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US museums’ Cuban dreams deferred

High-profile loan programmes are hindered by practical problems and political realities

US museums have been dreaming of ambitious exchanges with Cuban institutions since the two countries renewed diplomatic ties last year. But they may have set their sights too high. Snarls in securing loans from Cuban state institutions caused an exodus of benefactors from the Bronx Museum of the Arts in New York. Other US institutions are now bypassing government collections in favour of more reliable sources.

In August, the chairman and five other trustees left the board of the Bronx Museum, citing the continued expense of a much-publicised, long-delayed show of works from the National Museum of Fine Arts in Havana. The exhibition, called Wild Noise, was part of a reciprocal exchange. (The Bronx Museum lent more than 90 works to Havana last year.) The museum says the New York show, originally expected to open this spring, has been rescheduled for January 2017.

The departing trustees also criticised a $2.5m commission of a statue of the Cuban leader José Martí, which the museum’s director, Holly Block, hopes to donate to Cuba. Laura Blanco, the Cuban-born departing chairwoman, says these projects “are symptoms of a much deeper and more serious problem facing the museum. It boils down to a lack of governance”.

A publicist for the Bronx Museum says that the institution’s budget is balanced and that money for the Martí statue comes from a dedicated fund. In a statement, Block says: “The museum remains committed to Wild Noise”. The museum’s interim board chairman and co-vice chairwoman have reiterated their support of Block’s vision.

Roadblocks to exchange Even with the Obama administration’s call for a diplomatic thaw, official exchanges remain difficult. The Cuban government continues to denounce the US blockade. The US government, meanwhile, is empowered to seize art loaned from Cuban state institutions to satisfy American claims to property confiscated in Cuba after Fidel Castro took power in 1959. Without assurances from the US Department of State that art loans are immune from seizure, the Cuban government is not expected to send any.

Wild Noise “has about as much chance of happening as Gary Johnson [of the Libertarian Party] has of being elected president of the US”, says Howard Farber, a long-time collector of Cuban art.

Some institutions are looking elsewhere to sustain their Cuban projects. The Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), Houston, is borrowing work from private collectors including Farber and Ella Cisneros for a show due to open on 5 March 2017 (Adiós Utopia: Dreams and Deceptions in Cuban Art Since 1950). Gary Tinterow, the museum’s director, calls it the first major exhibition of Cuban revolutionary art in the US. The show is co-organised by the MFA Houston and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, where it will travel in November 2017. The show was first conceived by Cisneros's foundation, Cifo Europa.

In a letter accompanying loan requests, Tinterow says the show focuses “exclusively on art made by artists who trained in Cuba since 1950 (including those who later left the island)” and “sheds light on the complex relationship between artistic production and the utopian spirit that defined Cuba’s revolutionary period”.

The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC, dropped off the exhibition’s list of venues this summer. The museum’s director, Melissa Chiu, says that other “major international commitments” forced the museum into “a tough decision”. (Some insiders suggest that Washington politics were a factor as well.) 

Tinterow differentiates Houston’s effort from that of the Bronx Museum. “Our exhibition is not dependent on loans from any one entity, public or private… so we’re able to work around any difficulties that might emerge borrowing from Cuban state institutions,” he says. Although the museum has had “encouraging conversations” with Cuban officials, curators have identified “alternative works” from private collections and institutions outside Cuba that would be “exemplary substitutes”, he says.   

The MFA Houston will also have to contend with Cuban-born artists wary of Cuban state institutions lending their work. The Madrid-based artist Maldito Menéndez questioned the loan of his installation Reviva La Revolu (1988), which he has not seen in 27 years. In an e-mail exchange with curators that Menéndez posted to his blog, he hesitated to vouch for the work without having seen it in person at the Museum of Fine Arts in Havana—but noted that he is not permitted to enter the country.