Some artists in Cuba thrive financially due to its laws

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Some artists in Cuba thrive financially due to its laws

HAVANA - Late one balmy spring night during Havana’s 12th Biennial, young working-class men and women lounged on a stretch of sand dotted with folding chairs and umbrellas, an artificial beach created as an art installation on the capital’s Malecon seaside promenade.

Meanwhile, at Sotheby’s auction house in New York, the beach’s 40-year-old creator, Arles del Rio, sold another piece featured at the last biennial for $11,875, more than 40 times the annual salary of an ordinary Cuban. The piece, titled “Fly Away,’’ is made of chain-link fence with a hole in the shape of a jet, making it appear the plane flew right through it.

Cuba’s growing international trendiness combined with the government’s topsy-turvy labor regulations are making sculptors, painters and other artists some of the richest people on the island. It’s a demonstration both of Cuba’s accomplishments in culture and education, as well as its economic difficulties after a half-century of communism.

“When I was in art school, my parents almost threw me out of the house because I hadn’t chosen a ‘real’ career,’’ said printmaker Max Delgado. “These days, there’s real competition among kids studying music or painting.’’

Cuba allows its citizens to work in hundreds of types of private jobs outside the state-run economy but virtually none of those positions allow entrepreneurs to create real wealth. The island’s most potentially profitable business sectors and professions remain entirely under control of the state, which currently pays an average salary of a little more than $23 a month, or about $280 a year, in addition to the heavily subsidized health and other government services everyone gets.

But an exception was created at the end of the 1980s, when independent artists became some of the first Cubans that the government allowed to earn money outside the confines of the state and keep the profits from the direct sales of their work, sometimes for tens of thousands of dollars.

That has created a tiny class of artists who are wealthy by Cuban standards and can divide their time between the island and countries such as the United States or Spain. They can duck Cuba’s roughly 50 percent income tax on works sold outside the nation.

Cuban economist Arturo Lopez-Levy, a lecturer at the University of Denver, said that under the island’s bifurcated economy most people earn puny state salaries while those with access to foreign money like the top-end artists can live like kings.

In the Sotheby’s auction two weeks ago, the works of Cuban artists surpassed expectations. One piece by Alexandro Arrechea went for $118,000, a lot of three pieces by a pair of artists who call themselves Los Carpinteros captured $60,000, and a sculpture by the artists’ collective “The Merger’’ got $50,000. AP

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