Cuba-US cultural exchanges set to expand with thaw in bilateral relations

The US-Cuba thaw should broaden the already existing cultural links

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 January, 2015, 10:20pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 January, 2015, 10:20pm

When President Barack Obama announced plans recently to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba, a bevy of US industries - from carmakers to tourism - seemed elated by the possibility of being able to operate in Cuba. The news was greeted with just as much enthusiasm from the culture industry: "Art collectors predict 'stampede' to Cuba," read one newspaper headline. Another trumpeted: "Renewed ties hit a high note for Cuban music lovers."

Grammy-winning producer, musician and composer Andres Levin, who is generally based in New York, happened to be in Havana for the announcement.

"It was extremely emotional," he wrote via email from Cuba. "An air of hope and positive change was felt all over the city, from the streets to the offices. We're still celebrating."

The anticipated diplomatic thaw, along with a possible lifting or easing of the decades-long US embargo, could transform how American artists and cultural organisations can operate in Cuba - and how Cuban artists and their respective groups can work in the US.

"We don't really know yet what will happen," says Holly Block, the executive director of New York's Bronx Museum, who landed in Havana on the day the plans were announced. "But I think restrictions on cultural exchange projects will be a priority for both sides. It's really exciting."

Block is in Havana because she's trying to work out an exchange between her institution and Cuba's Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (MNBA, National Fine Arts Museum). The idea is that works from the Bronx Museum's permanent collection will go on view at the MNBA during the 12th Havana Biennial, which opens in late May. This will be followed, in 2016, with a show of works from the Cuban museum's collection in New York.

"As part of it, we're bringing [artist] Mary Mattingly here for a project, so she'll be here working on charettes [collaborative design sessions] and different workshops," Block says. "We're also helping the museum start a teen programme."

It appears politicians are finally getting around to doing what artists have been doing for years: that is, prying apart a hidebound piece of cold war policy by finding opportunities to work together in ways that promote greater exchange between the two nations.

Though the US embargo prohibits Americans from trading with Cuba, the Berman Amendment of 1988 allows the exchange of information, which includes records, photographs, songs, drawings and other art. This means that while it's impossible to bring a box of Cuban cigars into the US (a commercial product), it is possible to import a painting (information).

So even as American and Cuban politicians have given each other the cold shoulder over the years, artists and arts organisations have found ways to connect.

In fact, there has been a long tradition of cultural exchange between Cuba and the US, one that ebbs and flows according to the politics of each presidential administration.

For years, Cuban artists have shown their work in US museums, danced on US stages and jammed in US nightclubs. Artist Kcho had a major exhibition of his work at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles in 1997; singer-songwriter Silvio Rodriguez played New York's Carnegie Hall in 2010. And there have been countless other Cuban nationals hosted by US venues despite the embargo, including the singers of the Buena Vista Social Club, the grooving big band Los Van Van and ballerina Alicia Alonso.

In recent years, the traffic has gone the other way, with American musicians and artists of all stripes, including Cuban-American theatre troupes, spending time in Cuba while curators, art collectors and producers regularly descend on Havana to scour the city for new talent.

The Havana Biennial, which is held in locations around the capital every two to three years (it's a biennial in name only), is now a pit stop on the international art circuit.

We don’t really know yet what will happen. But … it’s really exciting

Recently, Rent became the first Broadway production on the island in roughly 50 years. It is produced by Robert Nederlander Jnr (a member of a Broadway producing clan) and is directed by Andy Senor, a Cuban-American who starred in the original musical in the 1990s. The show will run for three months and the entry fee will be 50 US cents. "It's more about enjoyment and education than money," Nederlander told a British daily.

The announcements by Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro won't affect the particulars of any of these projects in progress. But the move does have many people in the cultural sphere considering what might be artistically possible between the two countries in future.

"The first thing is that high-quality exhibitions of US artists in Cuba is not something that they've been able to have very much of," Block says. "The second thing that changes is that right now we're only seeing some artists. Many Cuban artists have to go through Europe to get to the US and have to wait a long time for permission to enter."

Easier access for Cuban artists, says Block, will expand the range of Cuban art to see in the US. The same goes for the music industry.

"There is a new generation of artists that are hungry," says Levin, "while also blessed with extraordinary music preparation thanks to the education benefits."

Levin, who is married to Cuban-born Latin fusion songstress Cucu Diamantes, has put together a number of events in Cuba in recent years. Last month, he staged the first-ever TEDx event in Havana, which was two years in the making. And, in 2010, he helped organise Diamantes' tour of Cuba (he plays guitar in her band), which featured guest appearances from Cuban musicians such as trumpeter Alexander Abreu and the rumba band Los Munequitos de Matanzas.

"Even though visits and licensed projects with Cuba have been possible for a few years now," Levin says, "with wider possibilities, they will generate a lot more activity."

As the Cuban government has eased restrictions on travel by its citizens, some prominent artists have taken to living abroad, especially in Europe, which has made it possible for them to be represented by American galleries.

Los Carpinteros, a Cuban art collective, is part of the stable at Sean Kelly, the same New York gallery that represents Marina Abramovic. Alexandre Arrechea, who last year dotted Manhattan with a series of architectonic sculptures, is on the roster at Magnan Metz, also based in New York.

Rosa Lowinger, a Los Angeles-based art and architecture conservator, was born in Cuba but has lived most of her life in the US. She has written about Cuba's music, art and architecture. She says the opportunities presented by the political shift are beyond exciting. "The 20th century saw so much interaction between Cuba and the US," she says.

"There was so much professional back and forth. A lot of the Cuban architects who built all the modern architecture, they trained at [the Georgia Institute of Technology]. For me, it's really about that connection. The two countries, at one point, were really so close.

"That's something a lot of people forget. In Havana, there is a lot of American history, too."

Los Angeles Times