Passion and Profit: The Ascension of Latin American Art

By Hope Katz Gibbs
New Miami magazine
Photos by Eduardo Galliani
Design by Kevin Jolliffe

AN ANTIQUE SILVER ELECTRIC FAN whilrs warm air around Arturo Rodriguez’s small paint-spattered studio in South Miami. Jars jammed with brushes and tubes of oil paint line a bookshelf. A half dozen half-finished canvases rest against a plaster wall.

Standing alone in the center of the room is Rodriguez himself, looking intently at a canvas that he has painted red. “I don’t know what it will be,” he says, bemused.

If this painting is anything like Rodriguez’s other works, the images on the canvas will be additions to his now-famous cast of twisted characters that seem to teeter on the edge of sanity. Nude and floating, falling off the rim of a stool or drowning in a bath, the images tell of the loneliness of political exile.

“The imagery in much of my work describes a sense of alienation,” Rodriguez says. “Part of it is because I am an exile from Cuba. But a-11 human beings go through periods in their life where they feel exiled. Feeling isolated is a universal emotion.”

So universal is the emotional reaction to a painting by Arturo Rodriguez that one of his works, “El gran teatro del mundo,” was selected by the prestigious New York Metropolitan Museum to become part of its 20th Century art collection. Another of his paintings was given to Pope John Paul 11.

His work has struck a cord with collectors, too. Many have been willing to pay up to $20,000 for a 40-inch by 60-inch oil painting. Prices for his small watercolor paintings start at $6,000. A decade ago, a painting by Rodriguez sold for about $500.

Rodriguez’s popularity, and the increasing prices his works bring, reflects the new wave of interest in Latin American artists and their powerful works.

“With few exceptions the Latin American painters have yet to be discovered,” writes John L. Marion, the chairman of Sotheby’s, in his book, “The Best of Everything: An Insider’s Guide to Collecting for Every Taste and Every Budget.”

“There are hard monetary reasons for this,” he insists. “The economies of most Latin American countries are deep in trouble, and their currencies are severely depressed.
So, dollar for dollar, most works even by superb Latin American artists can be purchased at very attractive prices. This is one of the few areas where the novice collector can get in on the ground floor today.”

In Miami, collectors have a geographical advantage because emerging Latin American artists are among the many immigrants from Cuba, Colombia, Venezuela and other Latin nations who have settled here over the last 30 years.

The artists themselves have an advantage, too. Miami’s increasingly affluent Hispanic population has created an important local market for artists like Rodriguez. Tens of thousands of Latin immigrants—especially Cubans who moved to Miami during Fidel Castro’s rise to power in the early 1960s—have established businesses, saved money and enjoyed the good life. And now, many of them are hungry for works by Latin American artists who understand their plight of exile.

And as people from other ethnic groups learn more about Latin culture, they too are buying the work of emerging and established Latin artists. Growing mainstream interest in Latin American art has been evident for years at New York’s major auction houses.

Affordable prices are fueling the growth in demand. Paintings by some well-known American artists, such as Jasper Johns, are selling for as much as $10 million. Works by established Latin American artists go for anywhere from $100,000 to more than $1 million. And an emerging Latin American artist’s work can cost as little as $6,000.

Collectors who invest in a work by an emerging artist like Rodriguez may see the value of their investment double, perhaps even quadruple. After years of relative obscurity, works by some Latin American artists have exploded in price.

Consider the career of Wilfredo Lam. Born in Cuba, Lam was sent by his father to study art in Europe in the 1920s. He befriended Pablo Picasso and integrated more surrealist techniques into his work. In the decades that followed, until his death in 1982, Lam came to be known as one of Latin America’s finest surrealist artists.

Throughout his career, however, his work sold for significantly less than other European and American contemporary artists. The going price for a Lam in the 1960s, for instance, was less than $1,000. Now his works carry price tags with five or six figures. Last year at the blue-chip New York auction house Christie’s, his “La Manana Verde” fetched $605,000.

Two art gallery owners, one in Miami, the other in New York, are hoping that Arturo Rodriguez, like Lam, will turn out to be one of this century’s most important artists.

“He has all the ingredients to be a great artist,” says Barbara Greene, who sells Rodriguez’s paintings at her Greene Gallery in Bay Harbor. “I think we will
be seeing masterpieces coming from him.”

“Arturo Rodriguez is not a ‘hot’ artist; he is a very serious artist engaged in a career that will stand the test of time,” adds Clara Diament Sujo, the director of CDS, a prestigious an gallery in New York City that represents Rodriguez. “His work is based on his own
life, experiences of pain, sadness and solitude. Arturo sees with a soul that strives for the best in mankind. He has the spirit of sacrifice that will allow him to have a great career in the history of contemporary art.”

Will Rodriguez achieve such potential? There is no guarantee for investors, of course. The biggest reason to buy a Rodriguez painting now, art experts advise, is to enjoy its beauty.

“Art is something that should give you pleasure,” says Mary Anne Martin, owner of a Miami’s New York Gallery, which specializes in selling Latin American art. “If you develop an eye and a taste for what is good, you will enjoy learning about it and buying it. But to make an intelligent purchase, you have to start looking around before you start buying. There are plenty of sharks out there.”


Of course, the art world hasn’t always been so kind to Latin American art. Twenty years ago, influential New York art critics—the people who make or break an artist’s career—looked down their noses at Latin American artists, calling them craftsmen or untalented imitators of the great European artists.

Mary-Anne Martin knew different. In the late 1970s, she could find no museum or gallery that frequently displayed the work of such Cuban and Mexican masters as Lam, Diego Rivera, Roberto Matta and Rufino Tamayo.

“People would come up to me and say they love the work artists from Latin America were doing,” Martin recalls, “but there was no place to see and buy it on a regular basis.”

Martin set out to change that. In 1977, she convinced the management of Sotheby’s, the well-known New York auction house, to handle an auction of Mexican paintings. It was such a success that the following year Sotheby’s staged another auction, which included works by artists from other Latin American countries. By 1979, Sotheby’s had created a Latin American art department and hired Martin to run it.

“This is a field where good works can be offered at fair prices,” says Martin, who left Sotheby’s in 1982 to open her own gallery. “Recently there has been a lot of interest, but not so much that the works arc becoming unaffordable. Real people can still buy Latin American art.”

However, in recent years Christie’s and Sotheby’s—which control about 80 percent of the art sold at auction in the U.S.—have gotten prices for Latin American art that have hit new heights.

Evidence of the new popularity of Latin American art is the record-breaking sale of Self-Portrait With Loose Hair by Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. Last May, Kahlo’s painting sold at a Christie’s auction for $1.65 million—the highest price ever for a work by a Latin American.
Another Kahlo self-portrait, “Diego y Yo,” set the previous record in 1990 when it sold at Christie’s for $1.4 million. Martin bought that painting for one of her clients. Although it has been rumored that the anonymous client is rock star Madonna, Martin denies it. Madonna is reported to own at least two of Kahlo’s paintings.


Who says the art boom has gone bust? Not book publisher Ramon Cernuda. On the contrary, Cernuda has been an active investor in the growing market or for Latin American art. Twenty years ago, he started collecting works by Cuban artists and has since amassed a collection of about 300 pieces.

He estimates his collection—which includes paintings by Arturo Rodriguez, Wifredo Lam and Jose Maria Mijares—to be worth more than $1 million.

Greater appreciation for Latin American art, however, has given Cernuda mixed emotions. “I am glad Latin American artists are finally getting the attention and recognition they deserve,” he says. “At the same time, 1 am sad because a lot of the artworks that I want are already out of my reach.”

Having spent two decades studying Latin American art, Cernuda is better prepared than many collectors to identify which works will become more valuable. Some of his lessons have been costly ones.

“I have never bought a forgery,” says Cernuda, who has lined the walls of his office and home with his obsession. “But there was a time or two when I paid more for a painting than I should have. It happens to all of us.”

Architect Luis Calzadilla can attest to that. Although you won’t find any empty wall space in his Coral Gables home (75 paintings are hung just about everywhere, including the bathroom), there is a very large, very brightly painted canvas that lies under a bed in a spare room. He paid $4,500 for it.

Calzadilla keeps it out of sight because “after I brought it home, compared to the other works I already had, it really didn’t have the substance of fine art,” Calzadilla says. “It’s beautifully painted, but it’s a little slick. It borders on decorative art.”

To make matters worse, when Calzadilla went to resell the painting, he couldn’t.

“When you go with the younger artists, this is a risk you run,” he says. “But, generally, as long as the artwork gives me some pleasure, it doesn’t really matter about the money.”

Marcel Deray agrees. He and his wife, Bertha, began collecting art when they moved to Miami in 1988. They started buying Latin American art after several months of studying and shopping.

“We went to New York to see what was being offered, but it was difficult to get a sense of what was going on,” he says. “Miami proved to be a good place to not only look at Latin American art, but also to get a first hand look at the work of emerging artists who were coming to Miami for political and cultural reasons. “

In the past three years, Deray has purchased about a dozen pieces, including works by the late Carlos Alfonso and Tomas Esson, an artist who recently defected from Cuba. As a new collector, Deray says he does not worry about being “burned” on a bad deal because he is not collecting art to make money.

“There is no way to tell if these are people who are going to be around 10 to 15 years from now,” he says. “Mostly, we buy works that generate an emotional response or a cerebral response. You can’t make an investment with the goal of making money. When I buy, I buy with the intention of keeping it for many, many years.”

People who buy Latin American and other types of art solely as an investment may be disappointed. “Buying art is much like buying a house,” says Fred Snitzer, owner of Opus Gallery in Coral Gables. “Its function is not to make money for you. It is a place for you to live and enjoy. But, if you are knowledgeable and if you make sensible investment, the house and the art will be worth more than what you paid.”


Learning what others will deem “good art” is the first step in making a smart purchase. In the art world, the experts are often gallery owners. These dealers represent artists and develop a market for their work.

Picking a dealer can be a tricky business for a novice. In Dade County, there are nearly two-dozen galleries. About a half dozen sell only Latin American art. But almost all of the local galleries exhibit works by Latin American artists from time to time.

Artists—especially young, emerging ones—often sign contracts to sell their work exclusively with a gallery, usually for one year, sometimes up to five. In return, the gallery acts as the artist’s agent, scheduling shows, printing brochures and displaying some of the artist’s work.

A gallery’s “stable” usually includes a large number of artists. For instance, at the Barbara Gillman Gallery in Miami, about 100 young artists are represented. Gillman has exclusive contracts with about 20 artists, eight of whom are Latin American.

“I like an artist to be solely with me and not show anywhere else,” says Gillman, who has been a dealer for the past 14 years. “It is costly to represent an artist, so you want that exclusivity.”

A gallery’s favorite type of collector is what Gillman calls an art junky. “Those are people who buy no matter what,” she says. “If they like the piece, they buy the art. It helps if the artist has a good resume, it helps if the artist has gained prominence and attention, but those people will always buy what they like. They are the true collectors.”
That type of collector has become a rare breed, admits Marta Gutierrez, owner of M. Gutierrez Fine Arts on Key Biscayne. “Today, collectors are overly concerned about what they buy,” says Gutierrez. “They want you to tell them if a certain piece of work is going to go up, and they want to know how much it is going to go up.”

Fifteen years ago, she says, that simply was not the case. “Back then, if a buyer looked at a painting and liked it, they bought it. If they didn’t like it, they didn’t buy it. Now, even if they like it, they don’t buy unless you assure them it will go up in value.”

Gutierrez deals mostly with established artists, such as Wifredo Lam, Carlos Alfonso and Roberto Matta. She does represent one local artist, however—Arturo Rodriguez’s wife, Demi.

Still an emerging artist, Demi picked up a paintbrush for the first time seven years ago. Today, she is already being recognized as a serious artist.

Demi paints children in a way that is rarely seen. A young girl in a white ballerina skirt, trying to balance herself on roller skates. A toddler in a pinafore, sits on a hillside, playing with masks. What is clear, however, is that her children are in pain. Their faces are scratched, contorted. They have no hair. The source of their pain doesn’t appear to be physical, Demi explains: “It is a state of mind.”

How does a collector know if Demi’s artwork is worth the asking-price range of $6,000 to $ 10,000?

“It’s part of the experience you get from years of looking,” says Gutierrez. “Eventually, after you go and look enough, you know what is good. And
eventually you see a pattern develop. The artists you thought were talented in the start of their careers, 10
years later they are exploding.”

A $6,000 to $10,000 investment is typical for a work by an emerging artist, says collector Ramon Cernuda, who has bought much of his collection from Gutierrez. But some dealers are offering the work of emerging artists at much higher prices.

“A lot of dealers are pushing the price of a young artist’s work to the point of breaking the ceiling,” Cemuda says. “In the future, that will be a hard reality for collectors who pay those prices. It makes no sense to me to pay $20,000 to $40,000 for the work of a local, emerging artist when you can pay the same money for an established artist.”

Not everyone agrees on that point.

Miguel Padura, 34, is an emerging artist whose work sells for as much as many established artists.

Born in Cuba, Padura came to Miami when he was 12. As a teenager, Padura began dabbling in art as a way to express the memories he had of his childhood in Cuba. While still in his 20s, Padura began selling his landscapes and still-life paintings for about $1,000 per canvas.

Four years ago, Padura became the protégé of local dealer Jose Martinez-Cafias, owner of Elite Fine Art Gallery in Coral Gables. Today Martinez-Cafias is offering Padura’s best works for prices approaching $30,000.

“[Padura] is going to be one of the most interesting realists in Latin America,” Martinez-Cafias predicts. “His work goes for $10,000 to $27,500. He is absolutely a steal for anyone who buys art. The quality you find in his art, compared to the price, is a steal.”

Martinez-Cafias agrees that unethical dealers can overcharge for the work of a so-so artist, but says the consequences can be painful. “Their work does not support the prices. Eventually, the people who invested in that type of art will be hurt. And the artists will be hurt because those prices will not be sustained, because they are not based on rock-solid ground.”

It seems that in art, like in love, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And Mary-Anne Martin urges art lovers to engage in a long courtship before opening their wallets.
Her advice is to shop around and know whom you’re dealing with.

“If you are not sure about a dealer, call around. After one or two calls to some experts, you should get you the information you need. After all, you want to be sure the gallery is going to be there the next time you go back.”


Buying Latin American art isn’t like buying stock in a company, experts insist. But choosing an a dealer is a lot like choosing a stockbroker.

So always ask many questions. Determine if the art dealer has a good reputation and how long the dealer has been working in the field of Latin American art. Keep in mind that the dealer is an entrepreneur, not just an art lover. “Sometimes dealers become very promotional,” says Ramon Cernuda, a collector of Latin American art for 20 years. “But the dealer is only doing his job. Collectors have to remember the dealer is looking out for number one: himself.”

To avoid being sold a bill of goods, there are some rules of thumb to remember:

• When buying the work of an established artist—like Kahlo, Lam or Rivera—make sure it is the real thing. If the artist is dead, check to make sure the painting comes with a certificate of authenticity. If there is any question, check with an expert representing the deceased artist’s estate.

• A national organization, the Art Dealers Association of America, might provide some insight into the credibility of a gallery. Locally, the Art Dealers Association of South Florida lists about a dozen galleries in business at least five years.

• Don’t buy a work simply
because a famous artist created it. All artists have dry spells. Make sure you are buying one of the artist’s best works.

• If you are interested in a particular work, research the artist. If an artist has a strong reputation, there should be a biographical sketch that tells where his work has been exhibited and where his work is part of a collection.

• Finally, stand back from the work and ask yourself if you truly like it. If you don’t—don’t buy it. It may sell for a higher price in the future. But if it doesn’t appreciate, you may regret buying it for years to come.