Jorge Reynardus started his Cuban art collection by accident. Now his family can't live without it.
The Reynardus family covers their walls with manifested emotions. Not decorations.
A stroll through their homes — specifically that of Sarasota’s Clara Reynardus de Villanueva and that of her father, Longboat Key’s Jorge Reynardus — is like stepping into a cozy museum.
Rare and highly valuable pieces dot the interiors, yet you don’t feel like an alarm will go off if you get too close. Visitors are even invited to feel the texture of one of the sculptures.
“Our lives aren’t complete without art,” Clara says. “It’s part of us. I feel like the idea of living without art is like cutting off your arm or being in jail.”
The family doesn’t see its shared collection of 1980s Cuban pieces as an investment or a way to cover up empty walls. Every piece they purchase tells a story and enriches their everyday lives.
Jorge was born in Panama to a Cuban mother and a Panamanian father, but he grew up in Cuba under the watchful eye of communist revolutionary Fidel Castro. One by one, his family started fleeing the island after his sister Ana faced arrest for associating with anti-Castro labor party leaders. He was 14 when he landed at Miami International Airport with his sister Maria in 1961. They had $4.32 between them and a long road ahead. Their parents followed a few months later.
As Jorge says in his book, “Artists in Purgatory: Cuban Artists in the Reynardus Collection,” being a teenage immigrant was especially challenging. He didn’t know a word of English (though he would study at the Harvard Business School 10 years later) and thus had no way to connect with the culture around him.
These are the experiences he remembered several decades later when he started a Hispanic advertising agency in New York City. Cuban artists began coming to him for help just like young Cuban refugees used to appear on his parents’ doorstep in Miami looking for a safe place to stay.
It all began when one artist, Rubén Mendoza, arrived at the office with a heartbreaking story. His son needed heart surgery, so he needed a way to put food on the table while keeping up with medical bills. He asked Jorge for a job at the agency, and he remained an employee for the next 15-some years, during which he gifted Jorge some of the first pieces in what would become one of the most comprehensive private collections of contemporary Cuban art in the U.S.
“This all started by helping artists in need,” Clara says of the collection. “I think that open heart that my grandparents had spilled over to my dad.”
Jorge understood Mendoza’s plight. The people coming to him were of the 1980s period when, as Clara points out, many artists were essentially pushed out of Cuba by Castro. The prime minister-turned-president didn’t approve of their vocal distaste for his regime, and he didn’t want them spreading anti-government messages to the public through their work.
“These artists are known as the first generation — people who grew up at the beginning of the revolution,” Jorge says. They were the first to start exhibiting at biennial competitions and the first to put Cuba on the artistic map.”
Castro’s disapproval of said creators caused one of the greatest artistic diasporas in history. Suddenly these talented people were scattered around the world, but they weren’t citizens of their new homes yet, and Cuba didn’t recognize them as their own. This made them ineligible for international competitions and put them in a unique sort of purgatory — hence the meaning behind Jorge’s book title.
Throughout the 1990s, with every new visitor to his office, Jorge’s eyes were opened to the revolutionary artwork from this period. He met Cuban art icons, such as Ramón Suárez, who inspired him to actively seek out works for his own art collection. As it grew, Jorge started buying four pieces from every collection that spoke to him — one piece for his office, one for his home, one for Clara and one for his son, Jay.
A WAY OF LIFE
Jorge didn’t grow up with art. Sure, he saw it around him and could appreciate it, but he never thought much about what he saw behind frames until he became immersed in the Cuban art scene.
While living in New York City, the new collector dived headfirst into this new world. He read every book he could find on the subject and started frequenting institutions including the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Modern Art.
Today, he’s a well-informed art enthusiast whose collection has been shown at Ringling College of Art and Design’s (now closed) Selby Gallery in 2015 and most recently at Art Ovation Hotel in November. Clara notes that there were several pieces that couldn’t be hung in the family-friendly hotel because of their dark or inappropriate nature — though, with a devilish grin, she admits that one slipped through with a tiny Castro on a toilet hidden within it.
As the collection has grown, the Reynardus family has shaped their lives around it, and vice versa. When Jorge was buying most of his paintings in the ’90s, for example, Jay had young kids. Clara says this meant her brother was gifted fewer fragile sculptures and more sturdy paintings that could be hung high and out of reach of grubby children’s hands.
Clara, an artist herself, adds that house-hunting is completely different when you have to envision where you’ll hang dozens of museum-quality pieces.
“We have to buy houses according to wall space,” she says, pointing out that she chose her home near The Meadows, one of the few two-story properties in the area, because she needed more space to display her quarter of the collection.
Clara, the first of her family to be born in the U.S., was a working artist who supported herself by painting murals and doing commercial work in Virginia before she moved to Sarasota. She says living with the collection inspires her as she continues to create art, but in July she started in the position of associate director of development at University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee.
Like her father, Clara attended Harvard University and is no stranger to academia. She was recently awarded a slot on a women in STEM panel at USFSM by Regional Chancellor Karen A. Holbrook, who believes that the humanities and sciences go hand-in-hand.
The collection has also affected her husband, Roberto Villanueva. Clara says it was clear what he married into when, early in their relationship, they had to rent a U-Haul and fill it with fragile artwork to transport across the country for her father’s move to Longboat Key.
“Early on, you learn it’s part of the package,” she says with a smile while showing off her husband’s sculptural pieces hanging in the yard. “He’s embraced it wholeheartedly.”
PASSION, NOT A HOBBY
Jorge says the collection serves two purposes: to educate and to bring joy.
“The collection and all the stories [in the book] are ways to elevate awareness of this forgotten generation of artists,” Jorge says. “And it enriches my life. In New York City we lived on Central Park South, and I was more energized by the artwork around me than that view.”
His relationships with the artists he collects from have also changed his life. Jorge says he has immense respect for the creative minds he peeks into every day walking through his house, and he feels grateful to give them a voice.
Clara agrees, adding that living with this collection, even though much of it includes dark paintings with serious political messages, brings light into her life.
“It’s something that gives back to you so much,” she says. “So much passion and love goes into each of these, and there’s a vibration between you and the pieces; they become part of you. … It’s like our own little heavenly space. For me, in heaven, there’s dogs and art.”