"Cuba: The Last Sixty Years," an exhibition of 220 works that Texas art collector-businessman Robert Borlenghi purchased at state art galleries in Cuba earlier this year, has been on display at Borlenghi's Pan American Art Gallery in Dallas for the past three months. It's been causing controversy ever since.
Some Cubans in Miami vehemently have opposed the show (it comes down on December 31), concerned that it could include works confiscated from owners now living in exile, and also arguing that by buying art from the Fondo de Bienes Culturales (the Cuban Cultural Goods Fund), a government entity that commissions and buys artists' works in conjunction with the Ministry of Culture, Borlenghi is ostensibly funding Castro's regime. The Dallas art collector has maintained that he bought the paintings legally and in good faith, because 1) cultural goods fall under an exempt clause in the U.S. embargo against Cuba, and 2) it is legal to purchase art in Cuba through the Fondo de Bienes Culturales.
"It is totally unfair to make any kind of suggestion that the pieces in my collection are not legitimate," an over-it Borlenghi said in a phone interview. "I'm tired of these claims that those pictures were hanging in somebody's house years ago."
Along with pieces by such well-known Cuban artists as Wifredo Lam, Amelia Pelaez, and Mario Carreno, the exhibition includes paintings by young artists, some of whom no longer live in Cuba.
"The Cuban government is just trying to take advantage of our success outside of Cuba," says Tomas Esson, an artist now living in New York City. Esson is merely one of dozens of contemporary artists who have left Cuba over the past few years and whose work has been bought by collectors in the United States, South America, and Europe. Esson has two paintings in the Dallas show A Chorizo and Toro Heart. When contacted by phone, the artist was not immediately able to identify these paintings, although he thinks that they were part of an installation he loaned the Ministry of Culture for an exhibition in Eastern Europe, and that the works never were returned. He adds that they were part of a larger piece and not intended to be sold individually. Esson explains that many of his works were "borrowed" for government-organized exhibitions and never given back to him or to his family in Cuba. Not only that, but other paintings have been taken from his family's house in Havana by representatives of the Fondo de Bienes Culturales since he left Cuba in 1991.
Borlenghi obligingly faxed me receipts for Esson's works from Havana's Galeria Acacia (he paid $600 for each and is selling them for $3000 apiece). But the question, as far as the artist is concerned, is not whether the works were sold legitimately through the government-owned gallery, but rather how the Cuban gallery came to possess them in the first place.
Alejandro Garcia Alonso, deputy director of Havana's National Museum of Fine Arts, accompanied and advised Borlenghi during his buying trip to Cuba. Alonso was recently in the U.S. for a few months, a visit that overlapped with the opening of "Cuba: The Last Sixty Years." At the show's October reception, he told the Miami Herald that his presence there was simply a coincidence, because he had come here merely to visit his sister (who lives in Miami) and was not on official business. In fact in a phone interview early this month, before his return to Havana, Alonso denied knowing much about the commerce of Cuba's art world. When asked general questions about the provenance of contemporary art and about the acquisitions policy of Cuban institutions, he said he didn't "know how any of that worked." And with a quick "thank you very much," he hung up.
The art market in Cuba has opened up considerably in the last year, and artists are now encouraged to sell their art through government-owned galleries and cultural centers in Havana. When a piece is sold (almost always to a foreigner), the artist should receive at least 50 percent of the money in dollars; the gallery takes a 30 to 50 percent commission.
According to Esson and other exile artists, things were not so cut-and-dried in the Eighties, when the Cuban government first started capitalizing on the attention its artists were getting from foreign curators and collectors.
Gustavo Acosta, a 36-year-old artist who lives in Miami, recalls selling several paintings to Fondo de Bienes Culturales when he still lived in Cuba. They were bought for 1000 pesos each, which at that time, in the late Eighties, was the equivalent of about $80 on the black market.
Acosta also has two works in "Cuba: The Last Sixty Years." One is priced at $1250, the other at $6000. Like Esson, he says his works routinely were loaned for exhibitions and never seen again. And he points out that the Cuban government reserves the right to appropriate any pieces it deems national patrimony. "They can call it patrimony but that doesn't give them a right to sell it," Acosta asserts. "They shouldn't be selling our work as if it were pots and pans."
"There's no law in Cuba," Esson adds. "They just make up the law as it's convenient to them. But my works belong to me."
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Borlenghi says that all of the Cuban artists included in his show living outside of Cuba were sent invitations to the opening, but both Esson and Acosta say they knew nothing about the exhibition until well after it was hung. Acosta found out about the show when someone from Dallas contacted his Miami gallery, Gutierrez Fine Arts, to inquire how much his paintings were going for on the American market. Esson was informed about the exhibition when I called him.
Tomas Sanchez, a well-known Cuban landscape painter who also lives in Miami, said that it was Alejandro Alonso who told him that two of his works were on exhibit in Dallas. Since then he has discovered that there are actually seven of his paintings in the exhibition, a fact verified by Pan American Art Gallery director Stuart Heasman. The painter has not seen the items in question, and therefore has no idea how they were obtained by the Cuban government.
Borlenghi rightly asserts that Cuban artists are not the only ones who sell their work at a low price only to see it appreciate enormously in later years. And he offered to speak to any artist who felt a piece in the Dallas show was obtained illicitly, as well as to make an inquiry on his or her behalf with the Fondo de Bienes Culturales, with which, he says, he "enjoys good relations."
Esson says he's making an effort to track down his paintings that have been sold by the Cuban government without his knowledge, or that are still somewhere in Cuba. As for Gustavo Acosta, he contends that the legal costs of trying to control the sale of his art made in Cuba would be prohibitive. "I don't want to even think about such tortuous things -- this is a never-ending situation," sighs Acosta. "I have to start over. If I keep thinking about all the work I've lost, I'll go crazy.