The value of Cuban art after the thaw

/ 8 May, 2015

No wonder that Roberto Diago (Havana , 1971) to say so extravagant phrase as “Fame does not exist”. Diago is concentrated, above all, in daily effort: “We must work every day. I cannot wait for a gallery to do the work for me. “Not only his talent, but also his discipline, have led him to earn a name in contemporary Cuban art.

Roberto Diago´s crates are made at his studio-home at Santos Suarez neighbourhood. He manages to get the wood, the canvases. The movement in the portal and the backyard is constant. According to the artist, only two rooms in the house are dedicated to live. The others are a kind of personal gallery where some of his more recent works are hanging on the walls, in addition to some not so new, which recent collectors who have come to see their work have wanted to snatch them from his hands.

After December 17, when Raul Castro and Barack Obama made public their talks on the will to restore the ties broken for more than 50 years, the most influential media have not stopped writing speculations about Cuban art as a possible new Mecca of world art.

Lots of hungry collectors would come to Havana to buy now works that will later cost too much more. The trained eye curators would discover unknown artists so far. More Americans could travel to Cuba with the latest relaxations and could trade more with our art.

After several weeks of media furor, Art OnCuba talks with Roberto Diago and his gallerist, American Alberto Magnan (with a specially trained eye in Cuban art and his own gallery in New York, the Magnan Metz). From this multiple interview with one of the safest bets in the Cuban market and one of the most experienced dealers in our art, we intend to shape the response (still incalculable) to several questions asked at this point:

What new opportunities are opened for the sale of workshop in Cuba to the lesser known artists and for those who for years have been well positioned in the market?

What new challenges brings the current scenario to Cuban vilified gallery, which widespread inefficiency still hinders it from bringing to fruition many of the sales of the artists it displays, if artists (at least those who are strong values ​​in the market ) do not believe in it and do not need it to close their own sales?

How should Cuban art and its creators care about the quality of the work, in a context in which to sell for selling will not be exactly a difficult thing?

Art OnCuba: Presumably it will be a stampede of Cuban art in the market following the announcement of December 17…

Alberto Magnan: There are many American collectors who had not come to Cuba; they are doing it now that the situation is changing. They are looking for good pieces by people who were already on the market. They are also looking for new people. The other thing is that, besides being people coming here, they are also selling well in the United States.

Roberto Diago: I have my doubts about that, because there was already a group of us (Cuban artists) who always exhibited on fairs in the United States. The presence was small, but it existed. Havana Gallery participated with a group of artists at relevant fairs and exhibitions.

A major exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, where participated a group of Cuban and Caribbean contemporary artists was made. That is, we were being seen. Some artists were already working with galleries in Miami or New York. But now a greater influx is happening.

When I started working with the director of the Havana Gallery, Luis Miret, he opened many horizons to me with many new collectors in the United States. Many good collectors who were pioneers to a large group of us came such as the Consul of Monaco, Victoria Ryan Lobo. And through them many other collectors came and marked a pattern in that gallery.

Top level collectors have come to Cuba . If that increases, the better for everyone. But there was already a little path, and there was already an open window.

Art OnCuba: That is, you believe that the negotiations will not have a major impact on the already legitimized artists, but actually those who will benefit most will allegedly be the new artists, those who now make a more underground art and still sell little and cheap, because they begin to make their way …

Roberto Diago: Maybe, new artists can be discovered, but look, there is a reality, everybody can not be wrong: the same artists will be on the list. Because you may find an artist who has just graduated from the school and is doing interesting things, but you must also find out for how long he has been making that excellent work.

There are colleagues of mine -it’s a pity- who had an interesting work and now many are not even devoted to that, they are not interested. It is an everyday thing.

A lot of sales in galleries have been lost in Cuba by having no crates. The sale has been made, and then the part of export the work has become a problem, because there has not been wood, plywood, etc.

Art OnCuba: Are you saying that the Cuban gallery is a disaster?

Roberto Diago: It is not autonomous and must be it. It should have a series of things that hasn’t today. Some curators do a poor job. Others do a good job. It is okay the country to have economic difficulties, but these difficulties have nothing to do with them not to come to my house. If they do not come, they do not know what I’m doing. Why do foreign curators come every week?

Art OnCuba: Maybe the Cuban curators pay attention to the type of art with which the institution sympathizes and is interested in promoting…

Roberto Diago: A good gallery owner has a folder with the artists of the gallery, and another folder with other artists. At least he knows. Sometimes customers come looking for artists who do not work with that gallery. But the gallery owner knows them.

You as a critic can identify yourself with an artistic movement rather than another, but that does not mean you do not know the others. The gallery owner has to go to the galleries and see what is being done. It is the only way to learn.

In a moment in which I had an “economic boom” with Miret, many asked me: “Diago, what is the mystery?” I replied: “Simple: Miret always comes to my house, watches my job, we can talk, and make strategies.” If a gallery owner sits on the desk (which happens a lot in Cuba) he does not know what is happening on the street, does not relate to anyone, then he cannot sell anything, he cannot have a clue.

You have to work, because people come to see visual arts, not to hear your story or your problems. They come to see what you do. If you are an artist who does not exhibits, who does not work systematically, if you are not in the media, then nobody sees you, and that’s your problem. Now, when you are consistent, you exhibit, you get related…

Like everything in life. Someone can give the brushes of Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo’s suspenders, but if you do not work every day you won’t succeed. The first is to work. I think it’s 2% of talent and 98% of workshop.

Art OnCuba: Don’t you see that coming, that Cuban gallery to solve its internal difficulties?

Roberto Diago: I do not care about that. I care about my job, I take care of myself. If nobody cares about me, I will do it. You cannot ask the institution what does not have. What for?

Art OnCuba: How does a Cuban artist get the raw material to work?

Roberto Diago: For example, right now I got a flax, which gives a specific texture, from United States, because it cannot be found here. Then I have to find a person to go there, pay him the trip to bring it to me, and then I can work. If not, I cannot.

I have to talk to a carpenter who tells me when he gets the dry wood I need for my racks. If I see brasses, I collect them although I am not going to use them at the time. So, I have the yard full of stuffs and everything needed for my work.

Art OnCuba: So, you take the administrative part at par with the creative part…

Roberto Diago: Yes, it’s a whole. I do not separate them, because I have to know the resources I have to do what I want. That’s one of the big problems here. Many artists want to do things sometimes they cannot do, because they don’t have a proper place to store the piece or even to make it.

Sometimes you do not have the raw material, and those are projects that will get rot. And it’s not the same thing that you thought in 2015, and when the materials appear in 2020, maybe you’re not interested.

That happens a lot to filmmakers in Cuba. When they get the budget for the film, the idea and Cuba already changed, the context does not have the same effect it would have at that time. The same goes for the arts.

Art OnCuba: What happened to you and your work after the announcements of December 17?

Roberto Diago: Many people still call me. And I’m at a personal stage where I attend only the people I can. Or I paint, or I become a public relations specialist. Because I can start being more for the people than for myself and I’m not a rock star. What I want is to work. And I try the amount of collectors and people who come not to detract me in the least.

Alberto Magnan: It is very important what Diago is doing now, which is to leave the country and return. Genn Ligen is a very good and powerful black artist in the United States . I would like Glenn and Roberto to know each other, because their work is very similar, but at the same time very different.

Those are important things that I think are going to happen now. Perhaps these artists come and see what is happening here. I like that Cuban artists to go out and know what happens outside, because there may be an artist who does not leave his country in his life, and does not know that there is another one in the United States or Europe doing the same.

Art OnCuba: Is it impossible to create alone, then?

Alberto Magnan: You have to be watching everything. So we did a show in 2009 named Chelsea visits Havana to bring a part of what’s happening in Chelsea, which is the world center of art. To let people see similarities, differences, for artists to take ideas.

Art OnCuba: It is also said that when the Cuban art ceases to be the “forbidden fruit” and can easily be accessible, people might lose interest on it…

Alberto Magnan: It can happen if they are not known artists. I do not think this to happen with the serious artists, who are respected by museums, curators, etc. What I do not want to happen is that artists to make works only to sell, because many people will come here and they will sell. I want the artists to take their time and do the best work possible. It is the responsibility of the artists that the quality of their work to be at the same level at which they are or at a higher level, when buyers to come.

Art OnCuba: All artists do bad works, what about yours Diago, where are they?

Roberto Diago: For me those are the most important, because they are the ones that give me strength to change and improve. Everybody wants the good works. I’m like the athletes, who are concerned when they make bad training. You cannot measure the artist like a machine for making pictures. Picasso has dazzling works and has other works that I would not hang in my house.

Art OnCuba: The context in which a work is exhibited often influences its success what is the place, the ideal context for one of your works?

Roberto Diago: Whenever the work is sold is good. But right now I want the work to be with me. I am like a mother with children. I’m crazy to see the paintings and installations beside me, having them a while, because later I do not see them anymore. It is my personal opinion.

Some people want the work to be out there, in places that legitimize it. At 44, I am enjoying myself a bit. I travel less. I exhibit less. When I was a boy I travelled throughout Europe, visiting, searching, watching, and learning. Now I am more interested in working, doing my work, which in the end is what remains.

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