Gilbert Brownstone likes to say that he has a “Cuban heart.” The American-born art collector holds the country in such high esteem that in 2010 he donated 120 artworks to the National Museum of Fine Art in Havana, all channeled through his namesake foundation established in 1999.
The gift, which included works by major 20th-century artists like Andy Warhol, Marcel Duchamp, Pablo Picasso, and Joan Miró, was a significant coup for the museum. Brownstone, who personally delivered the art, was awarded the Cuban Medal of Friendship for his support.
Brownstone, who is in his early 70s and arrived in France at the age of 17 and studied at the Sorbonne, is a Swiss national but constant traveler, dividing time between the United States, Paris, and Central and South America. He worked at a contemporary art museum in Paris, the Picasso Museum in Antibes and the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, and later opened his own gallery in Paris.
When that closed, he created The Brownstone Foundation in 1999 with the mission of supporting projects and establishing charities within the scope of “cultural and educational development.” Besides donations, of which the Cuban gift is one of its most spectacular, the foundation has loaned pieces of art to institutions around the world. The foundation’s beneficiaries include New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the Pompidou Centre in Paris.
Gilbert Brownstone standing next to an Alexander Calder piece.
Still, Brownstone has made the Caribbean island nation his special priority. In addition to gifts of art, he’s underwritten the creation of a 2,000-square-foot community center in the El Cotorro neighborhood of Havana (the project awaits final approval), as well as a new rehearsal space at the Havana Dance Centre; he’s supplied musical instruments to community groups; and initiated in 2002 and continues to fund the Noemi prize. Although the prize was originally intended to grant Cuban artists—dancers, musicians, and writers as much as visual artists—a three-month residency in Paris, in 2008 its scope was expanded to include artists from members of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas, a trade group which was founded by Cuba and Venezuela as an alternative to NAFTA and includes Latin American countries with socialist-leaning governments.
In fact, Brownstone’s philanthropy has carried a strong political message. When he donated art to Havana, he dedicated that gift to the so-called Five Heroes, Cuban spies imprisoned in the United States since 1998 for their alleged role in shooting down two planes piloted by an anti-Castro activist group two years earlier. In 2011, Rene Gonzalez became the first of the five to be released and returned to Cuba after serving 13 years in an American prison. Two years later, a second prisoner was released and more recently, spurred by the easing of the decades-old American trade embargo on the island, the final three of the remaining Heroes were granted release in a prisoner exchange with the U.S. in December.
Brownstone is also on the board of the Center for International Policy, a liberal group that works on issues such as U.S.-Mexican border policies, deforestation and, of course, re-establishing ties between the U.S. and Cuba. Even before the rekindling of state relations between the two countries late in 2014, Brownstone was long building his own bridge to Cuba.