I’m not going to lie. I’m a little jealous. Next week, three lucky staff members are joining co-directors Barbara Luderowski and Michael Olijnyk for a week-long trip to Cuba. The occasion is the opening of Queloides/Keloids: Race and Racism in Cuban Contemporary Art at the Wifredo Lam Center for Contemporary Art in Havana. After the Havana run of the exhibition ends on May 31, several artists will travel to Pittsburgh to work in-residence and create new work for a Mattress Factory-produced Queloides/Keloids exhibition.
Traveling to Cuba is no easy task. As people are fond of saying in their best New England accent, “you can’t get there from here.” Due to the most enduring trade embargo in modern history, U.S. residents are prohibited from traveling to our island neighbor despite the 90 miles that separates Key West from the northern tip of Cuba. The Mattress Factory had to secure a special license from the U.S. Department of the Treasury to enable the group to travel.
The third floor (home of Media/PR) has been a flurry of activity. Jeff, a member of the traveling delegation, will be blogging about the trip for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, so a quick visit with Sharon Eberson, paper’s online features editor, took place to iron out a few logistic details. Press releases are being written. A few extra meetings scheduled. Redundant systems are being established in anticipation of spotty internet access in Cuba. This morning I brought a bag of dark chocolate to the office to calm nerves.
One of my tasks earlier this week was to “get a quote from Michael.” Although I see Michael frequently, we have never had the occasion to talk about anything more serious than the weather. Now I was putting him on the spot. I was a little apprehensive. And the look on Michael’s face was one of discomfort. But this is what came pouring out of his mouth:
“Even though governments make it difficult for people to travel, you can’t stop ideas and the arts from crossing borders. Art is an international language that has to – and can – cross borders, start dialogues, and hopefully make people realize that we’re all similar.”
Wow. While this trip is an opportunity for staff members to begin preparations for the October show by meeting with artists and visiting their studios, it is also part of a long history of cultural diplomacy in which prominent arts institutions have engaged for years.
In 1979 the Boston Symphony Orchestra performed in China at the end of the Cultural Revolution. In 1986, the National Gallery of Art and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art hosted a rare exchange of 41 impressionist paintings from the Soviet Union. Thirty-four paintings – including masterpieces by Matisse, Picasso, and Renoir – had never been shown in the United States.
In 2008, the New York Philharmonic traveled to North Korea for the first ever performance by an American orchestra in that country. Zarin Mehta, the Philharmonic’s president and executive director described “the power of music to unite people.”
In 2004 the Mattress Factory presented its first exhibition of Cuban artists but was forced to coordinate the entire installation electronically over the internet. (Ask Owen about this some time.) The artists were not given permission to travel for their residencies.
The guest curator for this show, Alejandro de la Fuente, Research Professor of History and Latin American Studies at the University of Pittsburgh, is trying again with Queloides/Keloids. If times do change, expect to welcome some of Cuba’s most renowned contemporary artists to Pittsburgh in October.
Lesley Williamson is a guest blogger. While completing a Master of Arts Management degree at Carnegie Mellon University, she is interning in the Mattress Factory's marketing department and will be posting here regularly through May. Lesley and her husband David Coester, a classical guitarist, make their home in Dunkirk, NY where they occasionally share custody of two small brown geriatric border terrier dogs. (It's a long story.)