Ella Fontanals Cisneros: A Conversation


A Brief Conversation with Ella Fontanals Cisneros

Justo J. Sánchez

JJS: How did your passion for the arts begin?

EC: I am the product of a musical family. My mother was a wonderful pianist and a great singer. My father was a poet and musically inclined as well. In Cuba, they would organize very serious musical “tertulias.” I thought, I would devote my efforts to the visual arts but upon leaving Cuba, my life changed. I tried to return to drawing and painting but found myself, instead, starting an art gallery in Venezuela in the late sixties, in the Chacaito region of Caracas.

JJS: Is this the period when your collecting began?

EC: Yes, exactly. The gallery began selling European art — Dali watercolors for example — American pop artists, and emerging Venezuelan and other Latin American artists. I started developing a collection. In Paris, I became very involved with artist friends like Soto, Gamarra, and others. My friendship with artists made me aware of artistic and social issues as well.

JJS: Now that you mention social issues. Are you socially involved in Venezuela?

EC: Well, there is my work with the foundations. I am actively involved with “Together” “Juntos por los Niños” that promotes an integral program to benefit children. During the early 90’s, we created “Sentido Común” (“Common Sense”), an organization to mobilize voters – especially young people – in an effort to have the Venezuelan Congress elected directly by the people. We raised awareness of direct representation. In two days we had collected over 66,000 signatures.

JJS: Why don’t we see this political fervor in Venezuelan universities any more? Why don’t we see alternatives to the political status quo from the academic setting?

EC: You have to understand, Justo, that those that had the political “fervor” became integrated into the established parties and machinery. Today’s students are more “professional,” career-oriented. They tend to follow the American, technical, specialized professional-training thinking about universities. The other thing that I notice within the university population and the younger generation is the lack of patriotism, the lack of a nationalistic feeling or political conscience that I saw during our mobilization efforts. Yet, Venezuela has shown incredible signs of courage and integrity.

JJS: The creation of MAC (Miami Art Central) has required a commitment from you (financial and otherwise). You have been active with the Miami City Ballet and other local organizations and yet you travel extensively; why choose Miami?

EC: Most people would say that my daughters are my anchors to this area. I think of South Florida’s proximity to Latin America, a region that is sadly ignored by the United States. In this country’s policy priorities, the Middle East, Europe, now Asia, occupy leading positions. The neighbors to the South remain sadly ignored. South Florida, at the risk of sounding trite, is the crossroads to the Americas: for Europeans and North Americans.

JJS: What made you want to invest your time and resources here?

EC: For 35 years I have been coming to Miami, and, frankly, it was just passing. The past ten to twelve years, the transformation has been remarkable and exciting. What truly makes South Florida special is the great new influx of Brazilians, Venezuelans, Mexicans, Colombians, Argentineans, New Yorkers, and Europeans that have enriched an already stimulating population and environment. This population shift is creating a complete social realignment. The building of the Miami Performing Arts Center will reshape and reconfigure the city. Look, Justo, even the public transportation trends are changing. You even see more people today using the monorail. That might push local authorities to improve public transportation.

JJS: What were your goals in creating MAC?

EC: I had three ideas in mind: an educational component, a community integration component on a multidisciplinary level, and, lastly, the visual arts component, with three or four major exhibits a year.

JJS: Do you plan to keep close links with the University of Miami?

EC: It is only natural since we are neighbors but also because President Shalala has been very supportive of our efforts. The University of Miami’s Arts Department has been and will be our partner in a number of projects.

JJS: Will MAC specialize in contemporary art?

EC: No. MAC will cover different periods, different artistic media. It will offer film series, lectures, jazz, etc. For example, Justo, let me tell you that in late April we will host the masterpieces from the Cintas collection. We will then show the work of the finalists of the Cintas Foundation Award. For next year — and I will keep you posted — we are working on a Latin American master who, although alive, is in the collection of leading museums. We are also working on a major exhibit of a different type of artistic genre. MAC is now finishing the application process on permits for a less restrictive schedule and to accommodate a larger number of visitors. The lineup of future activities is indeed exciting.

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