhibitions are a mirror of what happens in the collection.
Why have you decided to include four well known artists: Alfredo Sosabravo, Roberto Fabelo, Manuel Mendive and Pedro Pablo Oliva, in the next exhibition, incorporating sculptures?
The fourth exhibition is an initiative shared with the José Martí Memorial. I believe the first three closed a cycle. The catalogues are white, blue and red, respectively. The colors of the Cuban flag. This one should be different. I sought information on recent exhibitions and found nothing similar. The title will be Between Canvases and Sculptures. No previous exhibition has gathered these four artists, who are authentic sensations, both in painting and in sculpture. That is why I suggest them. In my view, it is going to be attractive and I have attempted to bring together canvases and sculptures highly representative of each artist’s work.
... in my view, a collection and a collector should not only consider the value of a collection in five or 50 years’ time, but should be guided by their defining features.
How do you incorporate sculpture in your collection?
I arrived late to sculpture, but I knew for sure I was going to get to it, since the very first moment I started collecting pieces of art. I had to be mature as a collector; I had to follow my evolution until I could appreciate three-dimensional art. The first pieces are by the four in Between Canvases and Sculptures, but I also have some other pieces in my collection. The same occurs with photography. We are in the 21st century and we cannot conceive an art exhibition without photography or video art.
Experts in your exhibitions repeat: José Veigas as critic, R10 as designer and Ricardo Elías as photographer.
I believe in the importance of teams, human teams. There are people who have been working with me for 25 or 30 years in this office. If the team works, it works. However, in the next exhibitions the team shall be increased. In the show in January in the Memorial, there will be a text from Pepe Veigas and another one Moraima Clavijo. As well as the photography by Ricardo Elías, Rodolfo Marquetti will take photos of the sculpture. Spanish specialists will work in our team in the exhibition in Spain.
... I consider all collectors to have a responsibility toward society. Pieces of art are not to be merely enjoyed by the collector, his relatives and friends. They are a heritage to be shared.
How appropriate or not is the arts market in Cuba for collectors, where the pieces are directly obtained in the artists’ Studios, without a gallery or a fair facilitating?
The way collectors has obtained works has varied through history. In Rembrandt’s Holland, both, he and his coevals painted for personally known buyers, and they even interacted with their relatives. The context of their legislation and the framework of what we call Galleries had little influence on their collecting style.
In the 21st century things are different. I am not in favor or against any of the current practices. We collectors must adapt without trying to change given practices, which would be pretentious, especially as a foreigner. We cannot hope to obtain pieces as if we were in another country: you are where you are. I enjoy this dynamic as, as I said, one of my purposes is to meet artists and learn about their creative process. In this regard, all this is fine with me.
With no intention you became and consider yourself a collector. What is your greatest responsibility as a contemporary Cuban art collector?
In terms of responsibility, I consider all collectors to have a responsibility toward society. Pieces of art are not to be merely enjoyed by the collector, his relatives and friends. They are a heritage to be shared. Artists create in a social and historic framework. Those sharing that framework have a better understanding. Some works exhibited in Madrid, Paris or in any other city shall be perceived differently as interpreted in the artist’s country. They will understand some things but they will not recognize some others.
That is why I have arranged the exhibitions and I do not rule out the possibility to take one to Miami, so that Cubans living there may know the collection.
How important is it that the collection is in Cuba, remains in Cuba and that you show your interest in sharing it?
For me this is like rainwater; it is natural. I have been in this country for almost 15 years, my professional project is linked to it, and perhaps my life project is Cuba. Here I am, here there are the pieces of art and the artists. I cannot think of a better place than Cuba to have the collection.
TOMÁS SÁNCHEZ Paisaje, 1983 Tempera on paper 20¾ x 28¾ inches
ROBERTO FABELO Ovo II, 2016
Acrylic on embroidered silk 65¾ x 48 inches
MABEL POBLET Untitled
Mixed media on PVC 60¼ x 71¾ inches
PEDRO PABLO OLIVA
Las hermosas tardes de Don Severo, 2009 Oil on canvas
27½ x 19¾ inches