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Latin art strikes salsa beat with Hispanics: the buzz in marketing circles is the growing Hispanic population. But how does this community respond to art?

Latin art strikes salsa beat with Hispanics: the buzz in marketing circles is the growing Hispanic population. But how does this community respond to art?

Debbie Hagan

Some people think of Latin-American art in terms of the great Mexican muralists–Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and lose Clemente Orozco. Young, hip Hispanic art collectors, however, know there’s a whole world of bright, bold and edgy work by contemporary artists out there.

Hispanics are now the largest minority in the United States. One in eight Americans–almost 39 million–are Hispanic, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. More than two million more Hispanics live in the United States than African Americans. It’s a fast-growing population, too. Between 2000 and 2002, the Hispanic population grew 9.8 percent while the rest of the country’s population grew only 2.5 percent.

Demographic Details

Of the major minority groups in the United States, Hispanics have the smallest percentage of art buyers. According to the 2002 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts, approximately 7 percent of Hispanics own original art, such as paintings, drawings, sculpture and prints. In contrast, 20 percent of the overall American population owns art.

However, art and money go hand-in-hand, and many Hispanics are new Americans struggling to establish themselves. The Census Bureau reported in 2001 that 26 percent of Latinos made $35,000 or more a year, and about 12 percent made $50,000 or more. But one-fifth of all His panics live in poverty. Economists note that, as Hispanics become more educated and better employed, their income and earning power will rise.

Ed Bolin, owner of Kaleidoscope Gallery, located in Mission Viejo and Laguna Beach, Calif., said that even though 32 percent of all Californians are Hispanic, he sees very few in his galleries. Rather, Hispanics * tend to cluster in homogeneous communities. Instead of living in Laguna Beach (where most residents are wealthy and white non-Hispanics) many Hispanics prefer to live in Santa Ana. There, 76 percent of the population is Hispanic, and the median income is $42,162.

The 2002 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts shows that more than one-third of the Hispanics who buy art have a bachelor’s degree or higher. Half of art buyers earned $50,000 or more a year. Twenty percent earned $75,000 or more a year.

Using the same survey, 72 percent of Hispanic art buyers said that they owned their own homes. In contrast, only 47 percent of all Hispanics were homeowners, whereas 68 percent of all non-Hispanics owned their homes.

Also, the Hispanic population is quite young. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median age for all Hispanics in this country is 26. Thus, marketers look at this as an up-and-coming consumer market. Expectations are high that the Hispanic market will surge in buying power by the end of the decade. By 2008, Hispanic buying power is expected be $1,014 billion–exceeding that of African Americans by almost $100 billion, according to the Selig Center for Economic Growth, a demographic research organization in Athens, Ga.

Areas of Interest

Celia Birbragher, who for 27 years has published Art Nexus, an international Latin American art magazine, observes a trend among Hispanic art buyers. “Usually, the interests come through their background,” she said. “If they’re Cuban, they collect Cuban art. If they’re Mexican, they collect Mexican art. Usually they move on to other areas–usually, but not always.”

Birbragher said that art buyers learn about new artists and art trends from different sources, such as her magazine and Sotheby’s and Christie’s auctions. They also attend museum shows and go to art fairs.

“The art fairs are playing an important role,” she said. “They’re bringing in works from all parts of the world. [Collectors] can compare prices. I see more people not only going to their galleries, but going to fairs in Madrid, Basel and other places. Also, I see it in their collections. Ten years ago people were buying very traditional works by very well-known names. Now they’re buying more contemporary works.”

According to Daniel Lahoda, director of Equator Gallery in Boston, there are two kinds of Hispanic collectors. One is “the type of collector who wants to get back to his roots,” he said, referring to buyers who look for traditional images that relate to their culture, beliefs and country of origin.

The art may make’ subtle religious, social or political statements. “The People Who Come and Go,” by Ecuadorian artist Eduardo Kingman, is a good example. This long, horizontal painting shows a group of feet, as one might typically see at the local market. Some of the feet are finely clad. others are bare and battered. It’s a visually striking image on one level. On another level, Lahoda said, it’s a strong commentary about “the marginalization of indigenous people.”

Lahoda meets other Hispanic collectors who are young, urban, trendy types in their 30s and 40s who have traveled a lot and are attracted to anything Latin American, be it food, dance, history, politics or religion.

Religion, namely Roman Catholicism, plays an important role in Latino art. According to the 2003 Harris Poll on Religious Beliefs of Americans, 85 percent of Hispanics believe in God and hold traditional Christian beliefs. “Religion on their walls reminds them of hope,” said artist Elizabeth Baez, who is originally from Puerto Rico, but now lives in Florida. “Most people I know have religious symbols throughout their house, such as crosses by their doorways and pictures of Mary. It’s important, even if they don’t go to church every Sunday morning.”

Crosses and images of Mary, Jesus and the Holy Family are recurrent symbols and messages in Hispanic art. The Three Kings play a prominent role in the work of Obed Gomez of Kissimmee, Fla.

“The Three Kings is a tradition that we celebrate every Christmas,” said Gomez, whose paintings are tied deeply to his Puerto Rican heritage. “It comes to me in remembering what my grandmother used to tell me [about what it means] about royalty and wisdom, being aware of the birth of the king of the world. I use it a lot.”

Erica Prosper is one art collector who collects crosses. A marketing consultant for Garcia 360, an advertising and marketing agency in San Antonio that specializes in Hispanic markets, she said that she collects them because they remind her of her grandmother and her religious beliefs and traditions.

“As a Hispanic, any art I collect has to refer to my life,” she said. “As I grow up, I appreciate the culture more.”

Marketing Latino Art

Though selling Latin-American work in New England may not be easy, Equator Gallery reaches an international market through its Web site, www.equatorgallery.com. “A lot of the work goes to California and the Southwest–areas that have a high Latin-American population,” said Lahoda. In New England, Lahoda connects with cultural groups, museums and organizers of events that tie-in with the gallery’s focus, such as Latin-American wine tastings.

Bello, of M & B Latin American Art, uses similar strategies, exhibiting at Havana Bay Coffee, ha North Bergen, N.J., and staging cooperative exhibitions with other Latin-American organizations.

Like Lahoda, many Latin American dealers and artists use the Internet as a lifeline to Latin American buyers. Gomez sells work to buyers in New York, New Jersey, Chicago, Puerto Rico and California through his Web site, www.obedart.com. Statistics show that such Web sites are effective. On the 2002 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, 66 percent of all Latinos reported using the Internet. In fact, more than one-fourth of survey respondents reported using the Internet to increase their knowledge and awareness of the visual arts.

Baez said her sales mainly come from her Web site, www.baezfineart.com. She said that people surf the Web looking specifically for art from Puerto Rico. One such Web surfer was actress Lisa Vidal, who plays Magdalena Ramirez on the Life time TV network series “The Division.” She acquired several of Baez’s paintings for her apartment on the set. Playing the role of a Puerto Rican, she wanted the character’s surroundings to reflect her heritage.

Many of Baez’s buyers are in the military–a good percentage of whom are based in Virginia. “It’s not surprising,” said Baez. “There are so many Latinos in the Army. They want to surround themselves with things that make them feel like they belong.”

Trends on the Horizon

Many Latin Americans think the city to watch is Miami. Gomez said that the Latinos there are more established, have money and are ready to buy art.

Birbragher, who has an office there, agreed. “In Miami, there is a genuine interest among young Hispanics in buying original artwork, good work and contemporary work,” she said. “You can see it in the galleries and the museums.”

“I think there is a hype in Miami for art–not just Hispanic,” she continued. She cited the opening night of the Art Miami show in January. “There was a huge crowd that opened the fair. Lots of young Hispanics were there–very young couples, recently married. They were buying art and were very excited.” As for other cities with vibrant Latino art markets, she lists New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Statistics more or less support these observations. According to the Selig Center for Economic Growth, Florida is the state with the third largest disposable His panic income ($61 billion). The first is California ($189 billion), followed by Texas ($113 billion). New York ranks fourth ($55 billion).

In terms of what to expect on the horizon, Birbragher has a theory. “In the ’80s, people became aware of Cuban artists. In the 90s, they became aware of Brazilian artists,” she said. “Now we see a new group of Mexican and Central-American artists.” She suggested that anyone who’s interested in Latin-American art should take a good look at who’s exhibiting in major gallery and museum exhibitions today. Those Latin-American artists will be the ones who’ll be remembered tomorrow.

Who Collects Arts?

Americans were asked, “Do you own any original pieces of art,

such as paintings, drawings, sculpture, prints or lithographs?”

The following responded, “Yes”:

GENERAL POPULATION 20.4%

WHITES 22.0%

ASIANS 14.4%

NATIVE AMERICANS 20.3%

AFRICAN AMERICANS 8.4%

HISPANICS 7.3%

Source: 2002 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts

Note: Table made from bar graph.

Growth in

Hispanic Buying Power

1990 $222 billion

2000 $504 billion

2003 $653 billion

2008 $1,04.2 billion

Source: Selig Center for Economic Growth, Terry College of

Business, The University of Georgia

Note: Table made from line graph.

What Hispanic Art Collectors do in their Spare Time

Activities Hispanic art collectors attended in the last 12 months

Art museums 57.9%

Art fairs 63.6%

Live classical music 31.8%

Live jazz 29%

Historic parks 53.3%

Live music 30.8%

Live plays 28%

Poetry readings 16.8%

Live dance 21.5%

Ballet 12.1%

Opera 10.3%

Source: 2002 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts

Note: Table made from bar graph.

SOURCES

** Art Nexus, (305) 891-7270

** Elizabeth Baez, (305) 388-6931

** Equator Gallery, www.equatorgallery.com

** Garcia 360, (210) 222-1591

** Kaleidoscope Gallery, (949) 348-0044

** M & B Latin American Art, (718) 294-9998

** Obed Gomez, (407) 816 0970

* In analyzing Hispanic art collectors for this article, we’ve used the U.S. Census Bureau’s definition of “Hispanic”: all U.S.-residing individuals who come from Spanish-speaking cultures in the Americas. Thus, the term does not describe race, but culture. Included in this definition are Mexican-Americans, Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Central and South Americans and Latinos.

RELATED ARTICLE: Business owner buys art with heart.

Juan Vasquez, a no-nonsense businessman, allowed his emotions to take over his rational sense. “I looked in and saw all these paintings,” Vasquez said about stepping inside artist Alexis Mendoza’s studio, in the Bronx. “I just loved them.”

He watched Mendoza paint for a long time. That day, the artist worked on two paintings. As Mendoza applied colors and transformed real images into abstractions, Vasquez asked questions. He wanted to know what the artist was doing and why. He wanted to know what he was thinking about as he painted.

“He’s always learning and observing,” said Carmen Bello, Mendoza’s wife and president of M & B Latin American Art, about Vasquez, her husband’s number-one collector.

Vasquez bought both of the paintings he watched Mendoza paint: “Eleggua” and “Canaverales,” which are named after Cuban guardians or gods. One of the things he liked about the paintings is that “they can be interpreted in so many different ways.”

Thirty-six years old, self-employed and a family man, Vasquez didn’t know much about art before he bought. He didn’t even own his own home. But the paintings touched him.

“When I was a kid–11 years old–I used to draw,” Vasquez said. “When the first computers came out, the Commodores, I used to do graphic design and create animated characters on them.”

But then he set aside his sketch pad and computer play and settled down to serious work. He entered college, working on a degree in business administration. He set up a part-time computer business helping students fix their computers and solve tech problems. That paid for his college books and tuition. Through word of mouth, customers found him, and his business took off.

Today, nine years later, he runs his own company, SPC Teck. He services and sells computers and designs and hosts Web sites. He is the only Internet service provider in the Bronx, he said.

Vasquez’s first painting purchases now hang in his office. “Everyone who comes in stares at them,” he said.

Since then, Vasquez has bought a third painting, “Autonomy of the Absolute Authenticity.” It’s much larger than the other two, measuring 78 by 48 inches. “It really caught my eye,” said Vasquez. “In it, someone is standing in a shadow within a door. In my eyes, it looks like a spirit guiding someone. Another person might see something different in it.”

Vasquez is the art collector in his family. His wife likes what he’s bought, but Vasquez makes the decisions and does the buying. “I’m new at this,” he said. “Whenever I have a little extra money, I buy something.”

So far, he’s remained committed solely to Mendoza. “I’m not aware of all the different artists out there,” he said. However, now that he has a little experience, he’s open to exploring different artists’ work.

In building his collection, Vasquez plans to focus on Latino artists. “That is the most important thing,” he said. His parents were from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. Thus, he’s interested in helping other Latinos. He said, “Every time I see someone Latin moving forward and having the desire to learn, to get ahead, to change this ignorance that holds us back, that increases my feelings for him.”

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