Cuba, Cleveland and the Arts: An Import-Export Relationship

Cuban artist Alejandrao Aguile, painting during a prior residency in Cleveland, hosted by the Cleveland Institute of Art. Photo by Robert Muller, courtesy of the Cleveland Institute of Art.

Cuban artist Alejandrao Aguile, painting during a prior residency in Cleveland, hosted by the Cleveland Institute of Art. Photo by Robert Muller, courtesy of the Cleveland Institute of Art.

As a former US diplomat, I can tell you that there is not a country in the world, rich or poor, that you can’t learn something from.”

That’s Ronn Richard, president of the Cleveland Foundation, speaking of the Foundation’s Creative Fusion international artist residency program, and specifically its focus on Cuba this Spring. This week, a delegation of Cleveland nonprofit arts organizations will travel to the Caribbean island nation, marking the official start of Creative Fusion 2017. Later in the Spring, each organization will host an artist (or in one case an entire company of dancers) for residencies in Cleveland.

For any arts organization, the opportunity for international exchange opens doors to new perspectives, techniques and ways of innovation. And an exchange with Cuba opens the door to a long-forbidden place, just 90 miles off the Florida shore, but made much more exotic than its Caribbean neighbors by the decades-old U.S. trade and travel embargo.

In previous trips to Cuba, Cleveland foundation Vice President for Strategic Grantmaking and Arts & Urban Design Initiatives Lillian Kuri has found inspiration in Cuban citizens’ “innovation from scarcity.” It was Kuri’s initiative to focus the Creative Fusion program there this Spring

In the face of scarcity, though, Cuba under the Castro regime has emphasized, among other values, education and participation in the arts. The country has one of the world’s highest literacy rates and a deep appreciation for high culture. Speaking of his homeland, Augusto Bordelois, a Cuban-born painter living in Cleveland observed “Any guy you meet—he might be a plumber or whatever—he goes to art shows, to the ballet, to the opera. And when Cubans write for newspapers about these things, they write for the highest level.”

Cleveland organizations making the trip this week and hosting artists later in the Spring include the Collective Arts Network / CAN Journal, the Cleveland Print Room (partnered with the Cleveland Museum of Art), the Cleveland Institute of Art, Kent State University’s Cleveland Urban Design Center, and two dance organizations—Verb Ballets and Dance Cleveland.

Richard says the Cleveland-Cuba connection is a continuation of work begun by the Foundation’s founder, Frederick Goff—who originated the idea of the community foundation and exported it from Cleveland to New York, Chicago, and other cities a century ago. Richard first went to Cuba more than a decade ago. Over the years, the slow thaw of relations between the two countries has made cultural exchange with Cuba easier.

With each visit, the understanding grows deeper,” he says. He envisions that one day, Cubans might establish their own philanthropic foundation for the benefit of Cuban people. “I think they will come to a point of understanding that it could be of tremendous assistance to them in preserving the character and charm of old Havana as it evolves.”

But that is not the thrust of the Creative Fusion excursion, he notes. “Essentially this trip is about finding and bringing back a cohort of Cuban artists.”

Cleveland-based master printer Karen Beckwith with Osmeivy Ortega pulling a print from a wood block he carved during a residency hosted by the Cleveland Institute of Art in 2012. Photo by Robert Muller, courtesy of the Cleveland Institute of Art.

Cleveland-based master printer Karen Beckwith with Osmeivy Ortega pulling a print from a wood block he carved during a residency hosted by the Cleveland Institute of Art in 2012. Photo by Robert Muller, courtesy of the Cleveland Institute of Art.

Each of the participating organizations has a plan to host a Cuban artist (or several) in Cleveland later this spring, for stays up to three months. The residencies are designed for the exhange of perspectives and ideas, and also to create opportunities for public engagement.

Kent State University Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative
Kent State University’s Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative already has a relationship with Havana-based architects Sofia Marquez Aguiar and Ernesto Jimenez, of the Fabrica de Arte Cuba, or FAC. FAC is something that will be familiar, I a way, to Clevelanders: It is a multidisciplinary arts facility that serves cocktails–the adaptive re-use by artists of a former industrial facility, in this case, a former cooking oil plant. This spring, CUDC will host Marquez, who will work with graduate students on projects here. And in March, CUDC’s David Jurca will take a group of students to Havana.

Cleveland Print Room/ Cleveland Museum of Art:
A part of the Cleveland Print Room mission while in Cuba this week will be to choose a photographer who will join them as a resident in Cleveland later in the Spring. The Cuban artist is paired with photographer Greg Martin as a local collaborator. While in Cuba, Martin plans to photograph the city and people using the century-old wet-plate collodion technique, for an exhibit in Cleveland later this Spring. Wet plate collodion would be considered an obsolete, analog photographic technique—except for the luxuriously subtle range of the gray scale it produces, and the drama that comes along with it.

Cleveland Institute of Art:
Thanks in part to support from the Creative Fusion program, the Cleveland Institute of Art has hosted Cuban artists in the past. CIA gallery director Bruce Checefsky will make the trip this week, and plans to mount an exhibition of Cuban art in the Institute’s Reinberger Gallery later in the year. CIA president Grafton Nunes and jewelry and metals professor Matthew Hollern will also make the trip. Hollern plans to host a Cuban metal artist in Cleveland this spring, to teach classes both at CIA and in the community.

Collective Arts Network / CAN Journal:
The Cleveland-based collaborative magazine of the visual arts CAN Journal will host writer Laura Ruiz Montes, who in Matanzas Cuba is editor in chief of the cultural publishing collective, Ediciones Vigia. The collective publishes magazines of poetry, art, and culture, printing and binding by hand, using all recycled, upcycled, and found materials. During her residency in Cleveland, she will meet Cleveland-based artists of Latin descent, see their work, visit their studios, and write about what she sees. Her writing will appear in the print magazine, as well as CAN Blog, online.

In addition, CAN will continue to cover all the Creative Fusion projects, assigning a writer to each to introduce the artists and their collaborators, and to keep the public informed of exhibits, performances, and other opportunities. For the Cuba cohort, all the writers are bilingual, and all the writing will be published both in English and Spanish. The bilingual writing will be supported by Case Western Reserve University associate professor of Spanish Damaris Punales Alpizar, originally of Cuba. Bilingual coverage of current, local arts-related affairs presents a tremendous cross-cultural opportunity not only for the artists who are subjects of the writing, but also for spanish-speaking audiences—including not only the Latino community, but also students at area colleges and universities.

Dance Cleveland
The dance presenting organiation Dance Cleveland will bring to Cleveland the internationally renowned dance company, Malpaso for a residency in May and June. The residency includes master classes, a five-day intensive with students at Cleveland State University, and the commission of a new work the compay will create here. The newly commissioned work will be premiered in two free performances June 2 and 3 the Ohio Theater at Playhouse Square, and will subsequently tour nationally and internationally. Malpaso is a contemporary dance company founded in 2012 by Osnel Delgado, Dailedys Carrazana and Fernando Saéz. Delgado currently leads the company and provides its core artistic vision, working with international choreographers and incorprating Afro-Cuban rhythm.

Verb Ballets:
Verb Ballet plans to bring the acclaimed dancer, teacher and coach Laura Alonso to Cleveland in February and March. Alonso–daughter of world famous Cuban ballerina Alicia Alonso will train Verb dancers, host master classes in the community, and stage select repertoire from Ballet Cuba. Ms. Alonso will also collaborate with the acclaimed choreographer Diane McIntyre. McIntire is regarded as an artistic pioneer, with a career spanning four decades with choreography for dance, theatre, television and film. She is a 2016 Doris Duke Artist Award and will collaborate with Ms Alonso on an innovative dance projects in two Cleveland Nursing homes.

The opinions expressed on CAN Blog are those of the individual writers. Art is somewhat subjective. Well, somewhat. But yes, everybody's a critic.