Last week, noted fine arts appraiser and longtime Ludwig Foundation of Cuba supporter Alex J. Rosenberg gave an informal talk at New York’s 8th Floor Gallery to celebrate his latest book. Written with an eye toward the specifics of art appraisal in Cuba, it sparked a lively exchange with an audience of collectors, scholars, students, and art aficionados. The crowd also enjoyed a talk by artist Armando Mariño, whose solo exhibition, Armando Mariño: Recent Paintings from the Year of the Protester, was on view in the gallery.
In his talk, Rosenberg explained that years ago, in preparation for legalization of the U.S. dollar and broadening of the tourism industry, he had been invited to teach and lecture in Cuba about art appraisal. From that came a prior book, Tasación de Obras de Arte: La Ciencia, el arte y la Actividad Commercial de la Tasación de Obras de Arte (Art Appraisal: Science, Art, and Commercial Activity), a Spanish-only introductory text published in 2010. As Rosenberg noted, that book is now used in graduate-level coursework at ISA (the Instituto Superior de Artes in Havana).
“This book,” he said, “is a follow-up.” With the lengthy title of An Approach to Advanced Problems in Appraising Art with a special focus on Cuba (published by the American Friends of the Ludwig Foundation, 2011), the new book addresses points not covered in standard texts—what Rosenberg called “some of the most difficult aspects of appraising.” At the same time, he said, it was tailored to the specific needs of the appraisal profession in Cuba.
“While the problems faced by an appraiser in Cuba or the United States are basically the same,” he said, “you must remember that in Cuba, they have modified Napoleonic code, which is different from our Anglo Saxon law in the United States. And Cuba, not too many years ago, had a definition of appraising, of value, that did not involve money. It only involved patrimony, history, beauty. In the United States, these elements may contribute to an appraisal, but in the final analysis value is what someone will pay—nothing else.”
Rosenberg concluded his remarks by calling the book “my best effort—and I hope it’s good.” He was met with applause and a wave of questions.
The first asked how he and his wife, Carole Rosenberg, became involved with the Ludwig Foundation, the Havana-based nonprofit for which they’ve served as longtime board members. Explaining that they had met Peter Ludwig in Cuba as he was setting up the foundation, Rosenberg went on to describe it as “probably the single most important organization in supporting young artists. That was it’s original job, and it has maintained it ever since. Every week they show the work of as many as ten young artists, and bring people in to see it. They’re able to give a stage to young people who otherwise could not find a place to show.”
Other questions focused on existing structures for valuing art in Cuba. “The gallery system isn’t as well developed as it is here,” Rosenberg conceded, “but it seems to function well enough. The top-ranking artists all have galleries, and some mid-ranking artists as well.” Less well established artists “sell their own work, or have a representative.” Mentioning Galería Habana in particular, “which represents a number of the best artists,” Rosenberg also noted that top-ranked artists are often represented by galleries outside Cuba as well.
The increasing presence of Cuban artists in the international art arena was a point of audience interest. Many of the top artists, Rosenberg observed, are represented by galleries in the U.S. as well as Europe. “They’re selling as much as they can here, and they’re selling in Cuba. And little by little, they’re starting to learn that they should charge the same price there as they charge here or anyplace else. You know, Cuba has auctions,” he said. “And if you go to an auction there, the prices on the art are pretty much the same as they would be in here New York.”
For top Cuban artists, the impact of a rising international profile can be “very profound. Because Cuba itself is small and the market is limited, percentage-wise I would say that more top artists in Cuba have foreign galleries than American artists do—they don’t require it as much.”
Asked about “the limits or lack of limits” on artists in terms of free artistic expression, and whether things have changed over time, Rosenberg agreed that “the limits have changed, and time has made the situation far more liberal in Cuba than it was. I think governments react when they feel threatened,” he added, “and the present government in Cuba does not feel threatened by anything that the artists might do.” Alluding to New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s attempts to close the 1999 Sensation show at the Brooklyn Museum, Rosenberg said, “that could not happen in Cuba. Somebody might try, but they wouldn’t succeed.”
Getting to the heart of Rosenberg’s book, one questioner asked about the difficulties of giving an objective appraisal in Cuba. “The conflict of interest is very simple,” Rosenberg explained. “Presently everyone in Cuba receives a salary from the government. So if you’re appraising something that’s owned by the government, it’s very difficult to be critical of the thing.” He added that attempts were underway in Cuba to have appraisal declared an independent profession. “If appraisers are no longer paid by the government—no longer receiving a weekly or monthly salary—they will be able to charge specifically for their work. Then they’re not beholden to the government, even if the government is paying them [for a specific appraisal].”
Asked whether any young artists supported by the Ludwig Foundation went on to successful careers, Rosenberg rattled off a quick list that included installation artist José Manuel Fors and photographer Marta María Pérez, and pointed proudly to his book. “The young man who did the cover, Yoan Capote, may be the highest-earning artist in Cuba today,” he said. “And he was a Ludwig artist.”