What Art Thou, Little Havana?

Viernes Culturales is transforming Calle Ocho -- but into what remains a big question

Peña, with his closely trimmed beard, designer eyewear, and meticulous wardrobe, is an aesthete. His pronouncements on what constitutes art may be dismissed by some as snobbery. But what cannot be discounted is Peña's point that all the "art" being displayed in and around Eighth Street -- before, after, and during Viernes Cultural -- does not belong to the same family. The range of art reveals different sensibilities and radically different visions of what kind of arts district Little Havana may become: avant-garde or rear guard.

Just across the street from Peña's window, for example, is the historic Tower Theater. Refurbished at a public cost of almost three-and-a-half million dollars, the Art Deco moviehouse was supposed to reopen last year as the Tower Arts Center, providing a venue for original stage productions, independent and arthouse films, and other thought-provoking artwork. Instead the Tower reopened as a second-run movie theater and makeshift gallery (see "Small Screen, Big Bucks," October 5, 2000). A few weeks ago, the most prominently displayed painting, located on the wall just inside the main entrance and visible through glass doors from the sidewalk, was a work titled El Gallo del Celular (The Rooster of the Cellular Phone). The background was a vaguely pastoral scene: a wooded lane running toward a full moon. In the foreground a cock rooster clutched a black cell phone lying on the green earth at his feet. This example of exile surrealism may make an interesting conversation piece in someone's den (someone willing to part with the asking price of $1000), but it will hardly bring committed art patrons to the area.

What it will bring, insists Peña, are lowbrows, people interested in nothing more than giveaways, free corporate knickknacks, and cheap beer. This last possibility is, for him, the most odious. "The last gasp of Viernes Cultural as a cultural endeavor," stresses Peña, "will come with the Budweiser concession."

Art for art's sake? Developer José Fernandez shows off the work of Rigoberto Mena
Steve Satterwhite
Art for art's sake? Developer José Fernandez shows off the work of Rigoberto Mena
Viernes Culturales founder Sergio Fiallo thought the time was right for Little Havana's cultural flowering
Steve Satterwhite
Viernes Culturales founder Sergio Fiallo thought the time was right for Little Havana's cultural flowering

If Peña fears Viernes Culturales deteriorating into a monthly Calle Ocho-type affair, other artists believe it already has. Sitting in lab6, Suarez de Jesus ticks off the artistic genres he says receive the most exposure at the monthly gatherings: "Black velvet paintings, embroidered paintings ... that's my beef. They say Cubans are reactionary, Elian Nation' and all that. Now they're going to say we're tacky, too."

Marthell, whose own work tends toward irreverent pop art, is more tolerant of the objets d'kitsch on display down the street but no less frustrated by the general unwillingness on the part of Viernes Culturales organizers to provide exposure to nontraditional and experimental forms. "You could have the costumbrillo ("traditionalism") in one place," says Marthell, her eyes growing wide behind her octagonal frames, "but then expose the public to other kinds of art as well." By "other art," Marthell means forms of expression that would force an audience beyond a simple "I like it/I don't like it."

The problem, of course, is that such a thing is unlikely to happen while shop and restaurant owners double as art curators, primarily displaying the kind of work that will most appeal to conservative, middle-class Cubans and vacationing tourists. Cuban landscapes, drawn from memory, yes. Straw-hat still lifes, of course. Scenes of prerevolutionary Havana night life, indeed. But something along the lines of Marthell's homage to love in the age of mechanical reproduction, sexually explicit images of cunnilingus and blowjobs with captions like "double-click to activate?" Eh ... no.

City Commissioner Joe Sanchez, who has been an active sponsor of Viernes Culturales, admits there is resistance from residents and visitors to some forms of expression. "One gallery right off Eighth Street had a statue of a naked man," explains Sanchez, "and people were complaining to me about their kids having to see such things." He smiles. "I told them: Art is art.'" Sanchez's pleas for tolerance don't end with fostering respect for artistic freedom. "I also heard from people in the neighborhood," he adds with some hesitation, "that art would bring the wrong element here. I asked if they meant criminals. No,' they told me, homosexuals.' I said, People, please, this is a free country.'"

If Sanchez has championed the cultural revolution in Little Havana, however, it is also true that he, like most other city officials, sees it as a means to an end. "The point of Viernes Cultural," he says, "has been to show potential visitors that Calle Ocho is safe." Success for the artists, as for the businessmen, is measured by sales receipts. "I call the Tower Theater the Super Bowl of art,'" says the commissioner, unaware this is a metaphor that would send serious artists and their followers screaming from the building. "Every artist that exhibits there has sold their art."

Ultimately the only art appreciation in Little Havana may be for the art of the deal. "The last ten years belonged to Miami Beach," says developer José Fernandez, speaking on the phone from his office on SW Eighth Street. "The next ten years belong to the city of Miami." Fernandez believes Little Havana specifically will be the area's next residential and commercial hot spot, a hunch he began banking on a few years ago. "I got here at the end of 1994," remembers Fernandez, who previously had been active in South Beach's redevelopment, "and realized that property values were still dropping. I didn't really start buying until 1998."

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