We all despair at the odds of becoming rich and famous as artists. I had an instructor once in college who noted that if he'd been in show business instead of the art business, he'd be a household name by now (then). Wouldn't it be fun to be a household name? As difficult as any major degree of success might be in this country, imagine the odds in a third world country, and not just that but a Communist third-world country...like Cuba for instance. Imagine a country where there is literally no domestic market for art...few if any of its impoverished citizens can afford art of any kind. Even the government has better things to do with its money. Yet there are a few outstanding Cuban artists with some international standing. There's even a Havana Biennial.
Every other year artists, curators, and gallery owners converge in Havana (or in other major cities in the world where the Biennial has been held) to greet and meet third-world artists on an international stage sponsored by the Wilfredo Lam Center of Contemporary Art in Havana. They buy art. They even "buy" artists, bringing them back home to various residency programs all over the world. A surprising number end up here in the United States for short periods of professional growth and/or exhibitions. And despite economic conditions back home, they sell their work for a decent price by any economic market standards. Cuban art, because of the political and economic isolation of the island country - so near yet so far from our shores - thus has an exotic air about it. It's in. Galleries such as Art in General in New York feature it. Wealthy Americans such as Manuel Gonzales of Chase Bank in New York collect it.
Though they must rely on international sales in order to survive, outstanding Cuban artists find themselves treated by their government as a special breed because they must rely on international sales. They bring much needed hard currency to the beleaguered economy and thus have special privileges such as the freedom to travel, study, and exhibit in foreign countries. The Biennial has taken them to Johannesburg, South Africa; Istanbul, Turkey; and Lima Peru. This year's Biennial features the work of 170 artists invited from all over the world showing their work in some twenty different sites throughout Havana.
Surprisingly, however, some Cuban artists worry about what might happen with the passing of Fidel Castro and the possible (or probable) opening up of Cuba to the western world. They worry because of what they saw happen to dozens of Russian artists with the fall of the Soviet Union ten years ago. They and their work went from being international curiosities to just another group of struggling ethnic artists. Their work lost the aura of exclusivity a closed Communist society had created. Now, one Cuban artist, photographer Miguel Pina, laments that you can count on the fingers of one hand the number of Russian artists with any significant international standing. "They lost their international market (largely American) while continuing to live and struggle in a country which still has little or no domestic market." He ought to know, he's studied in both Russia and the US.