Daytona Beach News Journal
June 13, 2008
Island native says museum's art should be returned to Cuba
By LAURA STEWART
Fine arts writer
DAYTONA BEACH -- Alberto Jones paused in front of Daniel Serra-Badue's 1941 painting, "Cuban Sweets," and smiled.
"These are typical treats, homemade cookies with fruit in them, mostly guava," said the Palm Coast resident, a native of Cuba.
Then he turned to another painting in the Cuban Foundation Museum, at the Museum of Arts and Sciences, and frowned.
"But what about the children of Cuba, who have never seen these works -- and never will," said Jones, 69, who has lived in the United States since 1980.
"My feelings are mixed. I'm proud about who we are, as Cubans, and angry because these works are here and not in Cuba, where they belong," he said. "It hurts to think they've been deprived of the opportunity to see and enjoy such marvelous arts.
"These works belong to the people of Cuba."
Yes, and no -- not as long as the art is in the small museum, frozen in place half a century ago by the Cuban Revolution.
"The city is going to keep the exhibits at least until there is a more friendly government in Cuba," said the city's personnel director in 1962, after "Castro's government" requested the art's return. No official actions have happened since, and as far as museum and city officials know, Cuban officials have not called back.
The official story is on a bronze plaque at its entrance: "The Cuban Foundation Museum Collection was given generously by President Fulgencio Batista and his wife Mrs. Marta Fernandez Batista to the city and to the people of Daytona Beach in 1957," it proclaims.
But the collection didn't exist in 1957, the year the Batistas made a different gift to the city. They had lived in luxurious exile in Daytona Beach from 1945, following Batista's presidential term, until 1948, when he won a senate seat. In 1952, he seized the presidency again, in a "bloodless coup."
After 1948, the Batistas kept their home at 137 N. Halifax Ave., added an adjacent piece of property and bought a larger place for retirement, the former Olds mansion at 129 N. Halifax.
Life in Havana became more uncomfortable. Fidel Castro's revolutionary brigades began attacking Batista's regime in 1953, forcing him to live in a state of siege. He relished the welcome Daytona Beach provided on March 24, 1956: "Batista Day," with its speeches, toasts, dinners and parade -- and his last visit to his Florida home.
To return the favor, Batista played host to 16 city officials, among them Mayor J.H. Long and his wife, on a 1957 Havana junket. The highlight came at 5 p.m. Oct. 28 in the Presidential Palace's Room of Mirrors, when he gave his properties at 137 and 145 N. Halifax Ave. to the city, and formalized the Cuban Foundation and its museum.
The properties, valued at $125,000, would become the museum -- with renovations paid for by Batista -- and Halifax Historical Society headquarters. The Cuban museum "will be maintained from the income of a $50,000 endowment fund Batista has established," The News Journal noted. And, according to Batista's local attorney, B.F. Brass, "all exhibits will be provided by the government of Cuba."
A series of exhibits "will illustrate Cuban progress in art, history, culture, science and industry. They will be kept up to date by the Cuban government," Brass said. But there was a reverter clause: If Batista's former home was used for anything but the Cuban museum, the deed became "null and void."
On June 4, 1958, two Cuban Air Force C-46 cargo planes landed at Municipal Airport. Along with workers to unload and install paintings, ceramics, photo-murals, a bust of Jose Marti, furniture, a working model of a sugar mill and other objects -- everything for the museum's first exhibit --were crates that did not go to the museum. Labeled "To Senor Presidente, Fulgencio Batista," they went to his home.
When the museum opened on June 29, it showcased Cuban culture, from colonial times to 1958. Six rooms on the ground floor featured the island's sugar, tobacco, fishing, hardwood and mineral industries.
Ceramics, a library and paintings filled the second floor. On the third level were a large map of Cuba, photographs and glassware. Throughout the museum, Cuban music played from more than 100 recordings.
"One room houses works of contemporary art; another has exhibits of 18th and 19th century art; and the third, 20th century works," The News-Journal noted on Aug. 11, 1958. "In all, there are 39 paintings by some of Cuba's best-known artists.
"There are portraits of Cuban heroes, scenes from everyday life, and landscapes depicting the beauty of Florida's neighbor to the south," among them modern works that had won first-place purchase awards in Cuba's annual National Salon.
"Exhibits at the museum are to be exchanged periodically with others from the Cuban Museum in Havana," the writer noted. "No exchanges have been set yet, however."
They never would be.
At 2 a.m. on Jan. 1, 1959, recognizing that Castro's forces were closing in, Batista fled Havana on a DC-4 loaded, according to reports, with up to $700 million in cash and art. Denied entry to the United States -- where Batista had lost support in part to his regime's perceived rampant corruption and brutality -- the deposed dictator flew to the Dominican Republic before settling in Portugal. Batista died in 1973; Marta died in West Palm Beach in 2006.
For Tere Batista, now president of the Cuban Foundation that runs the Cuban museum, the story of the Daytona Beach collection is part of her childhood.
"I grew up hearing that the museum in Daytona Beach had come from my grandfather and his wife Marta," Tere Batista, 43, a resident of Miami, said Thursday. But those works which went on temporary loan to the Cuban Foundation Museum 50 years ago are still here, part of a legacy that decades ago became a legend that has been endlessly repeated.
It's one that fascinated Museum of Arts and Sciences director Wayne Atherholt. He studied old News-Journal clips in silence for long minutes late last week, and finally spoke.
"I'm amazed," he said. "I never knew this -- what a story. And what an opportunity for possible cultural exchanges with Cuba."
Jones hopes so. "This art wasn't his," he said. "So how could Batista give it away? It belongs to the people of Cuba."
Cuban Foundation Museum collection
When two Cuban Air Force C-46 cargo planes arrived in Daytona Beach 50 years ago, they carried more than an art collection.
Also on board were photo-murals, furniture and other items to showcase the island's science, agriculture, industry and history. There were recordings of Cuban music, murals about cigar production, samples of Cuba's minerals and hardwoods -- even butterflies.
Today, it's the art that still stands out. A superb group of bold modernist ceramics are on a pedestal in the Cuban Foundation Museum, now a space with its own interior entrance at the Museum of Arts and Sciences.
The core collection of 39 paintings are by many of Cuba's top artists. There are "old masters" like Miguel Melero, Armando Menocal, Leopoldo Romanach and Jose Joaquin Tejada. Among the avant-garde, Eduardo Abela, Carlos Enriquez, Mario Carreno and Amelia Pelaez stand out.
That's what Batista wanted, his late son, Fulgencio Ruben Batista, told The News-Journal last August. "My father loved Daytona Beach. He gave the museum to the city, and had the top people helping him.
"The paintings were selected specifically for the Cuban Museum of Daytona Beach, with the advice of people who were specialists in Cuban painting," said the younger Batista, who until his death on Nov. 7, 2007, was president of the Cuban Foundation, which operates the Cuban Museum Foundation.
Cuban Foundation Museum timeline
1945 -- Former Cuban President Fulgencio Batista buys a home at 137 N. Halifax Ave., Daytona Beach and lives there until 1948, when he wins a Cuban senatorial seat. Batista was re-elected president in 1954.
March 24, 1956 -- "Batista Day" celebrated in Daytona Beach; the president returns briefly for a parade and other festivities.
Oct. 28, 1957 -- At a ceremony in Havana, Batista donates two properties on Halifax Avenue to the city to be used as a Cuban Foundation Museum. Batista's new home is 129 N. Halifax Ave., a 3 1/2-story riverfront property.
June 4, 1958 -- Two Cuban Air Force cargo planes fly into Daytona Beach loaded with exhibits for the Cuban Foundation Museum but also with crates addressed to "Senor Presidente, Fulgencio Batista."
Jan. 1, 1959 -- Fidel Castro's revolutionary forces overthrow Batista's government; Batista is denied entry into the United States, flies to the Dominican Republic and finally settles in Portugal.
February 1965 -- Merger of Cuban Museum and Museum of Arts and Sciences discussed. New "three-in-one" museum would be built in Tuscawilla Park, using funds from sale of Batista's former home.
1967 -- City asks Museum of Arts and Sciences to operate Cuban Foundation Museum as a public trust.
1971 -- Museum of Arts and Sciences opens on 90-acre plot in Tuscawilla Park, with the Cuban Foundation Museum part of the new facility.
Who owns art?
The question is as old as civilization. As early as 1962, just four years after the Cuban Foundation Museum opened and only three years after its founder, Cuban president Fulgencio Batista, was overthrown, the question of who owns the museum's art came up.
Approached by the Cuban government, city officials stonewalled requests from "Castro's government" for the art's return. "Possession is nine-tenths of the law," said Daytona Beach city personnel director A.M. Deatherage in a July 29, 1962, News-Journal article.
And why not? When Rome triumphed over Greece, it looted Athens. When Lord Elgin visited the Acropolis, he had its sculptures shipped home -- to become later the jewels of the British Museum.
Art can equal a nation's cultural heritage. Yale University is returning items excavated more than 90 years ago in the ancient Incan city of Machu Picchu, and Boston University is sending sacred Kenyan artifacts home.
The most famous and stubborn dispute involves the Elgin Marbles. Turkish authorities then in control of Athens gave Lord Elgin permission to take them, and he may have felt he was rescuing them while Greece and Turkey were at war.
England paid Elgin for the sculptures in 1816, sparking old arguments that still rage. Lord Byron railed against their display, but Keats praised "Seeing the Elgin Marbles" in the British Museum and Goethe hailed the exhibit as "the beginning of a new age for Great Art."
So, who owns art? The person who "saved" it, or the person -- or culture -- that made it?
JG: That art, which Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista stole from Cuba, should be returned to the Caribbean island. The despot, together with his cronies and buddies not only stole Cuban art, but proceeded to loot the Cuban treasury, before they fled to Santo Domingo and Florida. That money, which was deposited in capitalists banks in the Sunshine State, has never been returned to Cuba either. Typical examples of capitalist greed and a total disregard for good ethics. In this country, if you steal a candy bar or some other low value junk they make you a criminal. If you steal art, which is a patrimony of a nation, they put it in a capitalist museum.