In December 2014 the world was stunned by an announcement that the USA and Cuba would work towards normalizing relations. For over half a century relations between the Cold War foes have been in a deep freeze. The announcement on the normalization of relations came soon after a brief (but symbolically important) handshake between US President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro at the funeral of Nelson Mandela in December 2013. It has since been followed up by the full restoration of diplomatic relations in July 2015, President Obama’s call on Congress to lift the decades-long embargo on Cuba and a number of phone calls and one-to-one meetings between the two presidents.
US officials have talked of a “new era” in relations between the Communist Caribbean island and “The Leader of the Free World.” The handshake between Obama and Castro has been seen by many as heralding a turning point in relations between the two countries and all eyes have been on Cuba speculating what the easing of American trade and travel restrictions could mean for the island’s economy.
However, for those with an interest in contemporary art, Cuba has been on the radar for a long time. Several prominent art collectors and galleries have been closely watching the Cuban art scene for many years, building up extensive collections of work. For example, Howard Farber – founder of Cuban Art News and the Farber Foundation which is dedicated to the promotion of Cuban art and culture – has been collecting contemporary Cuban art for 14 years. He is impressed by the sheer volume of high quality art produced by the island. “For such a small country, they are producing great artists,” he says. Farber has amassed an eclectic collection of works by Cuban-resident and Cuban-born artists including Los Carpinteros, Yoan Capote and Armando Mariño ever since he first visited the island with his wife in 2001.
As relations between the USA and Cuba improve, devotees of Cuban art such as Farber expect more and more collectors to follow suit. Travel companies are selling art tours to Havana and well known personalities such as Hollywood actor Will Smith have reportedly made a beeline for the city’s art galleries to snap up pieces by artists who, while well-known at home, are relatively unknown abroad. As Farber explains, “in my many visits to Cuba in the last six months I have seen a tremendous amount of museum curators and collectors from the US and other countries visiting artist studios. The word is starting to get out.” Francisco Tardio, Director of the Centro Cultural Español in Miami (CCEMiami), which promotes cultural exchange between Latin America, Spain and Miami and recently held a multi-disciplinary event showcasing Cuban art called (Art)xiomas (CUBAAHORA: The Next Generation), also believes that the easing of travel restrictions on American Citizens travelling to Cuba will raise the profile of Cuban art and attract new fans. “There is a big interest on what is going on in Cuba, and since it is easier for critics, curators and collectors to travel there, the impact will become even bigger,” Tardio says.
In Cuba there is also hope that improved relations will provide a boost to the Cuban art scene and a belief that Cuban artists will benefit from warmer relations with their much larger northern neighbour across the Straits of Florida. Luis Miret Pérez, Director of the prestigious Galería Habana in the island’s capital says that with improved relations “there will be more cultural and commercial exchange between the two countries and the best artists will get better representation in the most important art market of the world.”
As a consequence, the value of Cuban contemporary art has been rising. According to Maria Vega of London-based Ministry of Nomads, which runs pop-up exhibitions of work by emerging and established artists from various countries (including Cuban artists Mabel Poblet and Yunior Marino), “the value of Cuban art has been going up over the last few years. Now, with the new opening of Cuba to USA, the art will be much more precious.”
Auction house Phillips which specializes in 20th and 21st Century art recently held an auction of Latin American art which set auction records for three living artists, including Cuban artist Carmen Herrera. Kaeli Deane, Head of Sales for Latin American Art at Phillips is optimistic about the rising value of Cuban art but with a caveat. “The value of contemporary Cuban art has already begun to rise since the change in diplomatic relations with the United States, and I believe this general trend will continue,” she says. “However, this will affect certain artists more than others. Before, part of the attraction to Cuban art was its mystique and forbidden nature. Now that collectors, curators and dealers are looking at art from this country with a more critical and focused eye, Cuban art will be judged by international standards of excellence. Therefore the value of the best artists will rise and ‘tourist art’ will receive less attention from the market.”
So, is now the right time to buy Cuban art? Howard Farber certainly thinks so. “Nobody is a mind reader on the future, but with 14 years’ experience of collecting Cuban contemporary art, as well as the information I have on the current situation, and 40 years of collecting art, I am still buying like mad. The art is great. The artists are extremely talented. And, the prices are so low that, I believe, a collector can acquire a great work of Cuban contemporary art for the equivalent of the price of Sales Tax on an American contemporary painting. People ask me if it’s too late to start to buy. I tell them that it hasn’t even started yet.”