Art Sales Paint A Rosy Picture Of Cuba's Future

Jun 19, 2015

Visitors check out an installation by artist Ernesto Rancano at the Zona Franca/La Cabana exhibit at the 2015 Havana Biennale
Credit Dr. Milagros Bello

Just think of it as the Cuban version of Art Basel.

Since late May, art ­collectors and dealers from all over the globe have been flocking to Havana for the month-long exhibition called the Biennial.

Virtually every inch of outdoor space in Havana has been converted into a gigantic gallery where artists from about 40 countries are exhibiting.  Since it's the first Biennial launched after the Obama administration’s December announcement of a diplomatic thaw between the United States and Cuba, the event is also being closely watched by many people outside the art world.

Miami-based art curator Dr. Milagros Bello has just returned from the Biennial.  She says she sees a “big change” in Cuba artistically -- and economically.  Bello noticed the way Cuban artists are bypassing government-run art galleries and selling their work on their own, something she calls a “new phenomenon.”

“Artists are opening up their own studios that really function as galleries not regulated by the government,” say Bello. She describes sales between the artists and collectors as good-faith transactions where the buyer wires the money to an international account, usually Canadian. The seller ships the artwork out and can retrieve the funds via ATM. 

A sculpture by artist Jose Manuel Fors at the Zona Franca/La Cabana exhibit in Havana
Credit Dr. Milagros Bello

Kind of sounds like free enterprise, doesn't it?

Since the purchase of Cuban art has been (since 1989) one of the exceptions to the U.S.-Cuba trade embargo enacted in 1961, American art collectors have been able to bring artwork from the island with a minimum of drama.  Bello says the U.S.-Cuba detente -- and Cuba's removal from the United States list of state sponsors of terrorism -- will result in an influx of enthusiastic art lovers to the island. 

"There is a change in the image of Cuba internationally," she says.

This year's Biennial is not without controversy.  The repeated arrest of performance artist Tania Bruguera has prompted full-throated cries for a boycott of the Havana Biennial.  

The event runs until June 22.