It was essential for the family to share the success of their business and pleasure in art with those who had made that success possible—the people of the Dominican Republic. The León family began growing tobacco in the lush Cibao Valley region in the northern part of the island and handcrafting cigars in the early 1900s. When the business, and family wealth, grew in the 1960s, the León family wanted to find a way to benefit those who made it possible and to support and celebrate the culture of the Dominican Republic.
“We always felt close to the land,” says Doña Maria Amalia. With her two sisters and four brothers, Doña Amalia is part of the second generation helping to develop the family’s philanthropic vision. “Our family got our aesthetics and ethical values from tending the crops, harvesting the tobacco leaves and handcrafting the cigars. We have always been sensitive to the land and to social issues in the Dominican Republic.”
Collecting art was already a family interest, particularly works that Doña Amalia says “recall the rural landscape we have always known and the colors of the Cibao region.” So when it came to determining how they could support Dominican culture, the family naturally turned to art.
The second generation of the León family.
Courtesy of the León family.
Contest for a volcano of creativity
It was Doña Amalia’s brother Eduardo who came up with the idea for an annual contest for Dominican artists and eventually a museum that would house the winners’ works—the Centro León. From the beginning, the contest had “rigor and standards,” with a panel of three judges—two from outside the Dominican Republic—and a submission process.
The first contest was held in 1964. The timing was excellent because it coincided with a flowering of Dominican art resulting from two groups: master teachers from Spain at the School of Fine Arts of Santo Domingo and “very talented and exquisite artists at that moment,” recalls Doña Amalia. “It was like a volcano of creativity. The contest was so important because it gave these artists a platform to express themselves and gain exposure to the region and the rest of the world.”
The contest is now in its 26th edition and attracts artists from The Bahamas, Brazil and other countries. Doña Amalia attributes this ongoing success to their continual innovation. One year, they invited a curator to talk to the artist contestants, who were able to submit proposals of work rather than completed pieces. The family has also exhibited works prior to announcing the winners, and has welcomed a visiting artist—Blue Curry from The Bahamas—during the contest so an established artist could see what emerging artists were creating and they could observe him.
“We want to foster this cross-fertilization,” says Doña Amalia, explaining why some of the prizes are internships in other countries or exchanges with other visiting artists. “We ask the artists what they want. We are very responsive and open, staying close to what will best serve the artistic community.”
Small region with so much to say
The competition was always meant as a pipeline for the museum collection, and since its opening in 2003, 180 museum pieces have originated from the competition. In turn, the collection provides an important window into Dominican culture. The collection has also grown through acquisitions, including select artifacts and other materials created by the native Taíno people, donated by another Dominican family.
Centro Cultural Eduardo León Jimenes—Santiago de los Caballeros, Dominican Republic.
Courtesy of the León family.
As Doña Amalia says, “You can’t love who you are unless you know who you are. The Center gives us the possibility to learn about who we are now and who we were before. It’s a way to be in touch with our identities, our movements, our artists. We’re aiming for the whole world to know something about our roots as Dominicans, the wonderful creativity that Dominicans have and our rich history in the Caribbean—a region that is still undiscovered. Even though it’s so small, it has so much to say.”
For visitors too, education is key. The Center typically incorporates educational programs into exhibition planning. It also engages in partnerships and exchanges with other museums and cultural centers in Spain and around the world, including the Louvre in Paris and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
“We’ve learned so much through these partnerships. In bringing exhibitions to the Center, Dominicans can learn about what’s happening around the world, which opens up our way of seeing things. We also share our knowledge; for example, we are helping to train curators at the Cultural Center of Spain in art conservation, something we have to do very diligently because the climate here is not friendly to art.”
Eduardo León Jimenes Art Contest.
Courtesy of the León family.
Sharing a legacy
Establishing a foundation was a logical extension of the contest, says Don León. Through the foundation’s endowment, funds could be provided to support both the Center and Raíces, the educational and cultural radio station the family also runs. The organization also gave other generations a means to become involved and help carry on the family’s legacy. “The foundation was the right tool to manage both organizations, and we hope it lasts many, many generations,” says Don León. “We feel very proud of what we have done through the competition, the Center, the foundation. I only wish we had done it sooner. It is very rewarding.”
Doña Amalia agrees. “For me, an artist is a person who can see beyond. While it may be something very local, in the end, he or she expresses something that is common to all of us, that is human.”
“You have to have art,” she concludes. “It’s not something you cannot have in life. And when you have a space where you can talk about art, research art, enjoy art—it’s a treasure.”
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