Tuesday, December 6th, 2011

Where Artists Are Richer Than Doctors: Report from Havana

Report from… Havana

Mosaic Work of Jose Fuster in the artist's Havana studio. Photo: Roslyn Bernstein for artcritical
Mosaic Work of Jose Fuster in the artist's Havana studio. Photo: Roslyn Bernstein for artcritical

In June 2011, the New York Times ran a feature on New Ways to visit Cuba –Legally. The feature documented policy changes by the Obama administration designed to encourage greater contact between Americans and Cubans under a “people-to-people license.” Originally created by President Clinton in 1999, the licenses were cut off by Bush in 2003 and 2004. Under Obama, restrictions are being loosened. The projection was that 450,000 travelers from the US would be visiting Cuba in 2011.

The story ended by giving readers a list of planned people-to-people trips to Cuba, among them the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. who were planning to run an eight-day trip in November, pending license, with visits to the studios of several well-known Cuban artists.  I was able to join this group.

Ricardo Torres Perez, a macro-economist and professor at the University of Havana, addressed the group, explaining to us that while the average monthly wage is around 400 Cuban pesos a month or $17, and for medical doctors 700-800 pesos a month or about $34, artists are a notable exception, having been one “of the most successful segments of the Cuban population.” The Cuban government was always “careful about not interfering with the way artists produce art,” Perez said. “Artists have way more freedom to do what they want to do.” Gloria Berbena, public affairs officer for the United States Interests Section, agrees: “The regime always supported and subsidized artists.” Although some exit visas have occasionally been revoked, generally speaking artists have benefited from political tolerance. They are free to travel but the vast majority return to Cuba. “For Cuban artists, their inspiration comes from being here, from the light. They have a strong attachment to the country,” she said.

The prevailing stereotype of the starving artist driving a taxi or waiting on tables  is, surprisingly, not the Cuban model. Unlike doctors or teachers who work for the government at a fixed salary in mondea nacional, the local peso (the equivalent of four cents U.S.), artists can actually sell their art on the open market for CUCs (convertible Cuban pesos which are pegged to the U.S. dollar and which are used to buy all imported goods) or for dollars.

Although art galleries, where the gallery takes 30 percent and the artist 70 percent, are all government owned, individual artists are also free to sell their art from their studios (not considered galleries) where they receive 100 percent of the purchase price. Visitors can either pay in CUCS or by wiring money into foreign bank accounts

Even after progressive income tax that ranges from 5-40 % and a 7 % exit permit, works selling for $1,000 net more than two years of a doctor’s salary. Even street artists, who sell a work on average every couple of months for $200 or $300, can live comfortably off of their art.

Sandra Ramos is in the States when we visit her studio where prints in editions of 10 sell for $1500 to $2500. Ramos, who will be participating in the May 2012 Havana Biennial, has a Canadian bank account and also sells her art in the Mayer Fine Arts Gallery in Norfolk, Virginia. Although Ramos’s work focuses on human frustration and contradictions in Cuban society, she is free to make her art. A 2011 work, The Bridge, uses a girl’s body to connect two bridges. Another new work, Miedo Secreto (Secret Fear) focuses on how people use their eyes. Often, Ramos uses her own body to represent the island of Cuba. Clearly, Ramos is very successful. Our guide tells us that she bought the house eight years ago for $50,000.

At the home/studio of artist couple Alicia Leal and Juan Moriera, who plan to open their space to the public for the May biennale, we were shown etchings, paintings and photographs. Moriera’s recent photographic work is based on paintings he did many years ago, “of places that do not exist.” He is eager to find a New York gallery to exhibit the digital prints. A small etching by Leal reflects her deep identification with her Cuban heritage. “It is inspired by Jose Marti’s line, she said, translating it for me: “My poetry is like a wounded deer looking for the forest’s sanctuary.”

La Lavanderia (Laundry) currently under renovation by the Merger group is renovating into studio/residency.  Photo: Roslyn Bernstein for artcritical
La Lavanderia (Laundry) currently under renovation by the Merger group is renovating into studio/residency. Photo: Roslyn Bernstein for artcritical

More than any other artists we met, the three sculptors in the Merger group – Mayito (Mario Miguel Gonzalez), Niels Moleiro Luis, and Alain Pino – illustrate just how resourceful and savvy Cuban artists have become. With bank accounts in three countries, their sculpture currently sells in the $8,000 to $40,000 price range, while studies for the sculpture sell for $5,000 to $8,000. Auction prices for their work have been especially strong: Sex Machine sold for $23,750 in Sotheby’s November Latin American Art sale, above its $10-15,000 estimate. Working for Freedom, sold for $26,250 in Christie’s May 2011 Latin American Auction, also above its estimate. In 2009, one of their Cuban pocket knife sculptures sold for $25,000. Hanging in the entrance to their studio, a 2011 edition of the work, priced at $16,000, immediately attracted strong interest from an American couple on the tour.

Under a Cuban government program, the Merger trio are renovating an old laundry building. Designed to include one bedroom for a visiting artist, the first stage of La Lavanderia will be finished in May. The artists, meanwhile, are working on their next solo exhibition in February, Foria Havana, a joint venture between Spain and Cuba. They are also looking for an American gallery. “We had a couple offers from galleries in Miami,” Mayito said. “But we are waiting until the right gallery comes along. The right place for us is San Francisco, Los Angeles or New York. Ninety-nine percent of our clients are from there.”

While Mayito and Alain acknowledge their success, they insist that most artists in Cuba live off of their art, with 30-35 percent of them earning a very good living, some already selling their art at auction. “There is lots of interest surging towards Cuban art,” Mayito said, “In a few years there will be a big explosion like what happened with Chinese art several years ago.”

The Merger, Cuban Pocket Knife. Photo: Roslyn Bernstein for artcritical
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