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.

"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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