- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Florida’s two senators demanded answers Tuesday after revealing the National Endowment for the Arts paid $45,000 for a traveling art exhibition featuring a portrait of socialist revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara, saying U.S. taxpayers shouldn’t subsidize the idolization of a man involved in “mass murder.”

Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott said it was an insult to exiles who lived through the Cuban revolution to see their tax money go to aggrandize Guevara.

“Guevara was a sadistic butcher who murdered and tortured innocent people,” they wrote in a letter to NEA Chairwoman Mary Anne Carter. “We do not believe that taxpayer dollars … appropriated by Congress to the National Endowment of the Arts should be used to glorify or romanticize an individual who so openly disdained American principles and fundamental rights and freedoms.”

They were particularly incensed by a description accompanying the exhibit, “Pop America 1965-1975,” when it was at a museum in North Carolina saying the goal was to celebrate “social protest, justice movements and debates about freedom.”

“This statement is either blithely ignorant or deliberately deceptive, given the exhibition’s inclusion of propaganda celebrating a thug who mercilessly silenced his opponents with bullets,” the senators said.

The offending portrait is a poster created by Cuban artist Elena Serrano in 1968, based on the iconic 1960 photo of Guevara taken by Alberto Korda. The poster, “Dia del Guerrillero Heroico,” or “Day of the Heroic Guerrilla,” shows Korda’s portrait in red in a central rectangle, with an image of South America as an underlay.

Guevara stands in the exhibit alongside Andy Warhol’s 1972 silk-screen portrait of Chinese Communist Chairman Mao Zedong and a host of pop art works by Latino artists. The exhibition won the 2017 Sotheby’s Prize for museums that explore overlooked art themes.

The NEA earmarked $45,000 for the exhibit and accompanying catalog, with the money going to the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio, where the exhibit began last year.

It then moved to Duke University’s Nasher Museum of Art, which co-sponsored the show.

Neither McNay nor Nasher officials responded to requests for comment Tuesday, but the NEA seemed taken aback by the controversy.

The agency said nowhere in the project description the NEA used to issue the award is Guevara mentioned.

And the statement that irked the two senators about celebrating social protest and justice movements was part of Nasher’s display, but not part of McNay’s — so it wasn’t funded by the NEA grant, the agency said. Indeed, Nasher’s own website about the exhibit didn’t mention the Guevara portrait.

More broadly, the NEA said its grants are made based on published guidelines and panels of citizens review every application, with final funding decisions made by an advisory board.

Guevara’s controversial history includes joining Fidel and Raul Castro in overthrowing the Cuban government and installing the communist dictatorship that has dominated the island since 1959. Guevara acted as an executioner for the Castro brothers before taking on other roles in their government.

His death at the hands of Bolivian authorities in 1967 made him a martyr for communist sympathizers and earned his place on iconic T-shirts worn by college students — though as Florida’s two senators show, his legacy is far less revered among Cuban exiles who fled oppression under the Castro regime.

The “Pop America” exhibit’s run at the Nasher Museum has ended and the exhibit is now at the Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University in Chicago, where it runs through Dec. 8.

In a striking twist, the Block Museum has scheduled a film presentation Thursday exploring the use of images of Guevara in art and culture.

The two senators aren’t the first to raise the issue of Guevara’s inclusion in the “Pop America” exhibit.

The Cuban American Bar Association last year chastised Duke University for allowing the display at its art museum. Association President Maria D. Garcia wondered whether the university would have been “this insensitive” to an exhibit “glorifying a right-wing dictator.”

She said at a minimum Duke should include a “balanced, factual, historical perspective” of Guevara, replacing the “one-sided romanticized perspective” given in the “Pop America” exhibit.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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