The Smithsonian Institution has canceled an ambitious plan to showcase Cuban culture on the Mall in Washington at the 2017 Folklife Festival because negotiators could not agree on the contract that would govern all aspects of the event.
After exhaustive preparations by Cuban and American scholars that began more than a decade ago, culminating in last-ditch efforts to redraft a memorandum of understanding this past spring and summer, the document remained unsigned late last month.
“The Smithsonian and Cuba have been unable to finalize a clear plan for Cuba’s participation next summer,” Michael Atwood Mason, director of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, wrote on Sept. 22 to his Cuban counterpart, Gladys Collazo Usallán, president of the National Council for Cultural Patrimony. “Since we now have less than nine months till the festival, I no longer think it is feasible to produce an excellent, memorable program for the 2017 festival.”
Cuban officials at a higher level in the government than Collazo never responded to the final draft of the contract, and Smithsonian officials still do not know what objections there might be, said Linda St. Thomas, chief spokesperson for the Smithsonian.
Collazo in Havana and officials in the Cuban Embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for comment.
The breakdown stunned and disheartened festival advocates and curators who poured great effort and hope into a proposal that seemed poised to place a cultural exclamation point on the diplomatic work of rebuilding relations between the countries. The failure is all the more surprising because top Smithsonian executives have spoken so optimistically about the Cuban festival since the idea was announced early last year.
“I’m disappointed that it may not happen in 2017, but I understand the Smithsonian and the Cuban government are continuing to consider ideas for people-to-people exchanges and other opportunities for Americans to experience Cuban culture,” Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), a member of the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents who was an early advocate of the festival, said in a statement.
It now appears less likely that Cuba ever will star in a festival because the Folklife Center is changing its focus to thematic programs, rather than country-based programs. Without Cuba, the 2017 festival will include a look at life and art in the circus world and a salute to folk artists who have been honored by the National Endowment for the Arts. The theme of the 2018 festival is cultural heritage industries from around the world; 2019 is the thematic power of music.
Still, aspects of Cuban culture could be included within the themes of future festivals.
“We are saddened that the American and Cuban people will not benefit from what would have been a wonderful opportunity for people-to-people exchange, but we are certainly open to considering Cuba’s inclusion in a future festival,” Mason wrote to Collazo.
Mason said in an interview that the Smithsonian had been prepared to help raise more than $1 million from private sources to cover the cost of the festival.
The Smithsonian pursued a Cuba festival despite objections from Cuban American members of Congress, who blasted the idea when it became public last year. In part to blunt such criticism and also to reflect the experience of Cuban Americans, the festival was to include off-the-Mall programing devoted to the Cuban diaspora.
James Early, former director of cultural heritage policy for the Folklife Center, launched efforts toward a Cuba festival in 1999. It was “truly a curator’s dream,” wrote Cynthia Vidaurri, the project curator from the beginning, in an essay published this year about developing the festival. Dozens of scholars and specialists from the United States and Cuba collaborated over the years.
The working title of the festival was, “Cuba: Confluences, Creativity & Color,” designed to “explore Cuba’s rich cultural diversity through crafts, storytelling, music, language, dance, rituals, medicinal traditions, food and more.”
Early, who retired last year from the Folklife Center, faulted Smithsonian officials for being unable to close the deal after so much work.
“Hopefully more forward thinking and capable leadership will step forward to salvage the earnest research and documentation work by Smithsonian and Cuban curatorial colleagues, awaited by the U.S. public and Cuban tradition-bearers and cultural scholars for many years on the National Mall,” Early wrote in an email.
The first sign of trouble came in April, when the Smithsonian canceled a field trip to visit potential festival participants, including Chinese Cubans and members of the ethnic Arará minority.
Smithsonian Secretary David Skorton had been expecting to announce the signing of the festival agreement during an unrelated trip to Havana he made that month. Instead, during a gathering in the Alicia Alonso Grand Theater of Havana, he and Collazo took turns reading a joint statement in English and Spanish saying they hoped to sign an agreement “soon.”
At the same gathering, Mason said he was “optimistic” a formal agreement would be reached, and Miguel Barnet, president of the Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba, said, “Hopefully in 2017 we can realize a folklife festival dedicated to Cuba in Washington.”
In her essay published in the 2016 book “Curatorial Conversations,” at a time when progress was still being made on the festival, Vidaurri described previous rough patches in a process “that stopped and started countless times.” Strained diplomatic relations between the nations made things complicated.
“At one point, when things were particularly difficult,” she wrote, a vice minister of culture cheered her up by saying, “If there is anything Cubans know how to do, it’s wait!”
“For the time being,” she wrote, “like the Cubans, I wait.”