Bryant Toth is a collector with a cause. The San Franciscan curator is not only committed to introducing to historically underrepresented Cuban artists to the New York, but also upending the gallery-based model that dominates the art world.
In conjunction with Hector Frank, a world-renowned Cuban artist, Bryant recently put together a show at the historic Chelsea Hotel. We caught up with Bryant and got the word on the Cuban art scene, his friendship with Hector, and his beef with the way contemporary galleries showcase art.
Hey Bryant. Can you tell us about the show you and Hector are doing at the Hotel Chelsea?
It’s a collaborative show that I did with this artist, Hector Frank, who born and raised in Havana. He’s very well established in Havana itself but coming to New York is a big moment for him, so I wanted to do something that wasn’t a traditional gallery space with white washed walls and track lighting.
What specifically, did you do to prepare for the event at Hotel Chelsea?
I wanted to find a unique space that had history to it, that was raw. For this event specifically, we’ve been in this space for a week doing everything: from cleaning the floors, to painting the walls and building the light beams. Nobody thinks about those little details, or how the music is going to impact the experience here. We built everything to do this kind of raw exhibition.
Do you have larger goals for a project like this?
I’m focused on taking the gallery concept and flipping that on it’s head.
Could you explain what exactly this ‘gallery concept’ is?
A gallery that’s somewhat sterile where people walk in, do one little lap, look at the art, have a glass of wine and then walk out. You’re not getting the full experience. It’s not really doing the pieces of art justice. People want to see art in a much more approachable fashion.
Does your resistance to the ‘gallery concept’ reflect your personal philosophy about art, more generally?
Art should be achievable and approachable by a large variety of people. That’s the dream. It does not need to be viewed as a solely financial investment. At the end of the day, you buy something because you love it. That’s why people should buy art.
How do you switch up the formula when arranging your alternative gallery spaces?
Everything is about the art, but I find unique venues and add floral aspects and particular lighting arrangements that add to the experience of the pieces.
Can you tell us about how you got involved in the Cuban art scene?
I collected art for years and exhibited it in my apartment. Friends started saying ‘I love your aesthetic, I love your style would you mind acquiring a piece for me?’ Then five years ago, one of my mentors brought me to Cuba for the first time. I’m a person who loves art and having a personal connection with artists, so I went solely to meet as many artists as I could and collect their art myself. Hector was the first artist that I met down there. He welcomed me into his home and I fell in love with his work on day one. So I invested myself, and really wanted to give him a voice to show his work to people outside of Havana.
While we’re on the subject, can you tell us a bit about Havana?
It has a similar pace to New York. Every little neighborhood is different, it has it’s own distinct style, from the music to the architecture to the people. Art is everywhere. From every type of modern art to contemporary art to architecture, it’s throughout the city.
Historically, what has the artistic scene been like in Cuba?
Over the years there were certain industries that Cuban government was very supportive of. If it was for sports with baseball and boxing or if it was music of the arts, the government was fully supportive of that. So as an artist as a musician, there were outlets to continue to grow and support your family.
What are some differences about the artist’s situation in Cuba versus the United States?
The artistic community is very supportive of each other. They run out of supplies another artist will step in and say here’s more canvas, here’s more paints, here’s more paintbrushes. Studio concept is very different then it is in the States. The artist transforms part of their house into not just their studio, but also a gallery space. Without getting into the whole political side of it, there are galleries, but artists choose to show out of their own home because they have full control over it. They can entertain and bring people in-friends, contacts, and collectors way-easier than going through a traditional gallery.
What about Hector Frank, what’s he like as a person?
Amazing. His inner personality is so wild and happy. You can just see it.
Was he trained as a painter?
He’s electrical engineer that’s by trade, but has been painting his entire life. Hector knows his talent and creative mindset, but he also knows what really speaks to him.
How does he like New York?
He’s literally over the moon. He likes the energy. He’s been to Paris, he’s been to Milan, he’s been to Rome, but he always says that there’s something about the pace of New York. We went to dinner last night at eleven thirty PM on a Thursday and the restaurant was packed. There were people outside, eating and drinking and laughing. He’s like, ‘You don’t see that anywhere in the world other than New York.’
Can you talk a bit about Hector’s artistic process for these works?
With the large scale canvas work that’s mixed medium, acrylic on canvas, but when you look closer at the face it’s all individual pieces of paper that he’s hand painted separately, lets them dry, soaks them so they’re very kind of frail and then hand tears them around. When you look very closely on the faces, you can get this complexity and depth that you can’t get with a brush and her overlays layer after layer paints on top to kind of build these expressions that are very hard to come by.
Are these all portraits of people? Or they images from his imagination?
They’re not portraits of individual people, but how he describes the inner emotion of people coming out on canvas. So it’s not sad. It’s not particularly happy, it’s just that kind of true nature that he sees in friends and family members that he sees, portraying them on the canvas. I wish he was here to tell it himself, because he says it beautifully.
Thanks, Bryant. Have a good one, mate.