In Miami on April 22, 1988, Manuel Mendive's painting El Pavo Real was set on fire. The Cuban painter's work had been purchased at a fundraising auction for the Cuban Museum of Art and Culture, but its buyers weren't exactly art collectors. Rather, the winners of the auction were members of the Bay of Pigs 2506 Brigade, which paid $500, picked up the artwork, and marched out to the street. There they set Mendive's painting ablaze while the Cuban national anthem blared from a nearby radio.
Two weeks later, the museum was bombed by exile hardliners who claimed it was exhibiting artists sympathetic to the Castro regime. In June 1990, the museum was bombed a second time. More than a dozen trustees resigned and Miami commissioners voted to evict the museum, which never really recovered and dissolved in 1999. Its collection and archive were donated to the Lowe Art Museum at the University of Miami.
These days, Ileana Fuentes, who served as the Cuban Museum's last director in 1995, insists the burning of Mendive's painting planted the seed for new ideas, opening artistic expression in Miami. "Today those protests and tirades against Cubans exhibiting or performing in Miami are ancient history," she says. She adds that although President Barack Obama's recent diplomatic thaw between Cuba and the United States might have heightened expectations for greater cultural exchange, the fact is that Cubans have been showing their work in the Magic City for years.
Longtime Miami dealer Fredric Snitzer, an artist himself, recalls the bombing of the museum well. Snitzer had cofounded and was a member of NADA, a Miami experimental art group that was part of an exhibit at the Cuban Museum the month before the controversial auction leading to the bombing.
During the early '90s, Snitzer began showing the work of a group of Cuban artists hailed as the '80s Generation. Having risen to international acclaim, they had been allowed to travel to Mexico by the Cuban government to exhibit their works in commercial galleries and soon began to defect to escape their homeland's economic restraints.
"I began showing the works of José Bedia, Carlos Cardenas, Tomás Esson, Rubén Torres Llorca, and several recently arrived Cuban artists in my gallery back then," explains Snitzer, adding that at the time, the Cuban government allowed artists to travel to the United States to participate in exhibitions and required only a letter of invitation from an American or a museum.
Many of the noted Cuban talents came here under the pretense of showing their work and then defected, says Snitzer, who wrote a great number of the invitation letters himself. Later, during the mid-'90s, Snitzer says, Miami's Cuban exile community embraced their works.
"Bedia already had a respectable international resumé by the time he moved here in 1993," Snitzer observes. "His work was received very well in Miami, and he sold out each of his solo shows during his first five years with our gallery, with his works commanding prices in the $10,000-to-$15,000 range."
Snitzer says his gallery never featured the work of Cubans still living on the island because a percentage of their earnings were slated for the Castro regime. "Even though there was incredible talent emerging there, I didn't want to support that government in any way because of the unclear implications of where the money from sales would end."
In 1999, Gary Nader became the first dealer to organize a solo show in a Miami gallery by a Cuban artist who worked and lived on the island. It was, coincidentally, Manuel Mendive. "Despite telephone death threats and 500 protesters outside my Coral Gables gallery, we sold all of his 32 paintings within 45 minutes after opening in the $12,000-to-$40,000 range," Nader recalls.
"Miami was different back then. At the time, an El Nuevo cartoonist painted me as a prostitute selling communist work, and Coral Gables had to assign two police squad cars to guard my space during the show's two-month run," he laughs. "I received death threats on the phone every day with people telling me to go back to Santo Domingo or Lebanon.
"What I remember distinctly," Nader adds, "is that 27 of Mendive's paintings sold to Cuban collectors here, many of whom had been protesters when they first burned his painting at the Cuban Museum in 1988."
Beginning in the early '00s, the work of Cuban artists could easily be found exhibited throughout Miami with little or no protest. During Art Basel Miami Beach in 2004, for example, Tania Bruguera, who was recently detained by Cuban authorities for a work she planned to present in Havana's Revolution Square, had staged an early version of the work in downtown Miami without opposition. "Cultural producers in Miami have been involved in exhibiting or presenting works by Cuban artists living in Cuba for some time," says Liz Cerejido, who organized the 2004 show. "There was little or no fanfare in terms of protest."
That was first time Bruguera's work had been shown in Miami. The installation, titled Autobiografía, consisted of a single microphone dangling over a platform in an empty room. Spectators were invited to step onto the stage and speak into the microphone. On opposing walls, speakers blared excerpts of speeches by Fidel Castro, frustrating the spectator, whose microphone had been turned off.
The following year, Miami dealer Jose Alonso christened his now-defunct Wynwood gallery in the wake of 2005's Hurricane Wilma with The Garden of Mistrust, an installation by Alexandre Arrechea, one of the founders of Cuba's vaunted collaborative Los Carpinteros. It consisted of a 14-foot-tall, white-enamel-coated metal tree sprouting surveillance cameras from its branches and evoking the deep-rooted suspicions between the Cold War foes on both sides of the Florida Straits.
Since opening its doors in 2006, Wynwood's Pan American Art Projects has established itself as one of the foremost Miami galleries concentrating on presenting the works of Cuban artists living on the island. Pan Am's roster includes Abel Barroso, José Manuel Fors, Jorge Lopez Pardo, and Roberto Diago. Last year, the gallery hosted the first U.S. solo show of the conceptual duo Meira Marrero and José Toirac.
At Pan Am, some Cuban artists' work has commanded as much as $100,000, according to gallery director Janda Wetherington. She adds that gallery sales of Cuban art have been so lucrative that last year Pan Am launched a sister company, LAACS Travel, offering trips to Cuba for collectors and museum groups to visit artists' studios and area museums.
"We had been organizing a monthly trip," Wetherington says, "but since the recent lifting of restrictions, we now have two tours this month and three trips scheduled for February."
Nader says the recent changes in U.S. and Cuban relations will have little bearing on Cuban art in Miami or elsewhere. "I don't think anything is going to change other than more bad artists on the island will be able to sell their works to unknowledgeable American tourists visiting there," he says. "Also, Cuban art will likely cease being seen as exotic or forbidden fruit by mainstream collectors."
Then he adds, "Nobody cares anymore about that old mess. Enough is enough."