HAVANA, Cuba – Mark Mistur, dean of Kent State University’s architecture school, could have picked any number of cabs for a ride from this city’s vast Revolution Square to its historic downtown.
But he waited until he found one of the many classic mid-century American cars that still ply Cuban streets, symbolizing decades of fallout from the U.S. trade embargo that followed the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.
“It’s all about the experience,” Mistur said.
His remark summed up the Cleveland Foundation’s rationale for sponsoring a visit to Cuba from Sunday Jan. 8 to Friday Jan. 13 for two-dozen Clevelanders to jumpstart the latest round of its Creative Fusion cultural exchange program.
This island nation of 11 million, just 90 miles south of Florida and 45 minutes from Miami by air, is a mix of poverty and splendor, frugality and riches, perhaps best seen from the back seat of a 1950s convertible.
But the visit wasn’t just about grabbing rides in vintage Detroit cars lovingly maintained by their owners because newer models can’t be imported under the embargo.
Being in Havana for five days represented a better way to launch collaborative projects and residencies for Cuban artists and designers in Cleveland this spring than talking long distance.
Representatives of seven Cleveland cultural and educational institutions met Cuban counterparts face to face and saw firsthand evidence of the rapprochement with Cuba started under President Barack Obama in 2014.
The visit also provided a snapshot of Cuban life at an unusual point after the death of the country’s longtime president, Fidel Castro, in November, and the election of U.S. President Donald Trump, who could freeze or reverse the normalization started by Obama.
“We’ve been blessed with a very special moment,” Grafton Nunes, president of the Cleveland Institute of Art, who participated in the trip.
A pivotal moment
Change was visible everywhere. Nunes and other Clevelanders saw the Swiss-registered MSC Armonia cruise ship disgorging hundreds of tourists into the narrow streets and cozy plazas of Havana’s Old City, where baroque-style churches stand amid colonial-era neoclassical buildings painted in bright, sherbet hues.
The Clevelanders witnessed scores of University of Havana students crowding sidewalks outside their downtown campus, one of the few hot spots with reliable Wi-Fi.
And, just about everywhere, they saw and heard excellent musicians trained in government schools performing salsa and other styles in bars, restaurants, hotel lobbies, even highway rest stops.
“I was blown away,” Nunes said. “I’ve been blown away by the talent I’ve seen.”
Cleveland Foundation President and CEO Ronn Richard launched Creative Fusion in 2008 to globalize Cleveland through cultural diplomacy.
Since then, 72 artists from 27 countries have participated in Cleveland residencies that have lasted from several weeks to several months.
In Cuba’s case, Richard is hoping that Cleveland can build personal connections through the arts that could lead to opportunities in business and medicine down the road.
In a sense, the program is giving Cleveland a bit of its own foreign policy.
“It’s low-hanging fruit,” Richard said of Cuba in a phone interview on Tuesday. “It’s close, it’s easy to get to, and it has an inordinate number of artists per capita.”
Community impact projects
The Cuban “edition” of Creative Fusion, which is budgeted at $200,000, will unfurl this spring in Cleveland with events including the Midwest premiere of “Indomitable Waltz,” a composition by Canadian choreographer Azure Barton.
Malpaso, the widely acclaimed Cuban modern dance company, will hold free performances of the work at Playhouse Square. (Dates are June 2 and 3, but the ticketing process has yet to be determined).
The Cleveland Museum of Art and the Cleveland Print Room will host Cuban photographer Sandra Ramos, who will create digital billboard installations around the city.
And the Cleveland Institute of Art will host an exhibition of work by Cuban artists this fall. It will also collaborate with visiting Cuban architects and with KSU’s College of Architecture and Environmental Design and Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative on plans for a new art center in Cleveland’s Glenville neighborhood.
That project will be modeled after the highly successful Fabrica de Arte Cubano in Havana, an “art factory” installed in a former streetcar power plant that includes theaters, galleries and an address next door to El Cocinero, one of the city’s hottest new restaurants.
KSU faculty members and students, meanwhile, will work on plans to redevelop the low-income neighborhood surrounding the Fabrica de Arte.
Other Creative Fusion outcomes will include a new dance composed for Verb Ballets based on stories gleaned from elderly residents in Havana and Cleveland, by Cleveland choreographer Dianne McIntyre.
McIntyre will collaborate in Cleveland with Cuban ballet teacher Laura Alonso to gather stories for the project from residents in the Eliza Bryant and Eliza Jennings nursing homes.
No longer terra incognita
“Cuba’s not the twilight zone for me any more,” McIntyre said, admitting that she – like other members of the Cleveland group – hadn’t given the small neighboring country much thought before the trip.
The visit left the Clevelanders impressed that amid the scarcity and privation caused by the trade embargo, Cuban artists and designers strive for excellence among conditions that require smarts and determination.
Photo experts said that photographic paper is so rare in Cuba that photographers usually get just one shot at making a print for an exhibition.
At Ediciones Vigia in Matanzas, craftsmen publish small editions of handmade books with photocopied text and illustrations that have earned worldwide acclaim.
At the Wilfredo Lam Contemporary Art Center in Havana, Assistant Curator Victoria Lopez Rodriguez laughed when asked whether her organization, which mounts the international Havana Biennial, has access to climate -controlled storage for safekeeping of artworks.
Making do amid scarcity
“We have to be clever enough so artists can do a really good job under our conditions,” she said.
Despite hardships, artists and cultural officials are proud that Castro declared in a famous 1961 speech to intellectuals that the arts would occupy a key role in society.
He established a national art school on a former golf course of the highly exclusive Havana Country Club, where visual art students enjoy a nearly one-to-one faculty-student ratio.
“It’s amazing that the government supports art to this extent,” said Barbara Tannenbaum, curator of photography at the Cleveland Museum of Art, after touring the campus.
Yet free expression remains a touchy subject in Cuba, which has a history of restricting free expression through censorship or imprisonment.
As a result, some artists have evolved a style of political art that can be playfully critical of the government rather than aggressively confrontational.
For example, the colorful, Pop Art-style paintings of Alexander Lobaina, exhibited at the city-owned gallery in Matanzas, featured whimsical references to Obama and Castro expressing hope that the recent thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations will continue.
Newly elected U.S. President Donald Trump, inaugurated Friday, could change all that, however.
Cautioning against a hard line
To Cleveland Foundation’s Ronn Richard, such a course would simply create greater business openings for America’s global competitors.
He pointed, for example, to the Chinese-made Transtur bus used by the Clevelanders during the week.
“It could easily have been an American-made bus,” Richard said.
And it was an example of other opportunities America might miss if it fails to move further toward a full economic opening.
That’s why he felt 2017 would be a good time to establish friendships in Cuba through Creative Fusion.
“If art programs like this can blaze the trail to help our companies sell to 11 million people in Cuba,” he said, “that’s a plus for us.”
Steven Litt, www.cleveland.com
January 22, 2017