Every spring since 1963, South Florida painters, architects, writers, composers, and photographers of Cuban descent have joined their peers nationwide in bellying up to the Cintas Foundation's prestigious cash bar. In recent years, eight to ten deserving artists working outside Cuba have been given $10,000 fellowships.
Not this year, however.
In December directors of the New York-based foundation decided to forgo the 1996 fellowships, which are funded by interest earned on the group's two-million-dollar endowment, and give the money to British lawyers instead.
The hefty legal tab resulted from a 1990 lawsuit in which the foundation sought to recover two paintings that had been sold to a private collector. Sotheby's of London and a Spaniard (who has since died) were named in the suit, but at the center of the controversy was the Cuban government. The two paintings -- Toros a Enganchar la Barca and Playa de Valencia (Sol de Tarde) by the Spanish Impressionist Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida (1863-1923) -- had been among works from the Oscar B. Cintas Cuba Collection that were loaned to the Cuban government in 1962 for permanent public exhibition in Havana's Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. According to William Warren, an estate lawyer who has served as president of the Cintas Foundation since 1985, the Cuban government sold the paintings in 1988. After changing hands a few times, the works landed at Sotheby's, where the Spanish collector named in the suit bought them for $4.25 million.
In February 1995, a British High Court judge ruled that the foundation never had title to the Sorollas -- a technical flaw in the title, Warren argues -- and that in any event, the statute of limitations had expired. This past February, while the case was on appeal, a settlement was reached and Cintas received an an undisclosed sum from Sotheby's and the late Spaniard's estate.
The six-year legal battle was a worthy pursuit, asserts Cintas board member Margarita Cano. "We felt we had to make a statement, an international statement on how Cuban art is being sold out of Cuba relentlessly," she explains. "They bring very good money to the Cuban government. They're doing this to everything A it's the flea market of the Caribbean.
"Sotheby's and Christie's are much more cautious about dealings with Cuba because of our lawsuit," Cano continues. "Everybody knows it. We will prosecute anyone who buys anything from the Cintas collection. But I think the Cuban government will keep selling A they know they will get away with it. They'll do it underground rather than in public houses, and who's to know underground?"
The Cintas art collection, which includes paintings by El Greco, Murillo, and Goya, is on extended loan to the Lowe Art Museum at the University of Miami. But 34 other works -- including pieces by van Dyck, Gainsborough, Constable, Guardi, and Canaletto -- remain in Cuba, Warren says, some still on display in Havana's Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. Warren, who says he can't estimate the monetary value of the AWOL works because he doesn't know their condition, has repeatedly written to Cuban officials admonishing them for their handling of the Cuba Collection. He has not received a response.
Warren's Manhattan law firm Dewey Ballantine handled the will and estate of Oscar Cintas, a Cuban sugar baron who served as ambassador to the United States in the Thirties. A formidable art collector, Cintas established the foundation in his name just before he died in 1957, and had hoped to convert his house in Havana to a museum. The house is now the Chinese embassy. Since 1963 the Cintas Foundation has awarded more than 300 fellowships. Novelist Oscar Hijuelos, photographer Andres Serrano, and architect Andres Duany are all former fellows. South Floridians have always fared well in the judging, which is undertaken by critics assigned by the Institute of International Education in New York. Among the winning artists from this area: painters Ramon Alejandro, Jorge Pantoja, and Humberto Calzada; multi-media artists Pablo Cano and Maria Lino; photographer Maria Martinez Canas; and conceptual artist Cesar Trasobares.
Miami photographer Elizabeth Cerejido has long hoped to add her name to the list of Cintas Fellows. After applying unsuccessfully for fellowships over the past few years, she was disappointed when her application last month garnered not a rejection notice but a newsletter, which stated -- without further explanation -- that there would be no fellowships this year.
"It's a terrible situation," Cerejido protests. "If the original intent of the foundation was to further Cuban artists' careers, it would seem that their priorities have shifted." Cerejido, whose work will be exhibited next month at Jorge Sori Fine Art in Coral Gables, is now seeking state grants.
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Fredric Snitzer, whose Coral Gables gallery exhibits many works by Cuban artists, praises the Cintas Foundation for its past support but is not surprised by the decision not to award fellowships this year. "It's a real shame, but I think it's indicative of a kind of social climate we're in. I think the public is abandoning the arts. I think we're more interested in building sports stadiums than building culture. This is just another thing that whittles away at the ability of the artist to survive."
Artists should never have taken the Cintas Fellowship program for granted, counters Warren: "The foundation was set up not for the specific purpose of granting money, but for the discretion of its directors to establish money for the furtherance of Cuban art."
With the lawyers' fees out of the way, the Cintas president adds, the foundation will likely decide to resume giving out money in 1997, but perhaps in a different form. The board of directors is scheduled to meet next month. "This [lawsuit] just got us in the mode of review and reconsideration," Warren says. "Everything's been the same way since 1963, and we thought we should review things differently and maybe take a different tack. There's a spectrum of things we can do -- grant awards and scholarships, finance lectures, encourage the learning of art history . . . . "
Margarita Cano is comfortable with the board's decision to nix this year's Cintas Fellowships: "I don't think it's a big thing, it's just one year. When you look at it historically, it's nothing.