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US refusal to protect Cuban art threatens Bronx Museum show

Ambitious joint venture between New York and Havana at risk as State Department remains unwilling to grant immunity from seizure for Cuban loans

The Bronx Museum of the Arts in New York has an ambitious plan to send an exhibition of contemporary art to Cuba and to host a show that is planned to travel from the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Havana, next year. The first part of the exchange, “Wild Noise”, is due to open in Havana on 21 May. 

The Cuban museum has not loaned objects to US institutions since Fidel Castro’s regime came to power in 1959, when relations between the two countries drastically soured. But this new cultural project, which also includes artist exchanges and educational programmes, taps into the political warmth towards Cuba that has recently emanated from Washington, DC.

Yet bringing works of art from the state-owned Havana museum into the US will be a challenge for the Bronx Museum. Despite conciliatory words in December from US President Barack Obama, who promised to “normalise relations… and begin a new chapter among the nations of America”, Cuba remains officially classified as a state sponsor of terrorism. The US Congress, which is led by a Republican majority, is opposing the Democratic president’s plans to lift restrictions on Cuba.

It is not clear how the countries might resolve the issue of US courts ruling against Cuba in a number of lawsuits where damages have been awarded but not yet recovered for the seizure of property. Certified claims from Americans in Cuba that took place more than 50 years ago now amount, according to some estimates, to more than $7bn.

These factors make it unlikely that the US Department of State would grant the Bronx Museum immunity from seizure for its loans—usually an essential provision for any international loan contract. The Immunity from Judicial Seizure statute says that no lawsuit can be brought against an object on loan from a foreign country “if before the importation of such object the President or his designee has determined that such object is of cultural significance and that the temporary exhibition or display thereof within the United States is in the national interest”.

Since the project was announced in January, the Bronx Museum has “not yet set in motion” an application for immunity from seizure for next year’s show, a spokesman says. In a statement, the institution says: “The lifting of the Cuban embargo has created ongoing reviews of how the US does business with Cuba. [We are] glad to support future institutional collaborations with Cuba.”

There are recent precedents for US museums failing to get loans from Cuba. A travelling show of works by the Cuban Surrealist Wifredo Lam, now at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art, does not include loans from Cuban collections because the McMullen Museum of Art at Boston College, the institution behind the show, could not secure immunity from seizure.

According to a spokesman for the McMullen museum, officials from the State Department explained that immunity from seizure in a cultural exchange would not protect the property of a country that is designated a sponsor of terrorism.

Cuban institutions are, however, lending works to a Lam retrospective at the Centre Pompidou in Paris later this year. In 2008, the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes was a major lender to an exhibition of Cuban art at Canada’s Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

Another risk for the exhibition is the fact that, for decades, the Havana museum stored art seized from Cubans who fled the island—and it may still do so. Some of those exiled families could try to subpoena a visiting museum curator to learn what the institution has in its storerooms today.

Further complicating matters, Corina Matamoros, the Cuban curator of “Wild Noise”, was denied an entry visa when she tried to visit the US last year, because she was suspected of planning to emigrate. Alberto Bustamante, the director of Herencia, a Miami-based organisation that documents cultural preservation in Cuba, says that there is the “potential for catastrophic problems” for the Bronx Museum’s ambitious show.

Cuba’s clampdown on free speech continues The Cuban authorities are proving hostile to unofficial culture, after the artist Tania Bruguera was recently detained for attempting to stage a performance in Havana about free speech. Bruguera, a Cuban national who lives abroad, remains in Havana as she awaits the government’s decision on whether she will be charged. Also in December, the artist and satirist Danilo Maldonado “El Sexto” Machado was arrested before he could perform in Havana’s Parque Central with two pigs named Fidel and Raúl. Neither issue had been resolved as we went to press.