The Informal Arts World

Cuban arts exist on a spectrum ranging from formal to informal. Artists can cross boundaries; a visual artist may also be a dancer and a musician, and he or she may work for the State while also having side jobs or selling work independently.

State-employed Artists

Low State salaries necessitate second (and third) jobs for most Cubans, including artists. Most State employment pays US$20-25 per month. According to several anecdotal conversations with Cubans, around US$200 per month is what is necessary to survive. This discrepancy between income and actual need creates a culture in which informal (and sometimes “illegal”) side jobs are the norm; a nurse also sells onions at the street market, an x-ray technician is also a taxi driver, and a violinist in the national orchestra also plays shows for American tourists with a brilliant women's orchestra (Camarata Romeu) on her days off. The hustle is a known struggle for the average Cuban, and there are few, if any, alternatives to State employment in sectors like Agriculture and Health. Alternatives can be more feasible in the arts, though largely dependent on an individual’s access to information and connection to the outside world.
La Fábrica del Arte Cubano is a hip art space that also happens to be a public-private partnership with the State. La Fábrica was started by musician X Alfonso, and is run as a business but supported and approved by the government. The space offers an art gallery, club, bars, and a range of performances, from classical music to modern dance, theater, and fashion. This space is an example of the formal and informal art worlds colliding and coexisting, as the range of artists, musicians, and performers who display their work at La Fábrica include both independent and State-approved groups.
Students practice in a Catedral in Havana Vieja.

The women of Camarata Romeu practicing before their performance.

Independent Artists

Until recently, visual artists had to sell their work through government-owned galleries, or they could not sell at all. These gallery shows require government approval, and require artists to pay for at least half of their own promotion (with the gallery covering the other half). Restrictions have loosened over the last few years, and now artists are able to sell their work independently from their homes. This opens up a world of opportunity for artists who receive recognition or interest from outsiders, but generally require support from outside of Cuba to promote work and complete money exchanges.
International art dealers are extremely interested in Cuba. As one artist put it, “Where else will someone who’s a big deal at the [New York Metropolitan Museum of Art] visit an artist’s home?” The Met may not be the average buyer, but clients—most often American, Cuban American, or Canadian—will pay a lot for Cuban artwork. Artists who are able to sell their work outside of the country have the opportunity to earn dollars, often in amounts that can sustain them for a long time in Cuba. A piece of work that sells for $50 in Cuba could sell for $1,000 in New York.
Considering the economic landscape, there is almost no market for art within Cuba. Once artists begin selling abroad, it is often not worth it for Cuban galleries to work with them, as art cannot sell for those prices on the island. Artists who earn significant money from outside of Cuba are able to travel, as their constraints are generally economic, not due to restrictions at the embassy.
Fidel Garcia, installation artist, works across sectors and countries. His pieces can be found in the United States, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Cuba, among others.

Pepe runs one of the Genesis State-owned galleries.

The Underground

Aside from the overlapping State-employed and self-employed artists, there is a thriving “underground” art scene made up of dissidents, students, and other artists working outside of the formal system.
Some in this category cross lines with the others—an underground artist might make his or her living by selling abroad, like so many other independent artists. Independent artists might cross over into the underground scene in some cases, or work with the State in others. The lines are blurry for many, but for purely underground artists, art is an act of dissidence—a way of collecting together and creating a space for the community voice. Some organized underground groups have been shut down by the government in recent years, after holding open mic performances in public spaces to freely express their opinions. These groups have moved to private spaces, where it is not illegal to hold open mic performances, but continue to work and develop the art space in their communities.

Spoken word poet at an underground event

Written by: Laura Lehman