Havana Biennial: Bargains, hype, politics and the Malecon
by Beth Harpaz
The Associated Press, June 20, 2015
The Havana Biennial art exposition wrapping up Monday has been held 12 times since the 1980s. But this is the first since U.S. efforts to improve relations with Cuba began six months ago, allowing an unusually large contingent of American visitors.
Here are some observations from U.S. art collectors and their representatives about how Havana's art scene has evolved and the impact of detente.
PRICES: BARGAINS AND HYPE
Janda Wetherington, whose Pan American Art Projects gallery in Miami specializes in Cuban art, says prices have gone up since the last Biennial. Wetherington, who led a collectors' tour during the event, said works for mid-career artists that ran $1,000-$5,000 during the last Biennial are in the $5,000-$20,000 range now, while established artists sell works for up to a half-million.
But at least one young artist, a student at Havana's prestigious high school for the arts, overestimated the Biennial hype. She lost a sale by pricing a copy of a video at $3,500. The work used the school bathroom as its gallery, projecting video images that made it look like a sink was filled with swimming fish.
"It was a brilliant piece, a wonderful trompe-l'oeil," said Louise Martorano, executive director of RedLine, a Denver contemporary arts center that organized the tour where a would-be buyer saw the video. The price — quoted in consultation with a teacher — misjudged what an American visitor would pay for a flash drive of the work.
For big spenders, though, prices are so low they're "ridiculous," said Howard Farber, who says he's spent "many millions" buying Cuban art since his first trip to Havana in 2001. "If you look at the prices of American contemporary art, you could have a great Cuban collection for what you pay in sales tax in the U.S. for comparable work."
Farber, a New Yorker who plans to buy six pieces he saw during the Biennial, has made a fortune buying and selling American modernist and Chinese contemporary art. He says Cuba offers "the biggest opportunity for an art collector to start a collection. You might say I'm saying that to boost the value of my own collection, but I can't buy everything, and I'm still buying."
FROM PRIVATE VENUES TO THE MALECON
Many Biennial attendees said the most memorable event was on Havana's waterfront promenade.
"One of the most exciting components of the Biennial was seeing the public interact with outdoor artworks along the Malecon," said Sara Reisman, curator for Shelley and Donald Rubin, who own 1,000 works of Cuban art in addition to the Himalayan art displayed in New York's Rubin Museum. "Locals and tourists alike were interacting with the works at all times of day and night."
Highlights included a mural along the wall by Emilio Perez, interlocking rocking chairs by Ruben Hernandez Varenes, and an artificial ice rink.
The variety of venues around Havana also made this Biennial different.
"In the past an artist or group would not be put on the Biennial calendars if they weren't in an officially sanctioned space," said Wetherington. This time, venues ranged from alternative spaces like La Fabrica, a hybrid gallery and nightclub, to private homes where artists live and work together.
"You couldn't see that 10 years ago. The government would not have permitted it," agreed Patricia Hanna, curator for Jorge Perez, founder of the Miami museum that bears his name. The new venues offer "much more opportunity" for artists to sell outside a formal gallery system, and to show their work to both collectors and ordinary Cubans.
POLITICS, ISOLATION AND HEROES
Many Biennial works fit comfortably into contemporary minimalism, like an immersive mirrored installation with a color scale by Rachel Valdes Camejo, one of Martorano's favorite pieces.
Other pieces had political themes, like a yellow brick road made from wood spilling over Havana's seawall into the Atlantic, and a shattered American flag made from pick-up sticks.
"A lot of people have been shocked by how much freedom (the artists) seem to have," said Wetherington. "But to a certain extent, the artists are a little bit of a pawn in the political world." She said Cuba's government can appear liberal by allowing artists to travel and create work with messages that may or may not be subversive, depending on how they're interpreted.
Louis Varela Nevaer, who collects Cuban art but didn't buy anything during this Biennial, thinks there's actually "a great deal of control" on what artists can do inside Cuba. "The more controversial art is being shown outside Cuba — Mexico, France and Spain mostly," said Nevaer, who is based in New York.
Dan Pappalardo, founder and CEO of Troika, a Hollywood branding and marketing company, spent $100,000 on art on a prior trip to Cuba and bought more during the Biennial. The art "really resonated," he said, especially themes related to isolation and loved ones leaving. "There's an authenticity that comes from such a deep-rooted place, less influenced by global trends," he said.
He also marveled at the interest shown by ordinary Cubans. "The artists are part of the culture," he said. "They're revered like our movie stars are. They become heroes."
Mérida, Gateway to Cuban Art
Interview with Louis E.V. Nevaer conducted by Beth Harpaz of the Associated Press.
Q: Is it complicated for you to buy art and transport it back to the US in terms of bringing cash or transferring money for purchases or logistics for transporting art?
A: At this stage of the game, it’s preferable to go to Cuba to assess the art scene, not necessarily start buying up the place. Remember, given the fluid nature of U.S.-Cuba relations, this is, in essence, an opportunity to meet artists, see what the Cuban art themes and trends are, and get a better understanding of who’s who as the market matures in Cuba today. Of course, if there’s a piece that you have to have, it’s best to work through the established regulations of the OFAC at the U.S. Treasury. If you’re going to be serious as a collector or connoisseur, you have to play by the rules. Of course, the rules are changing as relations being the process of normalizing.
Another reason for patience and moving with precision is simple: serious Cuban artists have long caught the eye of Mexican, Spanish and French collectors. In consequence many Cuban artists have representation overseas (in Mexico and Europe). This means there is not one artist that can be considered accomplished or mid-career whose work you cannot get from galleries outside Havana.
We forget that Mérida, capital of Yucatán State, is becoming the gateway to contemporary Cuban artists. Francois Valcke and Gerardo Martínez of Tataya Gallery represent some of the most outstanding mid-career Cuban artists working today. These two curators have a breathtaking collection of artists—and it is because of them that Mérida is a “go to” destination for serious collectors of contemporary Cuban art.
Q: What are the prices like in Cuba? What is the potential for the art market here in terms of prices during the biennial?
A: The prices are lower than one would expect buying the same piece in Mexico or Europe, but then again, those galleries incurred other costs: shipping, insurance, mounting. So in the end it’s a wash. Just because you find a piece you love in Havana—well, it might entail several thousands of dollars to ship it, insurance, have the proper paperwork, and then mount/frame it.
Q: Are there any emerging artists who are particularly interesting to you and others? Are you hoping to discover unknowns or is it more about acquiring work by people who are famous already?
A: Everyone would want a piece by Wilfredo Lam or Belkis Ayón. But good luck finding their artwork! Both late artists are considered national treasures. That doesn’t mean there aren’t wonderful artists who will become stars in a few short years.
These are the Cuban artists I collect, some are unknown and some are already established. But I collect them because I like their art:
Carlos del Toro
Enrique Giovanni Miralles Tartabull
Arien Guerra Porto
Eduardo Hernandez Santos
Q: How has the thaw in relations affected the art market here? Did prices go up?
A: It’s too early to tell. There is certainly more excitement about possibilities. But possibilities and realities don't often complement each other in life. That said, serious collectors buy art because it is good and it speaks to them. Just because someone decides to start making heads from coconut shells and says it’s “Cuban” doesn’t mean it will be any more art than a kitsch souvenir in a tee-shirt shop. What the thaw in relations means, however, is that Cuban artists will have access to more and better supplies to let their imagination and talents flourish—and they will have access to a wider selection of collectors who can purchase their works.
Q: How has the embargo impacted art here? Do you find the artists are more creative due to limits on supplies?
A: Cuba’s isolation resulted in two things: Some artists, with limited access to the evolution/participation in the art for half a century (since the early 1960s), having a distorted or not complete understanding of the contemporary art movement—and therefore making derivative art that wasn’t very interesting. Other artists, however, locked away from the rest of the world turned inward and made some very, very, very exciting and reflective art that is quintessentially Cuban. Without promoting artists, this is what I find so thrilling about Lino Vizcaíno, Enrique Giovanni Miralles Tartabull, and Juan C Menéndez, where you see the essence of Cuba’s Santeria, African heritage, and an isolation that nurtured a distinct vision.