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March 28, 2017

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Thawing between US and Cuba may transform arts

In fact, there has been a long, if bureaucratically complicated, tradition of cultural exchange between Cuba and the U.S., one that ebbs and flows according to the politics of each presidential administration.

For years, Cuban artists have shown their work in U.S. museums, danced on U.S. stages and jammed in U.S. nightclubs. The artist Kcho had a major exhibition of his work at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles in 1997; singer-songwriter Silvio Rodriguez played New York's Carnegie Hall in 2010. And there have been countless other Cuban nationals hosted by U.S. venues, despite the embargo, including the singers of the Buena Vista Social Club, the grooving big band Los Van Van and the legendary ballerina Alicia Alonso.

In recent years, the traffic has gone the other way, with American musicians and artists of all stripes, including Cuban American theater troupes, spending time in Cuba, marinating in the country's traditions while curators, art collectors and producers regularly descend on Havana to scour the city for new talent.

The Havana Biennial, which is held in locations around the Cuban capital every two to three years (it's a biennial in name only), has become a pit stop on the international art circuit.

And last week, "Rent" became the first Broadway production on the island in roughly 50 years. It is produced by Robert Nederlander Jr. (a member of a renowned Broadway producing clan) and is directed by Andy Senor, a Cuban American who starred in the original musical back in the 1990s. The show will run for three months and the entry fee will be 50 cents.

"It's more about enjoyment and education than money," Nederlander told a British daily.

The announcements by Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro won't affect the particulars of any of these projects in progress. But the move does have many people in the cultural sphere considering what might be artistically possible between the two countries down the line.

"The first thing is that high-quality exhibitions of U.S. artists in Cuba is not something that they've been able to have very much of," Block says. "The second thing that changes is that right now we're only seeing some artists. Many Cuban artists have to go through Europe to get to the U.S. and have to wait a long time for permission to enter."

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