No Easy Way for Cuba to Fund Culture

Fernando Ravsberg*

Culture is expensive, and it’s impossible to make a ballet school “profitable” by keeping it free and open to all sectors of society. Photo: Raquel Perez
Culture is expensive, and it’s impossible to make a ballet school “profitable” by keeping it free and open to all sectors of society. Photo: Raquel Perez

HAVANA TIMES — No one in Cuba continues to dispute the need for reforms to provide the nation with a self-sustaining economy. Today Cubans use words like efficiency, the market, profitability, costs and benefits, and supply and demand, without fear of being branded heretics.

However, what’s evident in terms of the economy isn’t as much the case when it comes to culture – at least that’s clear from the concerns expressed by Cuban intellectuals in an article in the newspaper Juventud Rebelde (in Spanish).

The central issue is to what extent culture can finance itself. People have started wondering if, for example: “Can a guitar orchestra ever be profitable? Or, can a book of poems by a young, talented but unknown author ever generate profits?”

Former Minister of Culture, Abel Prieto, currently an advisor to the president, says the existing cultural bureaucracy is excessive. To him, rather than reduce the number of creators, “what’s needed is the reassignment of a large mass of people in the administrative sector who aren’t essential, in fact they sometimes obstruct things.”

This same line of thought is held be Francisco Alonso, the director of the Ernesto Lecuona Opera Company. He commented: “We dream of becoming a troupe that self-manages its own operations, (…) Procedures sometimes become cumbersome with current relationships within institutions.”

The problem is that bureaucratic agencies were converted “by decree” into representatives of artists. They take in a portion of the profits though they undertake almost no promotional work; instead, they establish regulations that only serve to hinder activity.

Alonso urges that, in the future: “Each group must be able to promote, market and manage their own finances. No one could be more interested than us in making ourselves known and seeking work projects, and then coordinating those responsibilities.”

Meanwhile Heriberto Acanda, the manager of the Arturo Regueiro Gallery, also calls for making economic mechanisms more flexible. He complains that, “I exhibit, promote and market works by various artists, but I don’t have any legal status to collect a percentage of the proceeds for my effort.”

The great challenge of Cuban culture is rationalizing expenditures without surrendering to the vicissitudes of supply and demand. Photo: Raquel Perez
The great challenge of Cuban culture is rationalizing expenditures without surrendering to the vicissitudes of supply and demand. Photo: Raquel Perez

Several interviewees agreed that the approach should be less elitist. Digna Guerra, the director of the National Choir, suggests a greater mix and more diversity. “We need to begin from the  tastes of the population so as to gradually introduce them to this other environment of sound.”

Holding a similar position, theater critic Alberto Jose Lezcano emphasized, “We can’t keep rehearsing a piece for eight months or a year (…) and then, when it opens, only ten people show up.”

However, National Literature Prize laureate Ambrosio Fornet warns about “easy answers to difficult questions.” He gives the example of the question: “What is so-called ‘high culture’ good for.’ In other words, what use is a book of poems, a symphonic concert or the ballet?”

He added: “The only renewable and, therefore, the only inexhaustible source of wealth that we possess cannot be subject only to the laws of supply and demand. We must give to the market what belongs to the market and not an inch more.”

Abel Prieto responded that everything that’s useful in making a cultural contribution will be subsidized, even if it doesn’t have a great demand, because: “We need to be very vigilant in terms of quality. We can’t make mistakes. Errors in culture aren’t seen in the short term, but they’re always paid for.”

From his new government position, Vice President Miguel Diaz Canel is proposing to “change the mentality regarding cultural processes (…) [and to] rethink how to ease the burden on the state budget by turning operations at centers that generate certain amounts of funding into companies or entities.”

Very pragmatically, he adds that “dynamic and sustainable approaches can be adopted without sinking into bad taste. An institution that has a sustained work and that can systematically generates income can make a greater and better impact, without expecting anything from anyone.”

However, for that to be possible it’s necessary to change the ideological superstructure of the country. Only a few months ago, the premises of the Opera de La Calle “Street Opera” were ordered to close because the lyrical group financed its own cultural activities from the profits of a private restaurant.

Everyone seems to agree that culture will never be able to finance itself. However they think that spending on it can be streamlined by drawing closer to the aesthetic tastes of the population, reducing the red tape, promoting self-management and eliminating parasitic institutions.

An authorized translation by Havana Times (from the Spanish original) published by BBC Mundo.

2 thoughts on “No Easy Way for Cuba to Fund Culture

  • It seems to me, as a socialist transformationary, that fine art should be something that the common people do primarily in their own communities, as opposed to rehearsed performances by professional groups that exist because of government support.

    Not that such government supported groups should cease to exist; but that active support of the fine arts should be encouraged and made possible for the broad masses. For example, low-cost gov’t venues could be provided to community theatre groups, dance groups, orchestras, etc.

    This is something wrong when the fine arts are seen as the purview of professional groups, with the masses as spectators. I may be missing something, but the official Cuban view of culture appears to be elitist and non-democratic.

  • Here’s a thought: As the economic reforms in Cuba continue to stratify Cubans into the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’, why don’t the elite who live in Miramar, Santa Fe and Nuevo Vedado organize into cultural ‘collectives’ and become patrons of the arts. This is how the rest of the world funds cultural organizations. Why not Cuba? Artists like Silvio Rodriguez and Pablo Milanes are multimillionaires with homes in Spain and Mexico. Many reggueton groups have earned hundreds of thousands of dollars in CD sales and concert appearances. Why are they not compelled by ‘solidarity’ with their fellow artisans to give back. Alexander, the lead singer from Gente de Zona drives a $40,000 Cadillac around Havana. Ya’ think he could donate $1,000 to buy an entire ballet company shoes to wear? Cubans are so accustomed to government handouts that the notion of supporting privately is a foreign concept.

Comments are closed.