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About the concept of art and collecting in our times

José Bedia, Nkuyo Campo Nfinda, 2015, acrylic on canvas, 120 ½ x 70.”

I have spent several years trying to capture the concept of “Art” as a whole. I have never been able to. There are always areas that escape me, intelligible ideas that exceed the limits of my research, however extensive it may be. Perhaps for that reason, I have had to accept, little by little, what others had already coined before: “a picture is worth a thousand words”. However, after all is said and done, I have also been shown that humans are conceptual, idiomatic beings, who like to understand and synthesize everything that surrounds them. Hence, if it were necessary to find an accepted definition for art, it would coincide, on my horizon of expectations, with George Dickie’s “Institutional Theory”, according to which (and above all in contrast to modern and contemporary production) a piece of art is an artistic work if, and only if, it belongs to the “World of Art” (galleries, museums, academies, culturally legitimate institutions). In this space, with its limited and elitist nature, different entities come into play that can define, promote or censure the way forward, diffusion, reception, or the value of art piece and its artist. One of the main characters to be found within this nobiliary group is the art collector.

The latter could be defined over a hundred pages or in a single line: the work, with its inflated rate of exchange, if collected appears to be a great investment. Behind every great artist there is usually a sponsoring patron: Sandro Botticelli and Lorenzo de’ Medici, Caravaggio and Cardinal Francesco del Monte, Gustave Courbet and Alfred Bruyas, Pablo Picasso and Gertrude Stein, Jackson Pollock and Peggy Guggenheim.... This continues on until nowadays, with more familiar names such as Ella Fontanals-Cisneros, Jorge Pérez, Rosa and Carlos de la Cruz, or the Rubells, who redirect and transform the fabric of contemporary art. This list of collectors was recently joined by Leonardo Rodríguez, a Cuban living in Miami, who for almost thirty years, has focused on safeguarding and supporting the artistic production of the island’s creators.

Rodríguez’s work as an “art collector” began in the complex nineties of the last century, still in his own country where he made his debut as an antiques collector. From this stage, little by little, his taste changed towards visual arts, given his interest in “authenticity and aura” which characterizes this production. In light of this, it is interesting to note that when Leonardo emigrated from Cuba, he brought precisely the twelve paintings that would become the genesis of what today is his treasure with him.

Once settled in Miami, this initial pruned collection (very limited with regard to the artworks that did not leave the island), is gradually nourished and begins to grow more vigorously, opening up to the multicultural environment that prevails in this North American city, without ceasing to favour its Cuban roots. Artists such as René Portocarrero, Cundo Bermúdez, Pedro Pablo Oliva, Gina Pellón, Tomás Esson and Reynerio Tamayo join him and increase the lists of the artists he represents. With this plurality of artists, who are all different in terms of themes and inclinations, I have asked myself on various occasions what exactly Leonardo Rodríguez is looking for when he selects a piece for his collection. His hasty response has always been the same: “I need a transparent work that illustrates everything expressed by its artist, that reflect the artist, although not literally. I have no other way of understanding art, I cannot read it if it is not credible.”

However, it is important to clarify that Leonardo´s career as a collector has experienced a substantial leap in the last year due to a major event not only for him and the artists at his side, but also for the artistic scene in general. This was the birth of the Kendall Art Center (KAC), which opened its doors to the public on July 15, 2016 and which, although it is in its early years, already deserves a detailed introduction.

The Kendall Art Center was created with the intention of bringing Rodríguez’s collection closer to the community. This purpose has been fulfilled throughout these time through different personal and collective exhibitions, where emerging and established artists find a space for fruitful and pleasant dialogue. Artists such as Sandra Ramos, Pedro Ávila, Lisyanet Rodríguez and Maikel Domínguez have all appeared there and left their imprint on the building´s white walls. In addition, each of these exhibitions (in total ten to date) have been accompanied by the presence of highly regarded names within the Miami cultural network, such as Janet Batet, Aldo Menéndez, Henry Ballate and Píter Ortega. These critics have set their sights on the visual arts production that revolves around the KAC and have found in its rooms, space for debate in diverse activities such as book presentations, piano concerts and opera, guided tours for art students and other interested parties and the center’s participation in academic events such as the “Eleventh Conference on Cuban and Cuban-American Studies”, held at Florida International University (FIU).

Built on these pillars, KAC has become – according to “The Miami Herald” – one of the best cultural offerings, not only in Kendall, which needed an initiative like this, but in the city of Miami as a whole. Its foundation and the constant interaction with artists that have nurtured it, has meant that the Leonardo Rodríguez collection has grown by approximately 40%, refining its artists and moving towards a pluralist profile where, however, the work of the renowned artists on the island in the eighties is especially noteworthy, in terms of its continuity and validity, and no longer as something static or archaeological. This approach can be seen with a mere look at the exhibitions that have been held in the center of the current work of Ciro Quintana, Ana Albertina, Pedro Vizcaíno and José Bedia. As an example, it is worth clarifying that the Rodríguez collection has doubled this year in terms of the number of artworks by the aforementioned artist (José Bedia), the top name in Cuban visual arts of all time. This makes the Rodríguez collection one of the most vital sources for studying this painter, as it includes works such as “Chicomoztoc Tzotzompan Quinehuayan”, which was included in the first Havana Biennial in 1984.

At this point, I think it is also important to refer to the figure of Leonardo as a collector. His modus operandi involves closeness and direct contact with the artist. He aims to find out the circumstances behind the creation, study it, learn from it and receive it from the author’s own hands whenever possible. Hence contemporary names predominate in his coffers and special value is given to fresh, living work that breathes.... His interest lies in giving way to creation without any kind of barriers. In this sense, the collection, which until now has been more focused on so-called “fine arts”, has found with the creation of the KAC, a thriving place for other forms of expression such as photography, video art, installation and performance... We were fortunate to experience these forms of expression during the week of Art Basel and which are expected to become an even more active part in upcoming exhibitions at the center.

The KAC of tomorrow is being shaped in this way; not just as a gallery or a museum space to host Rodríguez’s collection but as a living stage for the community, a vital source of reference for new and not so new generations. This only leaves me to express my gratitude, as any art lover would do, for an idea as vigorous, as promising and as strong as the Leonardo Rodríguez collection and his Kendall Art Center initiative. This first approach then may just be the starting point of its impact in the near future, which is always aimed at profiling new investigative, historiographical and creative routes.

Roxana M. Bermejo, Havana, 1992. Historian and art critic. Graduated in Art History from the Faculty of Arts and Letters of La Universidad de La Habana. She works as a publisher of an academic journal with an independent profile Art Sôlido. Worthy for her book Bitácora del sujeto ausente, First International Novel of Poetry University Miguel Hernández Chair Miguel Hernandez University of Elche, Alicante (Spain, 2016). Participant in various national and international events, related to the Caribbean and Latin American culture. His texts have been published in spaces such as the magazine and Tabloid Artecubano, AMANO: Oficio & Diseño, FullFrame, and the digital film portal Cuba Now.

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