The Promise of Paradise: Wolfsonian Exhibition on Cuba Opens

Gift of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca

The exhibition Promising Paradise: Cuban Allure, American Seduction opened first to VIP guests and museum members on Thursday, and then to the general public this past Friday.

Vicki Gold Levi Speaking

Curator Frank Luca

Lauren Horgan & Roberto Siam Dancing14

Photographs courtesy of World Red Eye

Drawn primarily from a gift made by Vicki Gold Levi, and curated by Rosa Lowinger and myself, the exhibition deals with U.S.-Cuba interaction between 1919 and 1959—a time of cordial relations and significant cultural exchange between our countries. It was during this period that the first two major waves of American tourists flooded into Cuba in the 1920s and 1950s, and music and dance originating in the island infiltrated and “Cubanized” the American music scene.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collection

I thought that for today’s post I would provide a glimpse into the installation process, a “teaser” of a few items from the exhibit, and a look at other materials we would have liked to have included had space permitted.

Although I have been curating installations in the foyer of The Wolfsonian’s rare book and special collections library for well over a decade, this was my first major exhibition in the galleries. It was humbling to realize just how much teamwork is involved in organizing and assembling an exhibition. Our donor, Vicki Gold Levi provided a wealth of background information on the hundreds of vintage photographs included in her donation. All of these items (ranging from sheet music, to advertisements, posters, lobby cards, booklets, menus, record album covers) had to be rapidly accessioned by a number of interns working under the supervision of assistant registrar, Amy Silverman, and then digitally documented by museum photographer, Lynton Gardiner. With well over a thousand newly donated items to review, the next task was to begin to see what kind of story these artifacts told, and to start culling and making the initial selection of those items that would best illustrate that narrative.

As I began to work on the exhibit, I began vetting my ideas in meetings with the curatorial staff, the Exhibition Manager, Lisa Li Celorio, and the Exhibition Designer, Richard Miltner. Assistant Curator, Exhibitions and Loans, Whitney Richardson also tirelessly pinned images to the constantly evolving storyboards, and wrote up and sent out loan agreements to private collectors and galleries from whom we wished to borrow some artwork.


After many meetings and revisions, and more culling, we emerged with the basic narrative structure, storyboard, and layout for the show, and my co-curator, Rosa Lowinger and I began writing the descriptive and interpretative text panels. After another round of revisions, the finalized versions were sent out to Spanish language translators, and then back to our Art Director, Marlene Tosca for font selection and design. Ms. Tosca also came up with the design of the exhibition invitations, brochures, and banners.


Photograph courtesy of World Red Eye


As I intended the exhibit to include several clips from Hollywood films in the show, I also worked with our intern, Barbara Bollini, and our Digital Assets Manager, Derek Merleaux to prepare the clips for projection in the galleries. Lisa Li identified a large number of home movies Americans had taken of their trips to Cuba from 1920s through the 1950s preserved and digitized by the Wolfson Media Center from which we selected a few to serve as a reintroduction to the Havana of this earlier era.



As the exhibition included a treasure-trove of smaller ephemeral materials, the Senior Preparator, William Kramer, and Art Handlers Steve Forero-Paz, Carlos Alejandro were especially busy in the weeks immediately prior to the opening creating hundreds of Melinex backings for the brochures, postcards, vintage photographs, and other items to be mounted in specially-designed cases.


Our Chief Exhibition Designer, Richard Miltner came up with the ivory and black wall backgrounds and vaulted ceiling color schemes, and deciding which images from the collection ought to be enlarged, produced on vinyl, and mounted on the gallery walls. He also worked with the museum’s Deputy Director, Collections & Curatorial Affairs, Sharon Aponte Misdea, who took on the responsibility of enlivening the lobby space with a selection of enlarged reproductions of vintage album covers, Arthur Murray dance step instructions, and music of the period.


Rosie Ramos & Yeney Ramos1

Photograph courtesy of World Red Eye

So as not to “steal thunder” from the show—and after all, images on line are fine, but there’s nothing like the real thing—I thought that I would include in this post images of materials representing some of the important themes of the exhibition that for reasons of space, did not make the cut. With more than 1,500 items in the Vicki Gold Levi Collection donated over the course of a decade, we had an embarrassment of riches from which to choose, and from which we will continue to mine for other exhibitions.

No consideration of Cuban national identity would be complete without referencing the importance of the sugar and tobacco crops which dominated the island’s economy from the early colonial period through the mid-twentieth century, when tourism gained a foothold in Cuba’s economic and social life.


Gift of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection





The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collection


Gift of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca

If sugar (and byproducts, such as soft drinks, rum, and chocolate) and tobacco were the “king” and “queen” of the Cuban economy, it was the hawkers and street vendors who captured the imagination of Cuban and American photographers, graphic artists, and musical composers.



The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collection

Equally important to Cuba’s sense of national identity in this period was the image of La República; the island’s Spanish, Afro-Cuban, and Caribbean heritage; Cuban music and dance; sports and other pastimes; and modernist architecture.



The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collection


Gift of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca







The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collection

The first wave of Americans traveling to Cuba in the era of Prohibition (1920-1933), were largely socialites looking to spend the winter season under the tropical sun.





The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collection

They did so in part to indulge in the forbidden fruits of drinking rum, playing roulette, and dancing the scandalously sensual rumba in the hassle-free Havana, much like the character portrayed by actress Carole Lombard in the Hollywood hit, Rumba (1935).



The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collection

The second wave of American tourists to flood into Cuba came in the 1950s, drawn especially by the incredible musical talent, cabarets, and legendary nightlife that Havana had to offer as the “Paris of the Antilles” and the “Las Vegas of the Tropics.” Largely funded by casino money, the Montmartre, Sans Souci, and Tropicana were the three venues most popular with the tourists.



The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collection

As my co-curator’s book, Tropicana Nights makes clear, it was the latter venue that set the standard for the nightclub experience in Havana. The Tropicana evolved out of the Eden Concert, an outdoor cabaret in downtown Havana organized by Victor de Correa.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collection

In 1939, the club was relocated to the tropical gardens of an estate on the outskirts of Havana, where the mansion of Villa Mina was converted into a casino. There in the early 1950s the modernist masterpiece “crystal arch room” and “under the stars” stage were added, and the club’s glamourous showgirls, and two nightly floorshows organized by the great choreographer, Roderico (“Rodney”) Neyra won it worldwide fame.










Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collection

Of course, there were a myriad of smaller clubs and dance venues in Havana as popular with the locals and Cuban performers as they were with the tourists.




The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collection

Much of the mania for Cuba was fueled by Hollywood movies and celebrities filmed and photographed in recognizable haunts in Havana.




Gifts of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca


Loan, Vicki Gold Levi Private Collection


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collection

Even in the dark days of the Great Depression, when travel to Cuba became an unattainable dream for most Americans, movies like Warner Brothers’ Out of the Fog continued to reflect the American desire for escape to “exotic” Cuba, or at very least, the rumba dance halls in major U.S. cities.


Gift of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca

Cuba-themed Hollywood films and movie stars not only encouraged tourists to vacation in Havana, they also brought Cuban music and dance into the American consciousness. The popularity of Cuban music in the United States spawned a proliferation of Latin-inspired nightclubs and Latin-North American musical fusions, from rumbas, to Afro-Cuban jazz, mambos, and cha-cha-chas.




The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collection


Gift of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca





(And, yes, that is Mary Taylor Moore!)


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collection

Promising Paradise will be on view in our seventh floor gallery through August 21, 2016. Throughout the summer, Miami Beach visitors and residents can also enjoy watching a series of Cuba-themed films, courtesy of The Wolfsonian and the Miami Beach Cinematheque.

A smaller installation about sports and race in Cuba and the United States organized by Barbara Bollini Roca in the museum library foyer will open to the public later this week, so stay tuned!


~ by "The Chief" on May 16, 2016.

One Response to “The Promise of Paradise: Wolfsonian Exhibition on Cuba Opens”

  1. Bravo, bravissimo-for a celebration exceedingly well done! Heartiest congratulations to one & all! Full of admiration ! Micky

    Sent from my iPad

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