A report by Brett Sokol for the New York Times.
“I had a lot of living to do and it wasn’t going to happen in Miami,” Peter Menéndez recalls. In the aftermath of Cuba’s revolution, Mr. Menéndez’s family fled its native Havana and resettled in South Florida. But Miami in 1963 was still a sleepy Southern town with little appeal to a young Cuban with an affinity for art and a desire to live as an openly gay man. “New York was Mecca,” Mr. Menéndez added. The ink was barely dry on his high school diploma when he headed north.
He eventually built a career as an architect while becoming intimately involved in downtown New York’s percolating art scene. His perception of Miami didn’t shift until he returned there in 1982. Waves of immigration in the 1970s had begun subtly changing the social fabric; the arrival of nearly 125,000 Cubans via 1980’s Mariel boatlift supercharged this transformation. Miami’s once sclerotic arts world became roused by many of the newly arrived exiles — including the novelist Reinaldo Arenas and the painter Carlos Alfonzo — who brought an energetic avant-garde spirit and an expansive vision. “The city itself had begun to have cultural ambitions,” said Mr. Menéndez, who joined a Miami architectural firm, gave up his New York apartment and settled in.
He quickly became a player within Miami’s crackling art milieu as a founding trustee at the Miami Art Museum (now the Pérez Art Museum Miami), and as a shepherd for several generations of newly arrived Cuban-exile artists. It’s a role he still plays, connecting emerging talents with curators and helping them navigate an art market that remains opaque even to sophisticated economists.
Work by those same Cuban artists fills Mr. Menéndez’s Miami home. Mr. Alfonzo’s haunting “Figurat,” from 1991, with crimson swathes encircling a figure, chronicles the painter’s own physical deterioration as the effects of AIDS ravaged his body. A recent sculpture by Rafael Domenech, who immigrated from Cuba in 2010, takes a less emotional approach, emphasizing its material process — elliptical bands around a hanging Saturn-like structure seem to defy gravity, while diagrams installed nearby trace those same bands’ die-cut origins.
Here are edited excerpts from our conversation.
Is there an overriding philosophy to what you collect?
The collection isn’t exclusively Cuban and Cuban-American. But everything I have in my house is connected to a certain specific anecdote in my life. They’re not just things I went out and bought. There’s a story behind them.
Many of the José Bedia paintings you own seem to be storytellers in their own right.
Bedia is very good at that. If you look at his “Proyecto… y Resultado,” the first panel shows two men carrying a house. In the second panel the house has fallen and broken apart. The two men stand in grief while the house appears to have grown its own brain — a social movement run astray and the best comment I’ve ever seen on the Cuban revolution.
You visited Havana this past May. Were you impressed by any of the artists you saw there?
Young Cuban artists have discovered that they can make a very decent living, better than anyone else’s including doctors and lawyers there, with what they sell to tourists. The work runs from A to Z, but the unique Cuban-ness isn’t there. If you leaf through a recent issue of Artforum magazine, it would all be perfectly at home there. It’s being made just because it can sell. It’s not going to last through the years.
So you’re no longer interested in Havana’s contemporary artists?
It hit me when I was there that I was having zero emotions. There are no visible traces of the memories that have lingered in my head for years. Every movie house I went to as a kid is closed and demolished. Even the places I saw when I visited Cuba in the ’80s are obliterated. You walk around on the broken sidewalks and there’s all these 20-, 30-, 40 year-old men doing nothing on a weekday, just hanging out. Is this what socialism brought? It’s very disheartening.
You don’t sound particularly sad about this.
I was able to finally see Havana with a sense of distance. There’s some incredible art being made by Cubans today. It’s just that they’re making it in Miami, not Havana. I’m 73 years old now and this past Fourth of July I did something I’ve never done before. I put an American flag in front of my house.