Fresh Start

At the May 20 opening for The New Collection -- I, the Cuban Museum's current exhibition of recent permanent acquisitions, Ermita Fuentes, visiting from New York City, stands by the back door, chiding guests who attempt to carry their cocktails from the Bacardi tent (set up in the museum's small parking lot) into the galleries, where a brand-new gray industrial carpet covers the concrete floor. Inside, Fuentes's daughter, Ileana, the museum's new director, circulates among the 300 people in attendance. The pristine rug, as well as the 34 works on the walls -- most donated by the artists themselves -- mark what Fuentes and others involved in the museum call a new era for the wayward twenty-year-old institution.

"I feel like this show is a rebirth," enthuses artist Pablo Cano, whose bright-colored mural, Cuban Allegory (La sebastiana), is the largest work on display. The Mariel crisis inspired Cano to create the painting, which had belonged to a collector who donated it to the museum when he couldn't find a space large enough to hang it. On one side of the painting, Cano has depicted two views of a bound-and-bloody maiden, her body pierced with thorns -- she represents present-day Cuba. On the other side, an elegantly dressed woman -- a symbol of exile -- sits fanning herself in a chair, waiting impatiently. In the middle of the painting, a white horse and a tangle of machinery stand for the United States. Cano, born in Cuba, grew up near the museum and has shown his work there several times. When a bomb damaged the building in 1988 the artist fashioned a work from the rubber blasted from the jambs of the shattered front doors. "It's a miracle that the museum's still here," says Cano, standing just inside the same doorway during the opening. Outside, two uniformed police officers lean on a parked car in front of the building, signs of old times.

"The New Collection -- I" evidences an attempt to professionalize the Cuban Museum, which throughout its history has been renowned for cat fights and political squabbles among former members of the board of directors. The tiny Little Havana museum, at its present location in an old firehouse for the past twelve years, achieved international attention as the site of the 1988 bombing, carried out by exile extremists in protest of a benefit auction that included the works of artists living in Cuba. Founding the institution on the vague premise of promoting Cuban culture in exile, the museum's old guard could not find common ground concerning its curatorial mission. Over the years, repeated staff and board changes A and too many static shows -- alienated members of the Cuban-American community, including artists.

A new board of directors took over last November, headed by attorney Maria Cristina Del-Valle. It appointed a team of national advisers that includes Chase Manhattan Bank's Manuel Gonzalez and Brandeis University's Lynette Bosch. The museum's previous director, Cristina Nosti, who organized some engaging contemporary shows that were well received by the art community at large but were not as favored by more conservative board members, resigned before the new board took over. Four months ago Ileana Fuentes came down to Miami from Rutgers University in New Jersey, where she most recently served as assistant director of the Center for Latino Arts. A feminist scholar who has a history of public advocacy in the arts, Fuentes says she already has begun a funding campaign, and adds that she hopes to guide the museum toward accreditation with the American Association of Museums.

"The museum must keep its focus -- that its policies will be museological," Fuentes explains as she prepares for the show on the day before the opening. "First of all there is a mission: to document and interpret the Cuban exile experience in the arts. Such a goal is indispensible if one is thinking about Cuban art history of the Twentieth Century. I don't have any doubt that, understanding this, the community is going to come here as a source of information and as a cultural experience. Our priority is to establish a collection of exile art; this should have been the priority of the museum all along." (The museum had only a scant legacy of small works by old masters, books, and documents when Fuentes came aboard.)

The new director plans to build the collection over three years. But because the financially strapped museum has no acquisitions fund to buy specific works from artists, for this first phase the director sent out about 80 letters appealing to members of several generations of Cuban artists -- most of them living in Miami -- for donations. Twenty-seven responded immediately.

"My first impulse was to say no," admits conceptual artist Cesar Trasobares, part of the so-called "Miami Generation" who came of age in exile. Trasobares points out that not only are artists deprived of payment for their work when they donate it themselves, but they don't get much of a tax break either. American artists can deduct only the cost of materials on their returns, while U.S. collectors can claim the work's market value at the time of donation.

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