Trendi­ness bring­ing Cuban artists riches


Late one balmy spring night dur­ing Ha­vana’s 12th Bi­en­nial, young work­ing- class men and women lounged on a stretch of sand dot­ted with fold­ing chairs and um­brel­las, an ar­ti­fi­cial beach cre­ated as an art in­stal­la­tion on the cap­i­tal’s Male­con sea­side prom­e­nade.

Mean­while, at Sotheby’s auc­tion house in New York, the beach’s 40- year- old cre­ator, Ar­les del Rio, sold an­other piece fea­tured at the last bi­en­nial for US$11,875, more than 40 times the an­nual salary of an or­di­nary Cuban. The piece, ti­tled “Fly Away,” is made of chain- link fence with a hole in the shape of a jet, mak­ing it ap­pear the plane flew right through it.

Cuba’s grow­ing in­ter­na­tional trendi­ness com­bined with the gov­ern­ment’s topsy- turvy la­bor reg­u­la­tions are mak­ing sculp­tors, pain­ters and other artists some of the rich­est peo­ple on the is­land. It’s a demon­stra­tion both of Cuba’s ac­com­plish­ments in cul­ture and ed­u­ca­tion, as well as its eco­nomic dif­fi­cul­ties af­ter a half­cen­tury of com­mu­nism.

“When I was in art school, my par­ents al­most threw me out of the house be­cause I hadn’t cho­sen a ‘ real’ ca­reer,” said print­maker Max Del­gado. “Th­ese days, there’s real com­pe­ti­tion among kids study­ing mu­sic or paint­ing.”

Cuba al­lows its cit­i­zens to work in hun­dreds of types of pri­vate jobs out­side the state-run econ­omy but vir­tu­ally none of those po­si­tions al­low en­trepreneurs to cre­ate real wealth. The is­land’s most po­ten­tially prof­itable busi­ness sec­tors and pro­fes­sions re­main en­tirely un­der con­trol of the state, which cur­rently pays an av­er­age salary of a lit­tle more than US$23 a month, or about US$280 a year, in ad­di­tion to the heav­ily sub­si­dized health and other gov­ern­ment ser­vices ev­ery­one gets.

But an ex­cep­tion was cre­ated at the end of the 1980s, when in­de­pen­dent artists be­came some of the first Cubans that the gov­ern­ment al­lowed to earn money out­side the con­fines of the state and keep the prof­its from the di­rect sales of their work, some­times for tens of thou­sands of dol­lars.

That has cre­ated a tiny class of artists who are wealthy by Cuban stan­dards and can divide their time be­tween the is­land and coun­tries such as the United States or Spain. They can duck Cuba’s roughly 50 per­cent in­come tax on works sold out­side Cuba.

Cuban econ­o­mist Ar­turo Lopez-Levy, a lec­turer at the Uni­ver­sity of Den­ver, said that un­der the is­land’s bi­fur­cated econ­omy most peo­ple earn puny state salaries while those with ac­cess to for­eign money like the top-end artists can live like kings.

In the Sotheby’s auc­tion two weeks ago, the works of Cuban artists sur­passed ex­pec­ta­tions. One piece by Alexan­dro Ar­rechea went for US$118,000, a lot of three pieces by a pair of artists who call them­selves Los Carpin­teros cap­tured US$60,000, and a sculp­ture by the artists’ col­lec­tive “The Merger” got US$50,000.

“This sit­u­a­tion is due above all to the cre­ation of a two-lane econ­omy, with one sec­tor con­nected to the mar­ket and an­other with the rem­nants of the com­mand econ­omy in­her­ited from the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s,” LopezLevy said.

Along with medicine and science, art and mu­sic are fields in which small, poor Cuba punches far above its weight. While it treats medicine and sci­en­tific re­search as re­sources to be jeal­ously guarded for the good of the na­tion, the gov­ern­ment has seen artists and mu­si­cians as val­ued cul­tural am­bas­sadors who are af­forded spe­cial treat­ment.

The phe­nom­e­non is only ex­pected to grow with warm­ing ties be­tween Cuba and the U.S. The de­tente is al­low­ing more Amer­i­can vis­i­tors, in­clud­ing wealthy art col­lec­tors, to travel legally to the is­land on “ed­u­ca­tional” tours that of­ten in­clude the pur­chase of art, which can be legally ex­ported back to the United States.

Or­ga­niz­ers of the 2015 Bi­en­nial that opened May 22 have said they ex­pect 2,500 Amer­i­cans will visit this year’s fair, many of them art buy­ers, be­fore it wraps up on June 22.

Don Pap­palardo, founder and CEO of Troika, an arts and en­ter­tain­ment mar­ket­ing con­sul­tancy in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, said Cuba is “is one of the most vi­tal ar­eas for con­tem­po­rary art in the world to­day.”

“Grow­ing hype around Cuba will likely at­tract col­lec­tors who are look­ing for the next big thing,” Pap­palardo, him­self an avid col­lec­tor of Latin Amer­i­can works, said dur­ing a visit to Ha- vana Bi­en­nial. “Some prices will go up, which is great for the artists. Some prices may go crazy, which is great for in­vest­ment col­lec­tors but not al­ways great for ev­ery­one else.”

Many of the vis­it­ing Amer­i­cans are tour­ing mid­dle-class Ha­vana neigh­bor­hoods dot­ted with im­mac­u­lately re­stored homes where the artists live and have cre­ated pri­vate gal­leries of their work.

“Com­pared to the me­dian they live very well,” Rafael Acosta de Ar­riba, an art critic and for­mer head of the Na­tional Fine Arts Coun­cil, said of Cuba’s artists. “Cuban artists are very well com­pen­sated, but from abroad be­cause in Cuba there is no do­mes­tic art mar­ket.”

Top pain­ters, sculp­tors and other artists, for in­stance, are among the very few Cubans who reg­u­larly pa­tron­ize high- priced pri­vate restau­rants that cater mainly to for­eign­ers.

For the artists them­selves, the sit­u­a­tion is a lucky com­bi­na­tion of the qual­ity of their art and an econ­omy that has left them in a po­si­tion of un­ex­pected priv­i­lege.

“Cuban art is gain­ing fans,” Del­gado said. “You can take ad­van­tage of earn­ing at global prices and living and work­ing here.”


In this May 15 file photo, the en­trance to the stu­dio and art gallery of Cuban artist Leo D’Lazaro, named “The Eye of the Hur­ri­cane,” stands open in Old Ha­vana, Cuba.

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