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HAVANA (Reuters) - The U.S. and Cuba governments have taken the first, tentative steps toward ending 50 years of hostilities, but the thawing of relations is already in full swing in the arts world.
After being largely absent in recent years, U.S. gallery owners, museum directors, curators and collectors are returning to the island to view and buy the work of Cuban artists.
Hundreds showed up for the just-ended Havana Biennial arts festival that was a regular stop for art buyers before a Bush administration travel crackdown earlier this decade. Their presence reflected both newly relaxed U.S. policy toward Cuba under President Barack Obama and a U.S. hunger for Cuban art.
Obama offered to "recast" Washington's relationship with its Cold War-era enemy last month and granted Cuban Americans the right to freely travel and send remittances to Cuba. The United States was prepared to move further toward normalized relations, he said, if Cuba extended its hand.
All of this has been music to the ears of Cuban artists glad to see the well-heeled gringos back in town.
"Cuba has been sort of the forbidden fruit for some years because it has been so hard to travel here," said Cuban-born Ben Rodriguez-Cubenas, chairman of the Cuban Artist Fund, which promotes Cuban art, and also collector and program director for the New York-based Rockefeller Brothers Fund.
"There has been this pent-up interest. Cuba is in the news. The interest is there," he said.
Art is exempted from the 47-year old U.S. trade embargo on Cuba, but sales dropped off when President George W. Bush toughened restrictions on U.S. travel to the Communist-run island and limited cultural exchanges in 2004.
Buyers from other countries kept prices lofty. U.S. investors now eyeing paintings, drawings and photographs for appreciation will be welcomed with wide-open arms but will have to open their wallets wide, too, artists said.
The strong American presence at the Biennial means U.S. demand for Cuban art is on the rebound, said Pamela Ruiz, an American art curator based in Havana.
"My guess is that there were at least 1,000 Americans walking around and 95 percent of them were here because either they wanted to buy work or because they were curators or (worked for) nonprofit (organizations)," she said.
For the past few years only a handful of collectors were able to come legally by obtaining licenses from the U.S. government. Others violated U.S. law by traveling through a third country -- risking thousands of dollars in penalties.
Under Obama, they said the licensing process has become less arduous and there is less fear of making the Cuba trip illegally because they view prosecution as less likely.
And things would change dramatically if the U.S. Congress passes pending bills that would lift the ban on Cuban travel for all Americans, a move the Obama administration has said it would not oppose.
American interest in Cuban art flourished in the 1990s, when the island's socialist system was shaken by the implosion of the Soviet Union, Cuba's biggest benefactor for three decades, and artists started to reflect the woes of a drifting society in their work.
U.S. collectors swooped in, smelling what they thought was a good buying opportunity, said Cuban artist Carlos Garaicoa.
"Those were pretty strange, crazy times," he said. "People were waiting for the Cuban revolution to end any minute and so they were buying art thinking prices could rocket up."
Interest peaked at the 2000 Biennial, when U.S. buyers were believed to have spent over $1 million buying Cuban works. "Americans came on a shopping spree with their Texan hats and money stuck in their belts," Garaicoa said.
It all ended abruptly when Bush came to power and his administration severed incipient cultural links to the island just 90 miles from Florida.
Before the Bush changes, Americans made up about 60 percent of Cuban art buyers, but fell to about 40 percent afterward, according to various estimates.
Garaicoa missed the opening of his own exhibition at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art in 2005 after the U.S. government denied him a visa.
But things are changing. During this year's Biennial, painter Damian Aquiles turned his run-down, century-old Havana home into an improvised gallery where curators from U.S. museums and arts organizations came to view the collages he makes with recycled cans and canvases.
"This is starting to happen. After this Biennial it will all start," says Aquiles, 37, whose work has been shown at exhibits in New York, San Francisco and New Orleans.
"There is a general interest regarding Cuba, its art, its politics. Cuba is fashionable and that curiosity helps us," said the artist, who's married to Ruiz.
Americans visiting the island will find lots of the vibrant, colorful art that Cuban artists favor. But one thing they will not find is bargains. Pre-Bush interest drove prices up to international standards and they have not come down.
Anyone coming to Havana should expect to pay between $750 and $5,000 for photographs, $1,500 to $45,000 for drawings and $2,500 to $30,000 for a painting, collectors said.
If the U.S. Congress lifts all travel restrictions, prices would likely go higher as more Americans visit. But the effect could be blunted by the world financial crisis.
Garaicoa said that, due to money issues, he already has postponed two exhibits lined up for this year, one in Tampa, Florida, and another in Dublin's Irish Museum of Modern Art.
But the crisis will eventually pass and as Americans return to Cuba, Cuban artists should benefit from the new political climate both in commercial terms and increased cultural contacts with the United States, said American curator Ruiz.
"This is a very important point" in time, she said. "Only good will come out of this."
Reporting by Esteban Israel; editing by Jeff Franks and Philip Barbara