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In Miami, Cuban Art Collector Howard Farber on Arteamericas Panel

This is quite the season for art fair panels on art collecting!

I am blogging on Friday night this weekend. That's earlier than I usually post my weekly blog entry because tomorrow morning my husband Eric and I are heading out for Naples from Miami. We are taking our canoe with us--it will be a long weekend for us with boating AND art!

I am taking part in a program for Art Naples Saturday afternoon, March 19. It's called "Passion of Collecting." I'll interview Naples art collector Robert Edwards on ways to begin collecting and what a seasoned collector looks for in possible additions to his collection.

There's quite a range of programs lined up for this fair this weekend, with talks on Latin American art and the upcoming Miami Biennale. I'm impressed by the variety and the quality of Miami people who are participating! For more info, check www.artfairnaples.com/program.html

In Miami next weekend at the Arteamericas art fair, there are more panels of interest to novice and seasoned art collectors. I'm especially hoping to catch "Private Collectors and Public Collections" on Sunday, March 27 at 3 pm in Hall D at Miami Beach Convention Center.

It will be moderated by my talented friend, Julia P. Herzberg, Ph. D., adjunct curator for the Frost Museum of Florida International University. Here are the panelists:

Dr. Marvin Sackner, of the Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry, who'll address the Latin American presence in concrete and visual poetry.

Howard Farber, of the Fundacion Cuba Avant-Garde, speaking on Cuban contemporary art.

Ricardo Viera, who'll speak about selections from the Lehigh University Teaching Collection.

Jose Luis Falcon, who will discuss "Selections from the Latin American Collection, Art Forum, Harvard University."

Knowing that Howard Farber will participate in this panel brings to mind the time I interviewed Howard in his Miami Beach apartment for The Miami Herald. We had such a wonderful conversation! As I was ready to leave, he gave me an autographed copy of "Cuba Avant-Garde: Contemporary Cuban Art from the Farber Collection."

So I thought that tonight I would revisit that afternoon by posting my Herald profile of him, from June 2007.

Actually, what I'm posting here is the story I filed for the Herald, not the one that was actually published. A few interesting details were cut in the published version, as happens so often in newspapers. Now I no longer have to roll my eyes when I see what finally makes it to the printed page of the Herald!

THE EYE OF THE COLLECTOR

The first and last time Cuban contemporary art collector Howard Farber set foot in Cuba was 2001. It was an odd introduction to the island.

While stepping off the plane in Havana, he and his wife Patricia lugged shopping bags full of foot powder from a Walgreens in Manhattan. Patricia, a New York City patron of the ballet, had picked out much-needed supplies for the foot-sore ballet dancers of Cuba.

Although since the 1960s Farber has first collected American modernist art and then contemporary art from China, he insisted to Patricia: "No art. I am not buying any art. I am totally involved in Chinese art."

For good measure, he added, "My brain can't handle another collection."

His brain changed. [Um, do I know about how changes in the brain can change your life!!]

Farber is a hard-core art collector and a natural-born raconteur. As he tells this story, he's sitting at the dining table in his Miami Beach apartment, where he and Patricia live part-time.

He's looking through the bilingual catalogue for "Cuba Avante-Garde: Contemporary Cuban Art from the Farber Collection," which is now at the Harn Museum of Art at the University of Florida in Gainesville. It's there until September, and then it travels to more museums.

The adventurous art he found on the island has sparked the curiosity of many a hard-core collector. Farber wondered how this contemporary art came not only to exist but thrive. It was attracting droves of art collectors from the Americas and Europe.

The Farbers went to Havana for a tour of Cuban art and architecture organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. They toured the art school Instituto Superior de Arte, known as ISA. A mantra at the time was that ISA students have no materials; ISA students are turning out amazing art.

Six months after his visit to Cuba, a museum professional in Cuba e-mailed him to ask about his contemporary Chinese art collection.

"I was fascinated because it was the first time I've ever received an e-mail from Havana," he recalls. Through that person, whose name he says he can't divulge, Farber's quest to collect Cuban art began.

"In another life I must have been either an art critic or an art historian because to me, the history of art is as important as the artwork itself," Farber confesses. A trim man of medium height, he says he hates public speaking, but in the quiet of his Miami Beach apartment, furnished with a stylish simplicity that looks almost Asian, he enthusiastically talks on and on about art.

With each of his collections of American, Chinese, and Cuban art, he notes, "I feel like I have an eye for art but I have had a lot of help. Someone has to train you."

In each case, he found advisors. To learn more about Cuban art, he trolled the Internet, consulted people in Havana, and lunched with Holly Block, who wrote the book Art Cuba: The New Generation. It came out the year that Farber took his only trip to Havana.

Another critical book in his quest to collect Cuban art is New Art of Cuba that Luis Camnitzer wrote in 1994. Farber calls it his bible. He keeps copies of the Camnitzer book at home in Miami Beach and New York.

"I go on vacation and I take it with me," he insists. "I could read it fifty times."

Farber used a strategy that served him well in his American and Chinese collections: identify the group show that captured a pivotal moment in the art he pursued. For Cuban contemporary art, it was "Volumen I," which opened January 14, 1981 in the Centro de Arte Internacional in Havana.

Camnitzer writes in his book that this show "has come to symbolize the emergence of the new art in Cuba for artists and critics alike," and he asserts that the show had a historical impact on Cuban art in the 20th Century.

Its impact seems to continue in the 21st Century. Five of the artists in that historical show are now in the Farber show at University of Florida. They include three who frequently exhibit in South Florida: Jose Bedia, Tomas Sanchez, and Ruben Torres Llorca.

A second strategy Farber used was to seek out the artists themselves. Some were in Cuba. Others were in Miami, Canada, Spain, France, and Australia. He contacted them to ask where he could find the artwork that they thought was the best example of their art.

He was inspired by what Ry Cooder did to bring attention to Cuban musicians of the Buena Vista Social Club.

"What he did was amazing," Farber says. "What I did was try to find the artists, find their great works, try to collect them, and put them in a show to have these works seen for the first time in many cases." Through what he calls "nefarious" methods, one painting after another reached him in New York.

"It was usually rolled up and dirty because it had been sitting for years either in a basement or attic," he recalls. After he had it cleaned and stretched, he recalls, "there before me was a miraculous work."

Carlos Estevez, now in Miami, was in Paris when Farber e-mailed him. He gained from one of Farber's artistic search-and-rescue missions. In the catalogue (but not in the show) is "Across the Universe" by Estevez. It's a large sculpture that weighs over 200 pounds and shows a Christ-like man with a candle and huge wings.

"He saved that work," says Estevez. When he saw it again, he became emotional. Estevez had not seen the sculpture since leaving Cuba in 2003. In Havana, he put it in his studio window so that people walking on the street could see it. It made such a strong impression that sometimes they screamed at it.

Farber is impressed by the deep friendships among Cuban artists.

"I never met a group of artists so dedicated to other artists," he says. In Miami, as he saw in February at the opening reception for Carlos Gonzalez at Chelsea Galleria in Wynwood, "they are all out for support," he marvels.

"Some are more successful than others. But they all have a history together. The original dirt on their feet is from Cuba."

Tina Spiro of Chelsea Galleria remembers Farber from that night. He was observant, charming, and curious. Farber doesn't strike her as a collector who likes art as a status symbol. Says Spiro, "He has a personality that is in synch with art. He's in touch with what he's looking at."

She's also witnessed the support network among Cuban artists. Jose Bedia, Gory, and Gustavo Acosta showed up to get Gonzalez's sculpture ready for the show.

"That's a pretty heavy duty installation crew," Spiro notes. "They've been friends for many years. It wasn't an easy road for any of them."

Those intense ties to each other and to making art strike a resonnant chord with Farber.

His collecting, he insists, is "only about the art. I know that in Florida people really get bent out of shape with the history of Cuban art." His voice rises.

"People have to realize that not everybody that has the ability to collect Cuban art is involved in politics! It has to be said, and I'm not afraid to say it."

One response to “In Miami, Cuban Art Collector Howard Farber on Arteamericas Panel”

  1. David Skipp says:

    Subscribe to your blog, please

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