The Bronx Museum of the Arts has postponed an exhibition of contemporary art from Cuba that was to be loaned by the National Museum of Fine Arts in Havana.
The decision follows Cuba’s delay in finalising arrangements to send its art to the US amid fears that loaned works of art could be seized to satisfy claims from Americans whose property in Cuba was confiscated after Fidel Castro seized power in 1959.
The postponement sheds light on the many issues still to be resolved between the two countries, despite the official thaw declared by the Obama administration.
The Bronx exhibition, entitled Wild Noise, was to be the second part of an exchange with the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (MNBA) in Havana, and was scheduled to open this spring. The reciprocal initiative began a year ago with an exhibition in Havana of more than 90 works by 50 artists, on loan from the Bronx Museum’s permanent collection. After an exuberant publicity campaign, Wild Noise has disappeared without a murmur from the museum’s spring 2016 schedule.
Immunity request The Bronx Museum insists the exhibition will still take place, saying in a statement: “There has been tremendous and rapid change in a wide range of activities with Cuba; not long ago no one would have imagined that we could have exhibited works from our collection there, as we successfully did in 2015… we are planning for the exhibition at the Bronx Museum in January 2017.” Its request for immunity from seizure for loans from Cuba is currently “in process”, an outside publicist for the museum adds.
But a January opening date may be optimistic, according to a lawyer who specialises in such disputes. He cites the Cuban embargo, still in place, which will not be lifted until property claims by Americans against Cuba are resolved. Loans from the MNBA, which are state property, would be at risk of seizure in the US to satisfy those claims. Under US law, cultural objects are as subject to seizure as any other Cuban government property.
“You can’t really have commerce until the embargo is lifted and until Cuba pays compensation to more than 6,000 American claimants,” says Mauricio Tamargo, a lawyer who chaired the Foreign Claims Settlement Commission under the Bush and Obama administrations. “This is the largest confiscation of American property in history. It’s something that can’t be ignored. As much as everybody would like to have normal relations with Cuba, this has to be resolved first.”
Claims total $7bn The American claims amount to more than $7bn. Until a settlement is negotiated, Cuban museums are unlikely to loan art to the US without a guarantee of immunity from seizure—something the State Department regularly gives to US museums borrowing work from abroad. In the Bronx Museum case, though, even an executive order from the White House granting the museum immunity from seizure for art on loan from Havana is not an option, Tamargo says, since the US president lacks the authority (and probably the will) to override an embargo that has been affirmed by the US Congress. Nevertheless, the museum has responded to repeated enquiries with assurances that it expects the exhibition to take place.
As well as American claims on Cuba—known as certified claims because they have been recognised by the US government—there are nearly a dozen US legal judgments against Cuba that could delay full normalisation of relations, says Tamargo, who is now in private practice. The judgments include a 2009 order for Cuba to pay $27.5m in damages to the mother of a journalist jailed since 2003, and a 2011 ruling that the family of a Cuban-American citizen driven to suicide by Castro’s agents in 1959 should receive $2.8bn in compensation. Late last year, US and Cuban officials had their first meeting to discuss certified claims and judgments. Progress has been slow, according to insiders.
No easy solution “This is an issue that is going to be very difficult and I don’t see a short-term solution to it,” says Ramón Cernuda, a dealer in Cuban art in Miami. “In the current climate, I really don’t see any important museums in the US wanting to convey an image of not caring for or considering valid claims to ownership of art or other claims against the Cuban government. It’s not just the uphill battle of getting the immunity, but the backlash that could come with that.”
Cuban reluctance to send government property to the US is understandable, says the American collector Howard Farber, who has purchased art in Cuba and brought it to the US, thanks to a special status that removes art acquired privately from the current US embargo. “It’s happening too fast,” he says. “You’re dealing with 55 years of distrust between two countries. They’re not going to gamble with their Mona Lisas—for a museum show?”