Fresh Start

"In this case, it's more of an interpretation of social responsibility than a business decision," notes Trasobares, who, unlike Cano, had no previous relationship with the museum. Trasobares contributed his installation Gift With Cuban Subjects, which consists of eight small pieces, made in various points in his career, that invoke icons of Cuban culture, including girls' quince (sweet fifteen) dresses and bodega advertisements. The artist persuaded collectors to donate some of the eight works, while others came from his personal collection.

Only a handful of the total donated works on view came from sources other than the artists themselves, and what they chose depended largely on what each had available on short notice. An open call of this kind often results in curatorial disaster, but the Cuban Museum exhibition, while hardly a cohesive tour de force, is a respectable survey that includes paintings (by Juan Abreu, Gustavo Acosta, Jose Bedia, Mario Bencomo, Leandro Soto, Ana Albertina Delgado, and others), photography (by Maria Martinez-Ca*as, Silvia Lizama, Mario Algaze, and Gory), sculpture (by Laura Luna and Florencio Gelabert), and small installations (by Trasobares and Juan-Si). Some of the works employ fairly standard symbolism of exile (images of the island of Cuba, effigies of Fidel Castro, blood) as well as depicting violent images of displacement. Also included are erotica, abstraction, and figurative subjects.

"We got such a great response that other artists we appeal to won't be able to say no," says Juan Martinez, an art historian, FIU professor, and a member of the Cuban Museum's National Board of Advisers.

Others in the community have mixed feelings about asking artists to take the financial responsibility for creating a museum collection. "The Miami art world is a banana republic," comments art dealer Fred Snitzer, who represents several artists who have donated works. "If we were talking about anywhere else, [depending on artist donations] wouldn't be acceptable. But here any effort is a move in the right direction."

Florencio Gelabert, who exhibits with Snitzer, contributed one of the show's outstanding works, a wood and metal sculpture that evokes the shapes of primitive tools, weapons, or rafters' paddles. He owned the sculpture himself and was reluctant to part with it. "The fact is we've got 35 years of exile and no museum that reflects that experience," Gelabert says, stressing that the museum's most important function is as a historical source for younger generations of Cuban Americans. "We've got to start now, and the artists should lend a hand."

According to Fuentes, "This is going to result in a greater visibility for Cuban artists living outside of Cuba." She talks of creating a resource center for Cuban artists and publishing a newsletter to promote their work. "There's been a lack of information," she adds, "because there's been a lack of a place to find this information."

The Cuban Museum, however, has not been the only South Florida museum courting Cuban artists. The Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale, under the auspices of curator of collections Jorge Santis, already has received 30 works for its Cuban collection, most directly donated by artists. The works now owned by the Fort Lauderdale Museum are larger in size and arguably better in quality than those given to the Cuban Museum. After all, the Museum of Art is, as the Cuban artists say, "an American institution," one that can further their careers more than the Cuban Museum can.

Santis, who also pleads poverty when it comes to paying the artists for their works, organized several shows for Cuban artists last year, and plans more for next season. "I don't think I'm competing with the Cuban Museum," Santis contends. "The scale is totally different. I'm looking for works on a monumental scale, and my main purpose is to travel the hell out of them to get these artists national exposure. Ileana Fuentes wants to create a home for Cuban artworks. What I want to do is send them traveling."

It seems several of South Florida's art institutions have been waging ferocious collecting campaigns of late, the Center of Contemporary Art (COCA) in North Miami among them. Although COCA's new 23,000-foot space is not expected to open until February, director Lou Anne Colodny and curator Bonnie Clearwater have moved swiftly to tap the limited pool of local collectors for the future museum's permanent collection. Colodny has announced the acquisition of 35 works and nine artists books from leading local collectors, including Estelle and Paul Berg, Ruth and Marvin Sackner, Ruth and Richard Shack, Dr. Jules Oaklander, and DACRA's Craig Robins. Carlos and Rosa de la Cruz, in addition to donating works by artists Teresita Fernandez and Quisqueya Henriquez, also have established a curator's fund with a gift of $10,000. The new acquisitions include works on paper by James Turrell, Richard Tuttle, and Antoni Miralda; prints by Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and Tom Wesselman; and artist books by Edward Ruscha.

Meanwhile, feet have been dragging over at the Center for the Fine Arts, where the creation of a proposed collection of art from 1945 to the present -- the same time span COCA will cover -- was announced with much fanfare at the beginning of the year. But publicly nothing has been said about it since. The CFA reportedly continues to face bureaucratic snafus and budget cuts, with the new position of collections curator just one key post that remains unfilled. Additionally, the museum has been without a permanent development director, curator of exhibitions, and curator of education for months.

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