Chelsea galleries visit Havana

US dealers challenge Cuba embargo in test of new president’s cultural policies

NEW YORK. Twenty-eight US art galleries have been invited to show work at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Havana, Cuba, for the first time since 1986. Organised by New York art dealers Alberto Magnan and Dara Metz, “Chelsea Visits Havana” opens on 28 March, with the participation of dealers including Andrea Rosen, Sean Kelly, Barbara Gladstone, Mary Boone and Matthew Marks.

The organisers approached Cuban officials nearly two years ago with a proposal for a comprehensive survey of contemporary art from the Chelsea gallery district in New York. In January, Mr Magnan and Ms Metz were notified that the project had officially become part of the Tenth Havana Biennial, which opens on 27 March. The Chelsea show is part of a wider programme of exhibitions throughout Havana and presents a selection of 35 international artists including Marina Abramovic, Will Cotton, Loretta Lux, Matthew Barney, and Guy Ben-Ner.

Mr Magnan says: “We’ve been under the harsh policies of the Bush administration for such a long time, and the reintroduction of cultural exchanges will hopefully move both sides closer to dialogue.” In mid-2004, President Bush strengthened the US trade embargo on Cuba by imposing tougher restrictions on travel, effectively ending all travel-related cultural exchange programmes. Since then, Cuban artists have regularly been denied visas to attend exhibitions or claim prizes and fellowships in the US.

Abelardo Mena, curator of contemporary international art at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, told The Art Newspaper that efforts to bring US artists to Cuba have frequently been blocked by the US Interests Section in Havana, an office that functions de facto as an embassy and represents US interests in the country. Mr Mena, who is coordinating “Chelsea Visits Havana” for the Cuban national museum, says the institution has a small collection of contemporary American art, which was donated by artists who participated in the 1986 exhibition, “Por Encima del Bloqueo/ Surpassing the Embargo”, organised by the Wifredo Lam Contemporary Art Centre. The collection includes works by Mel Edwards, Carl Andre, Lawrence Weiner, Nancy Spero, Leon Golub, Miriam Shapiro, Kiki Smith, and Tim Rollins and K.O.S. After 23 years, Rollins and K.O.S. will again be showing their work in Havana with the Lehmann Maupin Gallery as part of the Chelsea project.

Although artists have regularly been denied visas, according to Christopher Klatell, an attorney at Rabinowitz, Boudin, Standard, Krinsky & Lieberman in New York, “the export of artworks to Cuba is exempt from the embargo under both statute and regulation”. He said that the Berman Amendment of 1988, also known as the Free Trade in Ideas Act, does not allow the US government to regulate or prohibit the exportation of art. This means that art can legally travel between the two countries, even when artists cannot.

Mr Magnan and Ms Metz have enlisted the help of the non-profit Fundación Amistad, which brings humanitarian aid to Cuba and sponsors art-related projects in the US and abroad. According to Luly Duke, president and founder, the organisation is raising funds to pay for the shipping and insurance of the art, as well as a catalogue. It is linked to academic, cultural and humanitarian institutions in Cuba, and will coordinate the complex shipment of work from the US to Havana and back. Mr Magnan, a Cuban American and the director of Magnan Projects gallery, said: “I’m not making any money from this and none of the art pieces are for sale. This is about exchanging culture. I couldn’t do this without the foundation’s help.”

President Obama has promised changes in US foreign policy towards Cuba, pledging to lift travel restrictions and limits on remittances to relatives on the island. Mr Mena said: “I don’t believe the exhibition would have been possible under the Bush administration. I hope the new president and his secretary of state recognise the value of cultural diplomacy based on mutual respect, and the free exchange of cultural goods.”

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