HAVANA — “I hope this is the beginning of an entire love relationship,” Smokey Robinson said in a dreamy voice that made you think he was working on a song.
Guitarist Dave Matthews said he felt so safe in this proud yet fraying city that he let his children, 8 and 14, walk alone on the street, “because the responsibility people have to each other here is very rare, and I love it.”
Joshua Bell got out his Stradivarius violin and jammed comfortably with Cuban pianists and drummers, but the biggest surprise for him, he said, was the skill of the young violinists in an all-female orchestra he also worked with: “They played with extreme polish and enthusiasm that I think some of our American artists could actually benefit from.”
The three artists were among a dozen who joined a presidential delegation led by the directors of the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Smithsonian Institution that wrapped up a three day-mission to Cuba on Thursday morning. The purpose was to expand cultural exchanges with Cuba — the latest sign of warming relations in the wake of the countries’ decision to restore full diplomatic ties last year. The U.S. and Cuban cultural leaders announced the delegation’s achievements at a closing forum in the beautifully restored Grand Theater.
The officials’ delicately worded, and bilaterally edited, bureaucratese did not quite match the giddy passion of the artists, but it seemed that some progress had been made, even as the Cubans’ ire at the U.S. trade embargo hovered over the proceedings.
William Adams, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, said the trip had proved to him that “we have much to learn from the ways in which [Cuban] museum professionals approach the important work of collecting and preserving Cuban culture and history.” He said the NEH will fund a program to send conservators and students to visit Cuba “to enhance and broaden American conservation practices.”
Jane Chu, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, announced that for the first time, the U.S. government will fund visits of American artists to Cuba through the U.S. Artists International program. A separate program will welcome Cuban artists to the United States.
“Their belief that the arts belong to every single person, from children to seniors, is so fundamental here,” Chu said in an interview. “We appreciate that . . . because we want to dispel any thought that the arts only belong to some people.”
Smithsonian Secretary David Skorton had hoped to announce an agreement to make Cuba a centerpiece of the Folklife Festival on the Mall in 2017. A delay in ironing out contract language — which Smithsonian officials said is routine in festival planning — meant that he and Gladys Collazo, president of the Cuban National Council of Cultural Heritage, could only announce both sides’ resolve to keep working toward the goal of a festival in 2017.
“I’m optimistic that we will have a formal agreement fairly soon,” said Michael Atwood Mason, director of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.