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Art galleries in Cuba: business, sin, privilege, necessity?

Just just a few months ago a gaggle of regulatory measures for personal sector activity was announced in Cuba, where the island’s State defined a series of prohibited activities and an immense list of permitted jobs for this circuit.

Among the many 124 activities where self-employment just isn’t allowed, in keeping with the National Classifier of Economic Activities (CNAE), are those of economic art galleries; in addition to the management of most of these spaces and cultural programming activities related to the plastic arts.

Mainly, this framework limits all work related to the visual arts that involve private actors, outside the mechanisms established by the Ministry of Culture. Such mechanisms are generally produced through the Cuban Fund for Cultural Assets (FCBC), together with the National Council of Plastic Arts (CNAP) and the Génesis enterprise.

Nonetheless, Decree-Law No. 106 on the labor condition and commercialization of the works of the creator of plastic and applied arts of 1988, recognizes the creator of works of plastic arts that “works independently or performs artistic creation without prejudice to their employment relations to an entity,” with the aim of “setting out the ways for his or her protection and support, in addition to the fundamental rules that may regulate the commercialization of said works.”

Seen thus, Cuban artists can market their work within the entities designated by the Ministry of Culture for the aforementioned purpose, since this Decree-Law establishes that “The marketing entity may create artistic production workshops, exhibition and salerooms and another variety of establishment, for the expansion of the chances of commercialization of the works of artistic creators.”

It’s precisely here where the problems begin, but in addition a part of the solutions and subterfuges that artists have present in recent times to have the opportunity to commercialize their work on the island, in a market that is sort of non-existent within the country.

Given the just about zero presence of legally recognized business galleries, the section on “artistic production workshops” mentioned above has been a palliative not just for artists, but in addition for curators and gallerists within the country not related to state institutions, to begin their businesses under this legal protection, even though it is valid to make clear that these studios-workshops; galleries-workshops, or whatever their owners determine to call them, operate under the protection of the FCBC, with a greater or lesser degree of relationship with this entity.

Havana Biennial: Art without exclusions

The Cuban art market has not yet fully taken off, despite the undeniable fact that it has been in search of alternatives for its consolidation for greater than three many years. Here’s a little bit of history: with the arrival of the Havana Biennial in 1984, after which with the aforementioned decree, in 1988, along with the economic crisis that began to affect Cuba as of the Nineteen Nineties, the primary steps were taken towards the formation of an incipient national art market. After all, all the time through foreign buyers and collectors, many from the United States. These buyers were (re)discovering Cuban art through those first biennials after which, like good fishermen in troubled waters, they took advantage of the country’s financial crisis within the last decade of the last century to appropriate, at reasonable prices, works by outstanding Cuban artists, some from the avant-garde and likewise pieces by creators of the generation of the Nineteen Eighties, who were taking their first steps within the exhibition world.

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Parallel to this, the state gallery system also began to take its first commercialization steps with the creation, in 2001, of the Genesis gallery network, and the next 12 months with the Subastas Habana auctions, which were maintained with considerable steadiness during little greater than 10 years, and that, nevertheless, stopped being carried out under circumstances which have not yet been fully clarified.

It was precisely on this boom of the foreign art market that the primary private spaces began to emerge within the country (Estudio Figuera-Vives, Avistamiento, amongst others), a movement that increased with the “Obama era“ and the opening to U.S. tourism, which allowed a greater presence of such a space, although this impetus didn’t last long with Trump’s arrival to the presidency and the measures that limited the arrival of U.S. travelers to the island.

Beyond the artists established in circuits of the international art market (the least) and the collectors who’re connoisseurs of the national visual arts environment, in Cuba we lack not only an ecosystem of economic galleries, but we also do not need a structured national art market, and I’m not only referring to infrastructure and artists’ works; also to buyers.

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Herein lies one other of the fundamental shortcomings of the just about invisible art market within the country. We cannot aspire to a systemic variety of national clients without a longtime circuit of galleries, with offers for all tastes and pockets, since we all know that art is pricey, a luxury in certain circuits, but with the resources and mechanisms established for its commercialization, it also doesn’t must be inaccessible.

Let’s transcend the established collector, the investor businessman, or the tourist with enough solvency to pay hundreds of dollars for a painting, why can’t a Cuban acquire originals from the artists he follows and admires? We will not be talking a few painting by Tomás Sánchez, or a Fabelo, or a Sosabravo, or a sculpture by Pedro Pablo Oliva or Agustín Cárdenas, or a piece by Carlos Garaicoa, to say some examples of sought-after and prestigious artists, but there are a whole bunch of more accessible artists, economically speaking, with an interesting repertoire (painting, silkscreen, engraving, sculpture or installation) that just isn’t available or sufficiently promoted within the spaces established by the State today.

That is what number of collectors began to carve out their record, a possibility that we do not need at once and that’s essential to awaken the country’s visual arts panorama, quite somnolent on account of the dearth of attractive proposals by a big a part of the state institutions.

A gap on the national gallery level could be good news within the face of the arrival of the subsequent Havana Biennial, also to arouse greater interest in an event that has fallen into disrepair in recent times, on account of a disorganized and unbalanced curatorship, with few proposals to draw the general public in search of the very best of the national and international visual scene in such a event.

The chance and guarantee for the artist to have the opportunity to exhibit and commercialize often his work in an area could be one other incentive for young creators not established out there, and likewise for those with more years of careers, who within the absence of economic galleries within the country can only resort to 2 options: to qualitatively and quantitatively belittle their work searching for greater monetary acquisition, or subsist promoting their work on social networks searching for the best bidder.

In recent times we have now even seen the creation of other spaces for the promotion of Cuban art within the digital environment, with virtual galleries, NFTs and other alternative spaces to traditional installations, one other alternative little exploited by the FCBC or the CNAP, although It’s valid to focus on some recent collaborations of state institutions with private entities in these times of pandemic and physical isolation.

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The Cuban art market is not going to change suddenly, not even with the magical appearance of galleries in every corner of the country. Art, a friend told me, just isn’t sold like croquettes are sold in a fries stand, it takes serious and careful work so that everybody has their space, in keeping with the interests of the gallery owner and the artists on their payroll.

Neither is it about sects or circles of a number of the privileged, the thought is to conceive spaces for every manifestation throughout the visual arts, in keeping with criteria of age, styles and likewise, it can’t be denied, personal relationships amongst those involved.

If we don’t take this step at the moment of crisis and relative economic openness, we may have to attend (once more) to depend upon the goodwill and insight of individuals—related or not—to Cuban art, limiting those of us who live within the country, only to have the opportunity to understand art from other people’s partitions.

Yoel Rodriguez Tejeda

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