I’m not an art critic. But I have played one, in print. I’ve been around art all my adult life, artists of all sorts, and a few things rubbed off. So I’m alerting you, there’s a really good and really important exhibit, the first ever like it on the West Coast, “MADE IN CUBA!/HECHO EN CUBA! Recycling Memory and Culture,” that Santa Monica has been blessed with, and you really ought not to miss it. It’s at Arena 1, 3026 Airport Ave., Wed. through Sat. 12-6, through Nov. 21. Take your checkbook, if that’s how you roll, because this is a unique opportunity for your eyes, heart and your walls.

You may have noticed that the U.S. finally normalized relations with Cuba recently, after more than half a century of treating our island neighbor like a repository for the plague. Many feel Fidel Castro is a bad guy, but he and his makeshift island paradise Communist experiment were hardly the equivalent of Chairman Mao or Slaughterin’ Stalin and we kept relations with them. The difference? We need China’s and Russia’s business so we ignore their more egregious human rights record, plus, Cuba is in our backyard. No Commies 90 miles from Florida, thank you.

But look what we’ve missed out on: fantastic rum, music, cigars, boxers and baseball players. Oh yeah, and apparently, fantastic art.

Sandra Levinson, the force behind this exhibition (along with local Cuban art fan Miles Mogulescu), is an energetic woman with an irrepressible smile. I hung around pre-opening and she was having to handle all sorts of stressful last-minute stuff but I never saw her go more than a very short time without flashing a grin. Even after some overzealous dude waving postcards for the President over the Cuban art issue confronted her and threw out an accusation that seemed out of bounds and an insult, she stopped, shot him a look, and an expletive, then a few moments later was grinning again. Didn’t miss a beat.

Cuban art in the U.S. owes a lot to Levinson. She has traveled to Cuba more than 300 times (I’m so jealous) and been at this since 1972, when she co-founded the Center for Cuban Studies in New York. In March 1973 she was at her desk there, typing, when a bomb blast destroyed the entire center, except where she was sitting. Lest we forget, since New Years Day 1959, when Castro’s fighters finally overthrew U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista, there was always a group of U.S.-based terrorists who would do anything to prevent normalization of relations with Cuba as long as Fidel was in power. Art, and a lot of other things, be damned.

In 1991 Levinson successfully spearheaded a lawsuit against the U.S. Treasury Department to end the embargo on Cuban art, though the rest of the embargo remained in effect. Impressive. In 1999, after a fundraiser in L.A., she was able to open the Cuban Art Space in Greenwich Village, to properly archive and house their growing collection. She said bringing this show here was a bit of payback for that.

If you come to this landmark exhibit, featuring more than 70 mixed media works, mostly from found materials, you will probably understand why she has spent nearly half a century fighting for this cause, for this art. I certainly don’t make all the rounds of art in L.A., but this is one of the finest, most varied, historic, socially-significant, heartwarming shows I’ve seen in ages. I am delighted and proud that it landed in Santa Monica.

There’s more! Tuesdays! Last night the great Cuban pianist and bandleader Chucho Valdes (five Grammies) performed his Cuban-Afro jazz at Disney Hall (sorry, we both missed it), but next Tuesday at the gallery you can see the documentary film “The Man of Two Havanas,” and the following Tuesday, Nov. 3, “Unfinished Spaces” will screen, plus the L.A. premiere of footage from “Cubanacan,” the first new Cuban opera in 50 years. The following Tuesday evening (all at 7 p.m.), a book signing for “Cuba: This Moment, Exactly So.”

Whew. That’s a lot of Cuban art and fun. Now all I have to do is figure out how to get to Cuba in person. I think I’ll ponder it over a not-Cuban rum.

Speaking Of Politics

Which I often do, Bernie Sanders came to town again last week, for his Hollywood Low Dollar Fundraiser at the Avalon, a gorgeous theater where I saw many a fine rock/blues/reggae show when it was called the Palace. The cost of a ticket for this event, where you could get right up next to where he was speaking, and shake his hand afterwards – $25. That’s the parking fee at most presidential fundraisers. But this was Sanders-style and the place was packed, mostly with younger folks.

Entertainingly introduced this time by Seth McFarland (last time, Sarah Silverman), Sanders delivered his usual speech. I could almost give it by now myself, without notes. But I love that. It doesn’t change with the headlines. You don’t have to figure out where he’s at today. He doesn’t budge or compromise, and if you like what he’s been saying and fighting for, for decades, that’s a huge plus.

As for the very modest ticket price, Sanders said, “This is a people’s meeting. $25. Forget the PACs. I don’t want their money. I don’t need their money. We had more than 3500 house parties across the country for watching the debate last night, nearly 100,000 people. Since then, we’ve raised an additional $2 million! My average donation is still $30.” He pledged again to make overturning the Supreme Court’s decision on Citizens United, which opened the floodgates for corporate/billionaire political contributions and control, a top priority of his presidency.

Haggen – we never wanted you.

It was never going to work, I predicted (but not in my column, dang!). I don’t care what you’re selling, any chain of 18 stores that acquires overnight 146 more, especially in the highly competitive California market, is doomed to failure. The auction of the store on Lincoln is scheduled for Nov. 24. If a union operation doesn’t make the successful bid and hire the current staff, it’s going to be a bleak holiday in the unemployment line for a lot of leftover Albertson’s employees. But maybe it wasn’t as dumb a move as it seems, for Haggen. More next week.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.” –Scott Adams (Dilbert)

Charles Andrews has lived in Santa Monica for almost 30 years and wouldn’t live anywhere else in the world. Really. You can reach him at

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