At the front of artist Hector Frank’s gallery is a prominent window where passersby stop and examine his bright acrylic canvases from an atmospheric street in Havana, Cuba. It’s an open door policy; step in and someone will offer you a swig of Havana Club seven-year rum as Frank glides easily from artist to gallerist to publicist, hobnobbing with old and new friends. He's obviously at home here and there is a reason for that: he, his wife, and extended family all live right downstairs.
House-cum-galleries like Frank's are frequent stops for early-adopting travelers looking to witness an authentic piece of the country's burgeoning art market, which has piqued global interest as trade relations between U.S. and Cuba improve. Unlike the city's official arts and crafts center, Almacenes San José, a bustling nexus of commerce by the pier, the focus at these DIY gallery spaces is intimacy, conversation, and yes, rum. With June's Havana Biennial already passed, the interaction between artist and buyer is inherently less transactional than in other international art capitals—it’s de rigueur for artists to invite tourists into their homes and ask where they are from, without the subtext of a potential sale.
In stark contrast, Almacenes San José is a pocket of capitalist influence. A quick scan of the works available there is like a stroll through art's greatest hits of the past few centuries, performed by cover bands. Picasso’s Three Musicians is available in any canvas size you could want.
“Ninety percent of the art in the market are fakes,” says Bryant Toth, meaning that the pieces are either homages to Guevara or Castro or attempts to replicate the famous styles of Picasso, Wilfredo Lam, or Fernando Botero. Toth is a New York–based art dealer who specializes in Cuban art. But there are exceptions of course, like Juan Carlos Vazquez Lima, whom Toth met in the market on one of his first trips to Cuba. Unlike the surfeit of canvases at other stalls, Lima had four pieces on display that day, each depicting a whimsical stick figure with multiple pupils, a leitmotif in Lima's work. Toth bought them all.
Toth has been championing Cuban art for years, acquiring art and befriending local artists on his visits. The first piece he ever bought was from Hector Frank: a portrait made of acrylic paint and collage on canvas. Art has always been a legal Cuban export, and at the bequest of friends and business contacts, Toth started curating pieces for their collections as well. Now, his company, Bryant Toth Fine Art, has a roster of artists in Cuba, a database of private clients in the U.S., and an Instagram account that regularly helps link the two (@bryants_cuba).
For many prospective buyers, Cuban artists tend to be condensed into two categories: The well-known heavyweights, which include performance artist Tania Bruguera and Carlos Garaicoa, whose work has been shown at the Guggenheim, and the emerging. Though artists of Cuban descent are better represented in Miami, only a handful of major New York and Los Angeles galleries are currently invested in the contemporary Cuban art market, most notably Magnan Metz and Sean Kelly—the latter represents Los Carpinteros, an art collective that commands hefty prices from international buyers. In 2016, the Bronx Museum will show a selection of works from the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Cuba in the institutions' first art swap.
Still there are a number of artists, including Frank and Lima, whose works' prices have steadily climbed in the last few years despite their lack of strong international recognition. Art collectors looking to break into the Cuban market are eager for this kind of unfettered talent, and in turn, the artists need their patronage, but the lack of access is a hindrance for both sides. The Cuban government has always championed artists, but a historical lack of resources has only allowed them to put their force behind a small subset, leaving many others to gain limited traction or flourish quickly, and then plateau.
Toth hopes to combat this by giving his artists an international platform not just for their art but for their stories, which will allow potential buyers to connect with the artists and understand their work in context. Eventually he wants to make a documentary on their lives. “Part of my mission and why I've been fed up with how people exploited Cuban art is that a lot of galleries internationally buy their work, they sell it, and put the artist's name at the very bottom of the piece, but they don't tell their story,” he says. “The artists don't have a voice themselves.”
If he sounds protective, that's because he is, often referring to his artists as family. “I've cooked with them, I've stayed in their homes... I've painted in the backyard with them. I've seen them in their element but also seen them stem away from their work and need advice.”
The current resurgence has brought much-needed capital to Cuba's creative class, but many are still restricted by their environment. Frank is one of the few artists in Toth’s crew who can travel internationally, and even then, there are complications. (Frank had hoped to come to New York for a collective show Toth hosted in Manhattan’s Chelsea in June, but it proved too difficult in the current political climate.) Toth is also limited to the types of artworks he can bring back with him to the States; because of the difficulties in shipping securely, he transports most pieces by hand, which means he can only sell works on canvas, though found objects and wood are common materials in Cuban art.
The biggest constraint, though, is the lack of art supplies available in Cuba, where many colors or materials are only availably seasonally. This often leaves Toth as a mule for his artists, carting cans of cerulean blue, a color unavailable in Cuba, along with his clothes.
“I joke that every time I go to Cuba, I bring my luggage in one hand and a bag of paint supplies in the other,” Toth says.
As tourist travel increases to the country, so will resources, though Toth presumes it may be a long and convoluted road before artists have the access and freedom they need. Toth’s next working milestone is to bring Frank to New York City in November for a solo show, where he hopes to introduce him to prominent members of the art community and prospective buyers.
Until then, those looking to forge a personal connection with this subsection of Cuban artists will have to find their way to their doorsteps, and just hope that they’re home.
Traveling to Cuba? See our guide to Havana »
Image Credits: Left: © Exposito / Right: © Ignacio Merida