Q+A: Sandra Levinson, The Center for Cuban Studies

Sandra Levinson first went to Cuba in 1969–and fell in love with it instantly. She came back to New York with lots of ideas, which led to the creation of The Center for Cuban Studies in 1972.  The Center moved to Dumbo earlier this year. Their space at 20 Jay St, suite 301 is open to the public Monday - Friday from 11am to 7pm, and Saturday from 12-6pm. We sat down with Sandra to learn more about her journey. 

Tell us about Center for Cuban Studies and a bit about yourself.

I went to Cuba for the first time in 1969. It was ten years after the beginning of the revolution, and there was a lot of economic distress. The USA had an embargo on Cuba, and Americans weren't allowed to visit as tourists. The only way to legally go to Cuba was to be invited as a guest.

I totally fell in love with Cuba, and wanted to help people travel there. I started to talk about this to some friends of mine who had been in Cuba for a long time. One was a journalist for a life magazine, the other a writer and a documentary film-maker. We got together with some other New Yorkers, mainly publishers, editors, and playwrights. Our idea was to start an organization, a library really - a library for journalists and professors who could not go Cuba, but wanted information about Cuba from Cuban perspective.

We called it The Center for Cuban Studies. In addition to providing US citizens with information about Cuba, we also assist groups and individuals who wish to travel to Cuba for educational purposes. We have been leading trips to Cuba since the Center began, in 1973.

Tell me about the programs you run.

We serve as a vital communication link between the U.S. and Cuba. We have interesting programs such as film showings, exhibit, classes, and talks. When a new book comes out on Cuba, we invite the author here for a reading. We host talks about the U.S and Cuba relations. We have so many works of art! Almost ten thousand of them in storage. We show some of this work here in our space and all over the country. Last September, we did a show in California with José Rodríguez Fuster. Fuster’s art is a cherished part of Cuban culture and joins the rank of other public artworks such as that of Gaudi in Barcelona or that of Brancusi Târgu Jiu (Romania). It was incredible.

We’ve done more than 150 exhibits on and off site since we opened the Gallery in 1999. We usually change exhibits every two months. Currently we are showing 140 Cuban posters from our collection of a few thousand. In January and February we’ll have a group show of  the work of several contemporary artists; in March and April, we’ll present the mixed media works of Leandro Soto, most recently shown this year at the Museum of Fine Arts in Havana. In May and June we’ll show works by José Fuster, one of Cuba’s most popular artists who does ceramics and paints. July and August will be devoted to printmaking, including hand crafted books, fabrics and other examples.

Tell me about how you collect works. How do you connect with artists in Cuba? How do you bring their work to The Center? In other words, how did you end up with a storage space with 10,000 works of art?

In more than 300 trips to Cuba! Before we even opened the Center in 2972 I had personally collected several hundred posters. A well- known Cuban artist, Julio Girona, living in the US in the 70s, encouraged us to include art in our center and on his next trip returned with dozens of artworks contributed by his friends. After that, I brought art back to NYC on each trip. Once we won our lawsuit against the US Treasury Dept in 1991 which made the importation of Cuban original art legal, we organized our first art collecting trip across Cuba. Art critics gave me suggestions about artists to look for in cities outside of Havana. And really, once you know a few artists, it’s easy to meet hundreds.

Travel to Cuba continues to be difficult. Tell me about your travel program and what makes it unique.

We were one of the very first organizations to offer regular, legal travel to Cuba. We started the program in 1973, so imagine! For 45 years we have been traveling to Cuba. We know so many people in Cuba, so we can ensure the participants don't just spend their time doing touristy things in Havana. To really understand Cuba, you have to get outside of Havana. Every city has their unique character, in terms of architecture, music, what they care about and talk about. With our travel program, you will meet Cubans in all walks of life while discovering aspects of the society in depth. We organize monthly group trips and custom trips throughout the year.

What is your process for deciding which art to collect for your exhibits?

We promote all Cuban art! For the exhibits here in our space, these are usually organized around a theme. For example, in March this year we did an exhibit dedicated to female artists in honor of International Women’s Day. We look at our roster, and pull work that makes sense for the show. We have 10,000+ pieces in our collection, so we always have enough to choose from.

Tell us about one of your favorite pieces or artists so far.

Some of my favorite artists are self-taught artists. Mabel Poblet, an mixed media artist, is one of my favorites. She was 16 when I met her. Now she is 32 and has become one of Cuba’s most exciting young artists. We started to bring in her drawings and prints around ten years ago. She is so sophisticated and a careful person so that her work is intensely personal but never sentimental. Every single little piece is very exquisite and I love it.

Mabel Poblet (Image provided by the Center for Cuban Studies.)
Mabel Poblet (Image provided by the Center for Cuban Studies.)
Mabel Poblet (Image provided by the Center for Cuban Studies.)
Mabel Poblet (Image provided by the Center for Cuban Studies.)

How do you see The Center developing in the future?

The center started with the goal of helping to normalize relations between the two countries. Honestly, it's been difficult for us to have much of an impact, even though we have joined forces with Senators and other advocacy groups. So instead, our goal has become to start relationships with Cubans, and especially Cuban artists.

How did CCS get settled in Dumbo?

We connected with Two Trees about their subsidy program first. It didn't work out for us, but we can came and saw some spaces anyways, and found a great one that worked for us. We love it! It’s a much more vibrant neighborhood than Chelsea where were were previously.

What is your favorite spot in DUMBO?

We love Brooklyn Bridge Park! We also love Pedro’s; it was the only the place I ate for months. I love the Brooklyn Flea; we hope to be able to be part of if next year here in Dumbo!