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September 22, 2017

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Thawing between US and Cuba may transform arts

When President Obama announced plans recently to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba, a bevy of U.S. industries — from automotive to tourism — seemed elated by the possibility of being able to operate in Cuba. The news was greeted with just as much enthusiasm from the culture industry: "Art Collectors Predict 'Stampede' to Cuba," read one newspaper headline. Another trumpeted: "Renewed ties hit a high note for Cuban music lovers."

Grammy-winning producer, musician and composer Andres Levin, who is generally based in New York, happened to be in Havana for the announcement.

"It was extremely emotional," he wrote via email from Cuba. "An air of hope and positive change was felt all over the city, from the streets to the offices. We're still celebrating."

The anticipated diplomatic thaw, along with a possible lifting or easing of the decades-long U.S. embargo, could transform how U.S. artists and cultural organizations can operate in Cuba — and how Cuban artists and their respective groups can work in the U.S.

"We don't really know yet what will happen," says the executive director of New York's Bronx Museum, Holly Block, who landed in Havana on the day the announcement was made. "But I think restrictions on cultural exchange projects will be a priority for both sides. It's really exciting."

Block, in fact, is in Havana because she's trying to work out an exchange between her institution and Cuba's Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (MNBA; National Fine Arts Museum). The idea is that works from the Bronx Museum's permanent collection will go on view at the MNBA during the 12th Havana Biennial, which opens in late May. This would be followed, in 2016, with a show of works from the Cuban museum's collection in New York.

"As part of it, we're bringing (artist) Mary Mattingly here for a project, so she'll be here working on charettes and different workshops," Block adds. "We're also helping the museum start a teen program."

It appears that politicos are finally getting around to doing what artists have been doing for years: that is, prying apart a hidebound piece of Cold War policy by finding opportunities to work together in ways that promote greater exchange between the two nations.

Though the U.S. embargo prohibits Americans from trading with Cuba, the Berman Amendment of 1988 (sponsored by former U.S. Rep. Howard Berman) allows the exchange of information, which includes records, photographs, songs, drawings and other art. This means that while it's impossible to bring a box of Cuban cigars into the U.S. (a commercial product), it is possible to import a painting (information).

So even as U.S. and Cuban politicians have given each other the cold shoulder over the years, artists and arts organizations have found ways to connect.

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