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A $2.5 Million Statue Casts a Long Shadow on the Bronx Museum’s Cuban Initiatives

Exterior courtesy Bronx Museum of the Arts
The Bronx Museum of the Arts, which has offered free admission since 2012 (photo courtesy Bronx Museum of the Arts)

Sometime early next year, a monumental sculpture of the Cuban writer and national hero José Martí is expected to rise on Havana’s busy Paseo del Prado. Rather than an original work, it will be a replica of a 1959 bronze one currently standing in Central Park by Anna Hyatt Huntington — a name those well-versed in New York City public art may recognize, but one certainly lost on most of the thousands upon thousands of Cubans who would pass the copy every day.

When exactly it will land on Cuban soil is not yet known because the initiative, dubbed the Friends of José Martí Sculpture Project, is in its fundraising stages. Behind it is the Bronx Museum of the Arts, which is now soliciting public donations to raise $2.5 million to cover its production, installation, and inauguration in Havana, and eventual public and educational programs in both nations focused on Martí. For many in the art world, the project not only represents a questionable alliance with politically problematic implications, but also exemplifies ongoing concerns that the museum’s focus abroad is coming at the expense of the immediate community it represents and serves.

Anna Hyatt Huntington's statue of Jose Marti in Central Park (photo via Wikipedia)
Anna Hyatt Huntington’s statue of José Martí in Central Park (photo via Wikipedia) (click to enlarge)

There is, first and foremost, a conflict in how organizers are framing the project. The museum describes the sculpture as a “gift” to the Office of the Historian of the City of Havana — which it says has “enthusiastically stated it will accept it with gratitude” — but the historian says the idea is his own, and one he has been pursuing for a long time. In an interview with Cubadebate after the project’s announcement in June, Eusebio Leal Spengler said he had sought to create a copy of Huntington’s sculpture for over a decade, corresponding with high-ranking political and cultural figures in the US and Cuba. The Bronx Museum’s executive director, Holly Block, apparently agreed to have the museum serve as project coordinator, and Leal said he even received approval from Mayor Bill de Blasio and the Parks Department to replicate the Central Park sculpture.

The Bronx Museum did not respond to Hyperallergic’s inquiries to clarify Leal’s involvement in the project. For an initiative so grand, it had a curiously quiet announcement: while stories emerged in Cuban media outlets, practically no US websites reported on it then, and no press release in English seems to exist. Cuban artists received the news with dismay and anger, immediately questioning the museum’s motives.

“There isn’t enough food, gasoline, or materials to repair broken-down buildings in Cuba,” Cuban-American artist Coco Fusco told Hyperallergic. “But the country is saturated with Martí busts. There are so many statues of José Martí, that if they converted that into currency, it would do no better than the peso. This is not the equivalent of sending the Statue of Liberty. It’s an indefensible, aesthetically and politically misguided project.”

As Cuban independent curator Elvis Fuentes explained, the sculpture “represents the ultraconservative taste of an academic artist of the kind politicians love, yet has no artistic value whatsoever.” Since the 1920s, he said, Cuban sculptors had to fight for their right to make art for their public spaces, and only received recognition after they began winning open contests to create publicly funded monuments.

“The gesture of bringing a replica of an anti-modern statue to Havana is not only expensive and colonialist, but it also represents a step backwards for Cuban artists,” Fuentes said. “Why is the Bronx Museum promoting and wasting so much money on this irrelevant artist?”

The museum argues that such international projects serve to enhance its profile and bolster its initiatives and programming in the Bronx. But its critics suggest that it could achieve much more if it redirected the money and energy being marshaled to erect the Martí statue toward its immediate community — a culturally rich borough with many financially strained neighborhoods. Equivalent resources could significantly boost fundraising for the institution’s annual operating budget, which is currently $3.3 million.

The Bronx Museum of the Arts (courtesy
The Bronx Museum of the Arts (photo courtesy Bronx Museum of the Arts)

Edwin Pagan is one of six Nuyorican photographers who comprise the South Bronx-based collective Seis Del Sur and has worked at the Bronx Council on the Arts as well as the Association of Hispanic Arts. He told Hyperallergic that the sculpture project is a prime example of how the museum “doesn’t seem to see the value in homegrown art.

“There are a lot of artists who have been saying for a while that the museum has a bit of a disconnect with the community, and that just doesn’t seem to percolate up to the executive director,” he said. “The museum does local programming, but it tends to do a lot of things that look good on social media, but it isn’t sustainable in terms of how it helps artists in the long term.”

As the New York Times recently reported, Block’s financial decisions, in part, led to the resignation of two top members of the museum’s board of trustees who saw these choices as misguided. Citing lack of transparency from the executive director of 10 years, chairwoman Laura Blanco and vice chairwoman Mary Beth Mandanas both stepped down. Four others trustees — Jeanna Hussey, Isabella Hutchinson, Jonathan Plotkin, and Jason Silverman — also left their positions. Museum spokeswoman Sara Griffin told Hyperallergic that their resignations “were driven either by particular circumstances of the individual or because people didn’t want to deal with the unnecessary stress triggered by Laura and Mary Beth.”

Blanco told the Times that the board had received “inadequate information” on the sculpture project, saying that its budget had “ballooned” by one million dollars. Beyond fundraising for the statue, both Blanco and Mandanas were gravely concerned with the museum’s soliciting of donations for Wild Noise, its ongoing and “unprecedented joint arts initiative” to exchange loans of art with the National Museum of Fine Arts of Havana (MNBA) and host exhibitions at both locations. Havana’s museum held its exhibition of works from the Bronx Museum collection last year, but the exhibition of works from the MNBA collection in the Bronx has been delayed 21 months: Cuban authorities have postponed shipment, likely concerned that once on US soil the works may be seized to satisfy claims from Americans whose property was confiscated during the Cuban Revolution. In a memo attached to her resignation letter, Blanco called for the museum to immediately halt fundraising for Wild Noise, saying that “there is no reasonable likelihood that [an exchange of artworks] will happen in the near future.”

Wild Noise will continue, the museum confirmed, saying that it is currently handling bureaucratic hurdles. As Griffin said, “Immunity from seizure is an issue that extends far beyond the art world and is being addressed at the highest levels of US and Cuban government.” The exchange between the Bronx Museum and MNBA began in 2011, when Block was the only museum director to accept the initiative proposed to numerous US institutions by MNBA’s curator Corina Matamoros.

Blanco told Hyperallergic that although the issues she and Mandanas raised include the José Martí and Wild Noise projects, their overarching complaint is “the complete breakdown of the system that governs the museum.

“Corporate governance standards have not been met,” she wrote in an email. “The independence of the Board, proper procedures and reporting requirements, contracts and commitments entered into without proper vetting and approvals — these are among the issues first brought to the Board in an email delivered in early June labeled ‘Urgent.'” Then came a “combative” Executive Committee meeting, she said, following Block’s promotion of her supporters to the committee. According to Blanco, the interim appointments of Joseph Mizzi as chair and Joan Krevlin as co-vice chair were made without a complete Board discussion and vote.

In an email to Hyperallergic, Mizzi said that Block and the entire board “are firmly committed, first and foremost, to serving our local community, and we undertake projects which we believe support our mission in the Bronx. …The José Martí Sculpture Project has a different base of funders and supporters from the Museum’s and does not pull funding away from our operational budget, which is balanced and in very good shape.”

The museum’s engagement with the Cuban art world began long before Block’s appointment, back in 1984, when administrators attended the first Bienal de La Habana. Block is renowned for her steady promotion of Cuban artists since the 1990s, particularly while serving as executive director of Art in General. In 2011, she published Art Cuba: The New Generation, a tome detailing the works of over 60 Cuban artists. At the Bronx Museum, she has received praise for organizing exhibitions such as the ongoing Art AIDS America, which includes many Cuban-American artists. But she also agreed to host the controversial “Macabre Suite” party that Lucien Smith curated last year in the South Bronx, where wealthy merrymakers were encouraged to post memories online with the hashtag #bronxisburning.

What many find troubling now is how her relationship with Cuba is seemingly becoming all too cozy. Last year, Block was one of the few Americans invited to attend the reopening ceremony of the Cuban embassy in Washington, DC; decisions such as her pursuit of the Friends of José Martí Sculpture Project suggest that her political alliances have influenced her actions at the museum. For instance, the honorees at the museum’s annual benefit and auction this year — devoted to Wild Noise — were all Cuban; previous galas had honored Bronx-based artists and other New York figures.

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Installation view of ‘Wild Noise’ at El Museo Nacional de Bellas Arts, Havana, Cuba, 2015 (photo by Joel Greenberg Photography) (click to enlarge)

Block’s critics also say the museum is selective with the Cuban artists it champions, favoring those in good standing with the current government. Last year, Tania Bruguera — whose work is featured in the Bronx Museum’s permanent collection — sought Block’s help after Cuban state police detained her for a performance that coincided with the Bienal de La Habana. Bruguera confirmed that Block never offered her any support, not even when authorities had prevented her from entering the MNBA to attend the opening of Wild Noise.

“While all of this is taking place, the Bronx Museum gives residencies to Cuban artists promoted by the Cuban Ministry of Culture,” Cuban photographer Geandy Pavón told Hyperallergic. “An example is [former] artist-in-residence Humberto Díaz, who, in a conference organized by the Bronx Museum at Goldman Sachs, said there was no censorship in Cuba at the same time his fellow artists were being repressed and incarcerated.

“I would like to see the Bronx Museum support Cuban artists who are critical of the government in the same way they support those who are not,” he said, citing its silence on the incarceration of El Sexto last year amid many calls for the Cuban graffiti artist’s release from the likes of Amnesty International. He added that he finds that in general, Cuban art is currently “overrepresented” at the institution.

“There are only 8,000 Cubans in the Bronx of a general population of 1.3 million,” Pavón said. “I would like to see all that money and effort [for the José Martí project] allocated to help the many good artists residing in the Bronx from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and the Afro-American community.”

Fusco, who describes Block as “consistently pro-Cuba,” also said the executive director is interested only in artists when they live in Cuba, ignoring them when they leave.

“What I find problematic is the hardline, ideological stand that Cubans are only Cubans when they are in Cuba, and that is what bothers a lot artists,” Fusco said. “That has to do with maintaining a Cold War-style position, that everybody who leaves is a traitor, and you cannot deal with the traitors — only with the revolutionaries. It is so old hat.”

Hyperallergic reached out to the museum about such concerns of selectivity. In an email, Mizzi simply said of the institution’s partnership with Cuba: “This decades-long engagement has included artists from across the political spectrum. Cuban politics is a highly-charged issue that elicits strong and deeply-felt opinions from artists, curators, and opinion leaders on both sides.”

El Museo Nacional de Bellas Arts in Havana, Cuba during the 2015 Wild Noise exhibition (photo by Joel Greenberg Photography)
El Museo Nacional de Bellas Arts in Havana, Cuba during the 2015 ‘Wild Noise’ exhibition (photo by Joel Greenberg Photography)

Although the Bronx Museum may have stronger ties with Cuban authorities than most US institutions, many Cuban artists do think it is not alone in its apparent cherrypicking of Cuban artists.

I have not done research on the engagement of the Bronx Museum with Cuban exiled artists in particular, but I don’t think that it is much different from the rest of US institutions, which usually prefer the exoticism of the local artists to the experience of those living abroad,” Fuentes told Hyperallergic. Both he and Geandy cited Carmen Herrera — who moved to New York in 1939 — as a living testament to how US institutions tend to neglect Cuban artists who live abroad. In 2010, Herrera told the Telegraph that the Museum of Modern Art “kept going to Cuba to find artists when I was right here in New York.”

But initiatives such as Friends of the José Martí Sculpture Project particularly exemplify how Americans who sign off on these Cuban partnerships often may not consider the broader consequences for Cubans. Fusco describes the project as part of “an explosion of naive interest in Cuba,” as American trips to Havana have spiked following the US-Cuba Rapprochement. As doors to Cuba open, people should ensure that locals benefit from any cultural bridges and financial support from overseas.

“Everybody wants to figure out how to do something with Cuba because it’s hip, it’s hot,” Fusco said. “But it’s disturbing that the same public intellectuals and public servants who sign petitions for Ai Weiwei say nothing about the censoring of artists or the political control of the art community. There is an absolute absenting of any sense of political responsibility from people who want to get in good with the Cuban government, and that is precisely what allows those unethical practices in Cuba to continue. … Holly has always assumed the position to look at the positive and overlook these instances.” Fusco added that Block herself had restricted access to Cuba for more than a half-dozen years following the publication of her book, possibly for her inclusion of a writer whom authorities considered troubling.

Hyperallergic attempted to receive comment from Block, but her lawyer, Joshua Stein, redirected all questions to Griffin. Blanco said Block and the remaining trustees are “attempting to minimize the issues by denial or deflection, hoping that the public will tire of the story of a New York institution that is on the way to betray the very community that it is supposed to serve.

“The opaque nature of the responses to date should be a warning heeded by the proper authorities and Bronx lawmakers and activists to take action,” she said. 

Griffin confirmed that the museum has no intention to stop its fundraising of the José Martí replica sculpture. Only time will tell if the project will eventually benefit the museum’s immediate community, where countless artists are eagerly looking for opportunities to work with the institution.

“Are they going to do more with the local artists? Are they going to pay attention more to regional art?” Pagan said. “We’re just waiting to see what plays out, but we’re hoping the board members come to terms with that and decide to do new initiatives that focus more on Bronx-based artists.”

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