The Havana Biennial art exposition wrapping up Monday has been held 12 times since the 1980s. But this is the first since U.S. efforts to improve relations with Cuba began six months ago, allowing an unusually large contingent of American visitors.
Here are some observations from U.S. art collectors and their representatives about how Havana's art scene has evolved and the impact of detente.
PRICES: BARGAINS AND HYPE
Janda Wetherington, whose Pan American Art Projects gallery in Miami specializes in Cuban art, says prices have gone up since the last Biennial. Wetherington, who led a collectors' tour during the event, said works for mid-career artists that ran $1,000-$5,000 during the last Biennial are in the $5,000-$20,000 range now, while established artists sell works for up to a half-million.
But at least one young artist, a student at Havana's prestigious high school for the arts, overestimated the Biennial hype. She lost a sale by pricing a copy of a video at $3,500. The work used the school bathroom as its gallery, projecting video images that made it look like a sink was filled with swimming fish.
"It was a brilliant piece, a wonderful trompe-l'oeil," said Louise Martorano, executive director of RedLine, a Denver contemporary arts center that organized the tour where a would-be buyer saw the video. The price — quoted in consultation with a teacher — misjudged what an American visitor would pay for a flash drive of the work.
For big spenders, though, prices are so low they're "ridiculous," said Howard Farber, who says he's spent "many millions" buying Cuban art since his first trip to Havana in 2001. "If you look at the prices of American contemporary art, you could have a great Cuban collection for what you pay in sales tax in the U.S. for comparable work."
Farber, a New Yorker who plans to buy six pieces he saw during the Biennial, has made a fortune buying and selling American modernist and Chinese contemporary art. He says Cuba offers "the biggest opportunity for an art collector to start a collection. You might say I'm saying that to boost the value of my own collection, but I can't buy everything, and I'm still buying."
FROM PRIVATE VENUES TO THE MALECON
Many Biennial attendees said the most memorable event was on Havana's waterfront promenade.
"One of the most exciting components of the Biennial was seeing the public interact with outdoor artworks along the Malecon," said Sara Reisman, curator for Shelley and Donald Rubin, who own 1,000 works of Cuban art in addition to the Himalayan art displayed in New York's Rubin Museum. "Locals and tourists alike were interacting with the works at all times of day and night."
Highlights included a mural along the wall by Emilio Perez, interlocking rocking chairs by Ruben Hernandez Varenes, and an artificial ice rink.
The variety of venues around Havana also made this Biennial different.
"In the past an artist or group would not be put on the Biennial calendars if they weren't in an officially sanctioned space," said Wetherington. This time, venues ranged from alternative spaces like La Fabrica, a hybrid gallery and nightclub, to private homes where artists live and work together.
"You couldn't see that 10 years ago. The government would not have permitted it," agreed Patricia Hanna, curator for Jorge Perez, founder of the Miami museum that bears his name. The new venues offer "much more opportunity" for artists to sell outside a formal gallery system, and to show their work to both collectors and ordinary Cubans.
POLITICS, ISOLATION AND HEROES
Many Biennial works fit comfortably into contemporary minimalism, like an immersive mirrored installation with a color scale by Rachel Valdes Camejo, one of Martorano's favorite pieces.
Other pieces had political themes, like a yellow brick road made from wood spilling over Havana's seawall into the Atlantic, and a shattered American flag made from pick-up sticks.
"A lot of people have been shocked by how much freedom (the artists) seem to have," said Wetherington. "But to a certain extent, the artists are a little bit of a pawn in the political world." She said Cuba's government can appear liberal by allowing artists to travel and create work with messages that may or may not be subversive, depending on how they're interpreted.
Louis Varela Nevaer, who collects Cuban art but didn't buy anything during this Biennial, thinks there's actually "a great deal of control" on what artists can do inside Cuba. "The more controversial art is being shown outside Cuba — Mexico, France and Spain mostly," said Nevaer, who is based in New York.
Dan Pappalardo, founder and CEO of Troika, a Hollywood branding and marketing company, spent $100,000 on art on a prior trip to Cuba and bought more during the Biennial. The art "really resonated," he said, especially themes related to isolation and loved ones leaving. "There's an authenticity that comes from such a deep-rooted place, less influenced by global trends," he said.
He also marveled at the interest shown by ordinary Cubans. "The artists are part of the culture," he said. "They're revered like our movie stars are. They become heroes."