Each spring over 100 artists and art organizations in DUMBO And Vinegar Hill open their studio doors to the public for a weekend. This year the event takes place on April 22 and 23 from 1 to 6 PM. Art Spiel created a Mixed Media Guide for this event in addition to other curated guides on the Art In Dumbo website here. In conjunction with the event Art Spiel conducted a few interviews with individual participating artists. This one is with Sandra Levinson, the executive Director of the Center for Cuban Studies / Cuban Art Space.
Tell me a bit about yourself and the Center for Cuban Studies / Art Space?
I was born in Minneapolis, raised in Mason City, Iowa. I went to the University of Iowa, then studied for a year at the University of Manchester in England on a Fulbright. I did the rest of my graduate work in political science at Stanford and came to NYC for my first teaching post at City College. After that I taught at Brooklyn Poly and traveled to Cuba for the first time in 1969.
Cuba was the first socialist country I visited. I consider myself a socialist and Cuba was the perfect introduction: socialism with Salsa, as Newsweek once wrote. I fell in love with the people, Cuba’s culture and what the revolution aspired to. Two friends, photojournalist Lee Lockwood and filmmaker Saul Landau asked me to work with them to start a library and event space centered on Cuba because so little was known in this country about the Cuban Revolution—diplomatic relations had been broken, there was an embargo against the country, and very few US citizens were allowed to travel to Cuba. Lockwood and Landau had been traveling there for many years—Lee photographed for Life, Look and other major publications and Saul had made a documentary film about Fidel and written many articles about Cuba.
In May 1972 we opened the Center for Cuban Studies in Greenwich Village in a loft space. At that time we were a library and presented film showings and talks with Cuba specialists. Our only art was the collection of hundreds of Cuban posters I had collected on my several trips between 1969 and 1972. The center was bombed while I was working by a Cuban exile and almost destroyed in March 1973, but we rebuilt the space.
A well-known Cuban painter, Julio Girona, who lived in NJ and traveled often to Havana, urged us to start collecting art as part of our library and began bringing art to us from his many artist friends in Cuba. That was the beginning of our art collection. Today the CCS houses more than 10,000 works of art, about 5000 posters, 2000 photographs and 3000 paintings, drawings, mixed media works, prints, etc.
In 1992 the Center spearheaded a landmark case against the US Treasury Department because, although informational materials from Cuba had been declared legal to import by the 1987 Berman Act, Treasury had excluded original art from its definition of “informational materials.” We showed the absurdity of that and we won. Anyone could henceforth bring in original Cuban art to exhibit and sell or for personal use. As a result, we were able to launch the Cuban Art Space in September 1999.
What can you tell us about the Cuban Art Space?
The Cuban Art Space is an integral part of the Center for Cuban Studies. Our curatorial vision is exceptionally broad. Our intention is to show all aspects of Cuban art so that audiences learn about Cuba and its culture through its art. For example, early on we started to collect folk art and outsider art, very under-appreciated in Cuba at the time, because the art is so personal and usually made outside of urban areas, thus providing a window into the parts of Cuba least seen by travelers. When we visited Cuba’s Art schools we were as interested in collecting work by students as by their well- known professors. Of course, many of those students are today among the most celebrated artists in Cuba.
Because I travel to Cuba so often and know so many artists, our shows are generally group shows, sometimes two-person shows. We seldom can afford to present a one-person show of the current hottest Cuban artist, but our intention is anyway not to be an exclusive high-end gallery but rather to provide a window into Cuba’s past, present and hopes for the future.
We often organize shows to coincide with Important dates in Cuban history or to highlight a particular area. For example, in 2022 we highlighted the work of Cienfuegos artists (an homage to the death of the main gallery’s director from Covid)—trained, self-taught, outsider artists. The art community in Cienfuegos is exceptionally integrated and talented. We usually do one show a year of our posters, and one annual show (usually in the summer) of self-taught artists. Right now we are working on an exhibit dedicated to Che Guevara in collaboration with another gallery— posters, photographs and other artworks, together with books and other writings about Che. We have presented more than 150 exhibits in NY, California, and Washington.
About Center for Cuban Studies/Cuban Art Space: The Center for Cuban Studies (CCS), founded in 1972, is a non-profit, educational institution organized by a group of scholars, writers, artists and other professionals to provide information about contemporary Cuba and contributing to a normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States. The Cuban Art Space within the Center for Cuban Studies promotes the work of Cuban artists, especially those living and working in Cuba, and to educate the U.S. public about Cuba’s cultural life. CCS’ collection includes more than 10,000 posters, photographs, prints, drawings, paintings, ceramics, as well as documentations of Cuban art and artists which provides a unique look into the country’s evolution. All this material is organized and accessible to researchers for study and exhibitions. The Cuban Art Space has a scheduled program of exhibits open to the public.
Center for Cuban Studies/Cuban Art Space
20 Jay Street, 301
Brooklyn NY 11201