DEPARTURES MAGAZINE: Encouraging The Cuban Art Scene

Written by: Noora Raj

We sat down with patron-to-the-Cuban-arts Bryant Toth to talk emerging artists and the difficulties of building an international presence.

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.