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Artists Embargoed

Cubans barred from Mattress Factory -- and U.S.

When the Mattress Factory's newest artists-in-residence exhibition opens in October, the North Side gallery will have a building full of art and plenty of people to view it. The only thing missing will be the artists intended to be in residence.


In a first for the 27-year-old museum, every single artist of the 10 who created work for New Installations, Artists in Residence: Cuba was refused a visa by the U.S. government. Mattress Factory Exhibitions Curator Michael Olijnyk says the gallery anticipated that some of the Cuban artists wouldn't be allowed to travel for a four- to six-week residency in Pittsburgh; communist Cuba, after all, has been the subject of a U.S. trade embargo since 1962. But he was surprised when all 10 were turned down, the rejection attributed to the Bush administration's increasingly restrictive policies toward the island nation.


"Bush is making this political pitch for Florida," contends Mattress Factory Executive Director Barbara Luderowski. She refers to crackdowns not only on artistic exchanges but also on personal, scientific and academic travel, including rule changes that recently nixed the traditional stop in Cuba by the University of Pittsburgh's Semester at Sea program -- all presumably to please anti-Castro Cuban-American voters.


"You think you live in America, the land of the free," says Luderowski. "It's getting to be less and less and less."


Olijnyk says at least four of the 10 artists had visited the U.S. previously. Inquiring through the office of U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, the museum received a copy of a letter from Richard C. Beer, consul general of the U.S. Special Interests Section, who wrote that the visas were denied because the artists' entry "would be detrimental to the interests of the United States." The government can bar any employee of the Cuban government, a category most Cubans -- and most Cuban artists -- occupy.


The show, nonetheless, will go on. Backed by funders including the Rockefeller Foundation, the Pittsburgh Foundation and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Mattress Factory staff are busy constructing the artists' installation works according to designs transmitted via the Internet. Luderowski and Olijnyk have also been meeting with Cuban curator Magda González-Mora -- in Toronto, the easiest place to rendezvous.


The experience (including her suspicion the government is tapping the museum's phones) has spooked the normally indefatigable Luderowski. "There are people looking over everybody's shoulder," she says. "I am at this point paranoid and suspicious about our government in every way, shape and form on these kind of issues."


Most disappointing are the lost opportunities for the artists to interact with the Pittsburgh community, as Mattress Factory artists-in-residence usually do. On the other hand, Luderowski notes that the exhibit runs through April. "My hope is that there is a big change in administration and that there might be a more sensible policy toward Cuba," she says. "I would very much like to have [the artists] visit and see the work complete."

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