Bringing New Art to Old Havana: A Q&A with Dealer Concha Fontenla

Bringing New Art to Old Havana: A Q&A with Dealer Concha Fontenla

In Old Havana, where bright-hued colonial balustrades are a more common sight than white-cube galleries, the nonprofit Factoría Habana art space is something of an anomaly. Opened last December in a majestic warehouse on a back street far removed from the neighborhood's main tourist corridor, the gallery is the project of founding director Concha Fontenla, a native of Galicia, Spain, who curates a diverse program alternating foreign contemporary art with work by local artists like Lázaro Saavedra, Sandra Ramos, and René Francisco. (The art program is also occasionally interspersed with extra-curatorial events, such as Havana’s Street Dance Festival, which filled the gallery with dancers on roller skates.)

The 1,250-square-meter space is spread over three floors of an early-20th-century industrial building that has been impeccably restored by the Office of the Historian of Havana, which layered a spare renovation over the bones of the original structure — all under Fontenla’s watchful eye. ARTINFO sat down with the gallery director, who also runs the commercial gallery Factoría Compostela in Santiago de Compostela.

Tell me about the genesis of Factoría Habana.

I’d always wanted to come to Cuba, but it was clear to me that I couldn’t come as a tourist. I think Havana is a very aggressive city for tourists. When I began to visit 15 years ago, when I was on an academic exchange program, I fell completely in love with the place. I began to tell Eusebio Leal [the historian of the city of Havana, who has led the restoration of the historic downtown] that Habana Vieja needed more contemporary culture. It seemed to me that contemporary art and architecture were on the margins here, and they shouldn’t be anymore.

What were some of the challenges you faced when creating the art center?

The first challenge was to adapt the space with as little interference as possible. One basic criterion was to do the restoration with the materials and the people that are available here in Cuba. It was a struggle, but the culture has evolved. I can say that after fighting for things like the tone of white on the walls and the polished concrete floors, which seemed to them like science fiction at first.

How do you see Factoría Habana fitting into Havana’s cultural scene?

I see it as a breath of fresh air. I don’t just want to bring contemporary architecture and art to Habana Vieja, I want to entice Cuban visitors who see the area as just a touristy place. Many well-traveled Cubans — artists especially — have said to me, “Hey, this looks like it could be Berlin or SoHo.” No, darling, this is Habana Vieja. It’s good that they see that this is possible to do here.

You seem to be thinking globally and acting locally with this project. Can you give me examples of the advantages and disadvantages of a project such as yours in a complex place like Havana?

An advantage of Havana is that anything is possible here. There is definitely inventiveness in the city. We make things up as we go every day. I have to mount — and I don’t even know how — a show of new media next week. But somehow, in a country in which I can’t find the right screw to fit the adapter anywhere, I know the show will go up. At the same time, that challenge is also very inconvenient.

What is it like operating under the eye of the Cuban government?

We have to accept things as they are. There are certain limits to what we can do. There’s a critical posture in the cultural world when it comes to political themes, which we have to transcend here. We have certain conditions. I’ll take the space as far as it can go, but I have no idea what will happen in the future. I’m at a point in my life where I almost don’t care. That’s what I enjoy the most about Havana: it’s a place that allows me to squeeze every drop out of every day, to live each day as if it were my last.

Factoría Habana is located at 308 O’Reilly Street, between Habana and Aguiar, in Havana, Cuba. +537-864-9518,