HAVANA (AP) – A surge in interest in all things Cuban is extending to paintings and sculpture, with U.S. art collectors and dealers descending on Havana for a monthlong exhibition amid expectations that art prices will rise because of the detente between the former Cold War rivals.
The event known as the Biennial, or the Bienal in Spanish, opened Friday with works by artists from 40 countries at museums, galleries and outdoor spaces around Cuba's capital. But most of the attention is on the works of native-born artists, especially for the legions of foreign collectors and dealers who have been filling hotels and restaurants in recent days.
It is taking place at a historic moment in U.S.-Cuba relations. In December, President Barack Obama and President Raul Castro announced that they would move toward restoring the diplomatic relations that were broken off in 1961.
While the decades-long U.S. economic embargo remains in place and general tourism is still illegal, the Obama administration has eased restrictions on travel and commerce. Cuban officials say the number of U.S. visitors — both legal and otherwise — was up by more than 30 percent in the first four months of the year.
That is carrying over into the Biennial, said Alberto Magnan, a Cuban-American gallery owner from New York who represents artists taking part in the exhibition.
"The energy is better than I've seen in any of the Biennials," said Magnan, who attended five of the previous exhibitions. "I've seen more U.S. collectors than I've ever seen and it hasn't even begun yet. Times are changing and I believe that with the new Obama policy it's changing faster than we think."
Even under the embargo, it's legal for U.S. citizens to purchase Cuban art, though works cannot be directly commissioned by a U.S. buyer and cannot have been financed by the Cuban government. Some collectors have taken advantage of that loophole, though prices remain relatively low, according to Howard Farber, a resident of New York and Miami Beach whose foundation publishes the online Cuban Art News magazine.
He sees that changing fast.
"You're getting a lot of collectors who are running to Cuba to buy art," Farber said. "It's the biggest opportunity for an art collector to start a collection."
Art critic Rafael Acosta de Arriva agreed.
"It's going to be a moment of major effervescence," he said. "It's good to note that the Bienal is not put together to promote the commerce of art but to explore artistic themes. But the collectors tend to take advantage of this great moment and a lot of buying and selling gets done."
More than 1,200 people have formally signed up to participate in Biennial events, which run through June 22, said Jorge Fernandez, one of the organizers. There are at least 1,000 more who will take part in workshops and other events without bothering to get accredited, he said.
"Cuban art has had major recognition," Cernuda said. "What's different now is there will be U.S. tourists, nurtured during events like the Bienal."