The day before the tryouts for the Instituto Superior de Artes (known as el ISA or the Higher Institute of Arts in English) I saw the movie Fame on TV. If you have seen it, you will know that it may be the worst thing to see the day before an entrance exam. In the movie, you see all the problems that some students have in trying to get into an art school - it made me think about not going.
I remember my father telling me the next day before leaving that I had no business going to el ISA and that they only accepted the children of famous artists. I told him that I was at least going to try. We got to the school and, just like in Fame, there were young people rehearsing speeches, warming up their muscles and voices. The famous artists with their children were also present (just like my father had told me) and the students from later years were looking at us with an air of superiority gained from experience.
I had to present my scene with my mother as counterpart and when my turn came she could not move because of how nervous she was. But I was not ready to lose my chance. I wanted to protect my dream. The same dream that had brought all the students competing for one of the 20 spaces in the acting program.
The same scene has been happening for the past three decades with hundreds of young people arriving at el ISA looking for just one chance to continue their studies in music, visual arts, theatre, dance, cinema, or radio and television.
After the test comes the seemingly eternal and stressful waiting period to find out if you have been accepted for one of the privileged spots in the school.
A Bit of History
As I was saying, young people have been coming from every corner of Cuba to what was the grounds of the Havana Country Club. This was the most popular leisure spot for the wealthiest people of the city until 1959. Ironically, it was so exclusive that the President of the time, Fulgencio Batista, could not be a member since he was a mulatto.
Three architects, Ricardo Porro, Roberto Gottardi, and Vittorio Garatti, used all of their imagination and creativity to transform the 163 acre property into their dream of a city of arts.
The campus preserves the main building of the former Country Club and some others were added, scattered around the area. These have a different style of design and construction based on the needs of each of the faculties they were to house.
Due to the sheer size of the plan, the entire project was never fully completed but since July 20, 1976, Cuba's great arts university has been graduating students from its many different faculties.
The Chosen Ones
To my father's surprise, I found out two months later that I had passed the acting test. The daughter of a rural worker and a teacher was among the chosen ones and would start the best years of her youth and would learn the skills to eventually become a journalist. I wasn't accepted because there were spaces left after the children of famous people got their spots (some of them didn't get in) but because of the ability shown by myself and all the other young people coming from different regions of the country who were admitted.
One of the best things about el ISA is precisely this mix of people from different places and positions since the diversity contributes to their education and interaction is essential for all artists. Each faculty has their own characteristics; people from visual arts and theater are more uninhibited while musicians tend to be more disciplined since they have been immersed in studying their instruments from an early age and they haven't had much contact with other forms of art. Sharing the same space and even classrooms for general subjects fosters a healthy interaction among the students. So a graduate from any of the faculties ends up being informed in art, in general, and the native Cuban culture as well. This secondary education is delivered spontaneously to the students and allows them to discover, observe, and share.
Why the ISA
Ana Maria Gonzalez, el ISA's Rector, explained to CubaPLUS the schools' significance and creation as well as being the model for teaching art in Cuba. She clearly denoted three main points.
At its foundation, the Cuban artistic education, in its different varieties, was joined into a single system after the triumph of the Cuban Revolution. "Today's art education is the result of that consolidation and the level of the 45 year old National School of Arts [la ENA in Spanish], which was enriched with academies that already existed before 1959. The level reached by la ENA was no longer sufficient for teaching arts and we required a higher level."
The system, as Gonzalez explains, is made up of the different arts schools scattered across the provinces, la ENA, and the 15 schools for art teachers. In these schools students receive a general education together with the specialized art classes.
"The first of the aspects that enhances the Cuban art university is its staff, made up of some of the members of the island's artistic vanguard. Great artists, many of them still working, are members of the staff. They are creators who consider teaching a social commitment." Secondly, the school's teaching budget is aimed towards an education reaching the highest possible level but at the same time providing a humanistic training with the essential interests of the Cuban Revolution: a virtuous, cultivated artist who is also aware of the world's and society's problems and, above all, who could, using his sensibility, contribute to the knowledge and transformation of the different problems."
"Finally, the fact that we have all sorts of art students, like musicians, dancers, actors, and painters, in the same place provides more wealth to all students alike." According to Gonzalez, el ISA is a school for talented students and not for the elite. Teaching at this higher level aims towards perfection, towards the completion of a cycle in the artist's training.
The Institute, Gonzalez says, has gone through different stages and while circumstances have caused some difficulties, they have never felt abandoned as an educational and cultural force. Despite the high cost of this type of education, the Cuban State has preserved this educational program.
Everybody Dreams of It
While not perfect, el ISA is the School, the one we keep mentioning, the one linked to us, the one training us and giving us an education and opening a space to keep learning as human beings.
Every time you see a show with Cuban artists anywhere in the world, a lot of the quality comes from this school. There you can find the piano skills of Jorge Luis Prats and Gonzalo Rubalcaba; the paintings of Bejarano and Rocio Garcia; the new popular singers like Carlos Varela and Polito Ibanez; and the acting of Marisabel Diaz and Vladimir Cruz (as seen in the movie Strawberry and Chocolate ).
But I really shouldn't start a list. There have been hundreds of important artists stepping out the doors of this place. Scattered all over Cuba and the world, they are all graduates of el ISA, the school of dreams.