Encouraging figures for Cuban Art


Cuban art is increasingly diversified, especially since 2014 when La Fábrica was inaugurated and Cuban artist Kcho opened his Art Laboratory in the district of Romerillo. 2014 was also the year US President Barack Obama made his famous speech announcing a thaw in diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba and, of course, encouraging foreign investors already keenly interested in Cuba’s strategic position between the two Americas. Shortly after Obama’s speech, a first international gallery – Continua – decided to open in an old cinema in Havana’s Chinatown at the end of 2015 with an exhibition of work by young Cuban artists like José Yaque, Alejandro Campins and Elizabeth Cervino. Since then the gallery has organised several major shows with works by Pistoletto, Daniel Buren, Pascal Marthine Tayou and Kader Attia, among others. In view of the absence of a genuinely structured art market in Cuba (in spite of Subasta Havana’s attempts) and the rarity of buyers (American buyers are often nervous to spend despite an exception to the embargo for artworks), Continua’s decision to set up in Cuba has to be seen as a gamble on the future. Outside Cuba, Obama’s speech had a significant impact. It focused attention on the Cuban art scene and contributed to an awakening of the Cuban art market on the major international marketplaces.

Tania Bruguera’s supporters

The militant artist Tania BRUGUERA is recognized in Cuba and some of her works have been integrated into the collections of Cuba’s National Museum of Fine Arts. Her notoriety did not prevent her arrest by the Cuban authorities three years ago. Shortly after Barack Obama’s speech in December 2014, the artist staged a performance in Havana’s Revolution Square that was not to everyone’s liking, especially not to Cuba’s authorities. Considered a political provocation and a threat to public order, the performance led to her arrest along with other “dissidents”. The artist was released thanks to a petition signed by more than a thousand artists and cultural nabobs, but she was deprived of her passport for several months. In the auction sphere, the art market also reacted by giving her greater visibility and carrying her sculpture Destierro (Displacement) to double its estimate at Phillips on 26 May 2015 ($81,250). In December of the same year, the same work was seen on offer for an additional $110,000 (i.e. $19I,250) at Art Basel Miami. Following her latest arrest while preparing to demonstrate against Decree 349 outside the Ministry of Culture in early December 2018 (fortunately only a short detention), she received strong support, especially from foreign media. From political support to strategic price inflation… the market also feeds on censorship and sees freedom of expression defenders as role models.


Much better results…

The recent revaluation of Cuban art is part of a global effort by major museums, including the Guggenheim and MoMA in New York, the George Pompidou Center in Paris and the Tate Modern in London. These museums, with the help of specialized acquisition funds like the MoMA’s Latin American and Caribbean Fund, collect Cuban works after carefully analysing what is still a relatively opaque market. On the secondary market, Phillip’s, Sotheby’s and Christie’s have for several years been preparing the commercial emergence of the Latin American scene and especially Cuban artists from New York. For buyers, Cuban artists are an interesting long-term investment because they can access major works by well-established artists at cheaper prices than those asked for major European or American signatures of the same generations. Demand has grown considerably in the last four years and prices are rising steadily.

The case of Afro-Cuban artist Manuel MENDIVE (1944), aged 74, is a good example. An emerging signature on the international market, Mendive has long been famous in Havana for his work with Santeria, a Cuban religion connected to the sacred sources of African Yoruba rites. Barack Obama’s announcement of an easing of US relations had an immediate impact on the prices of this key figure on the Cuban artistic landscape: in the following months, three new auction records were recorded for his works at price levels between $68,000 and $100,000. His annual turnover shot up – multiplied by 15 in two years – thanks to American sales. One of his paintings crossed the $100,000 threshold for the first time last year (Energías para el amor y la bondad fetched $125,000 on 24 May 2017 at Christie’s New York) and although this record has not been beaten since, sales of his works in 2018 have generated his best-ever annual auction turnover at nearly $440,000, proof that demand is growing and becoming increasingly international.

A similar trend has been observed with other Cuban artists like Dario Viejo, Esterio Segura, Mariano Rodriguez, Carlos Enríquez Gómez and even Felix Gonzalez-Torres (to whom David Zwirner gave a first exhibition in his New York gallery between April and July 2017). All have recorded auction records in the last three years.

Well promoted in New York, Cuban art is also very present in Miami (less than 400 km from the island) where the Cuban community actively promotes Cuban art via collectors and private foundations like the Sera and Don Rubell collection. A number of major collectors have made Miami the primary gateway for the Cuban scene into the United States, especially during Art Basel Miami, which attracts major international dealers and collectors. The city is home to two auction operators, Miami Auction Gallery and FAAM-Fine Art Auctions, which have helped anchor Cuban art to the American East Coast. From Miami to New York… from London to Paris… Cuban art is gaining in visibility. The future will tell us whether it can retain its vitality once digested by the market.