Woman of Substance: Ella Fontanals Cisneros

A woman of substance, a lover of art!

Whether business, art or philanthropy, Ella Fontanals-Cisneros has demonstrated a deep-seated commitment to the bettering of humanity simply by sharing herself, her art, and her resources.

By Sonia Tita Puopolo


I recently had the honor of visiting the legendary Ella Fontanals-Cisneros where she is most at home, amid her art and her passion. Eyes sparkling with enthusiasm, the Cuban-born art collector-cum-entrepreneur-cum-philanthropist is deeply committed to the notion that all good things must be shared. Ella Fontanals-Cisneros lived her entire life in Venezuela before coming to Miami. She is the mastermind of the prolific Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation (CIFO) in Miami as well as a compendium of other good-works projects in South Florida and beyond.

“The common thread in all the projects I am involved in is sharing,” the delighted Fontanals-Cisneros explained. “The pleasure of knowing that I am making or can make an impact in the lives of others in a positive way is wonderful feeling.”

As Eleanor Roosevelt used her influence as first lady and private citizen to advance the cause of human rights, Ella Fontanals-Cisneros uses her influence and visionary mind to advance the cause of not only artists, but of people with a mission in their efforts to share their knowledge to make the world a better place. Her generous reach expands around the globe. Answering the call of the United Nations to better connect each person in our global village, Fontanals-Cisneros founded the Together Foundation in 1989. The organization linked the United Nations to their affiliate missions and offices worldwide through computer-based information technologies-a futurist feat in an age when the Internet was still an unfamiliar novelty. In addition to mobilizing the United Nation’s telecommunications, Fontanals-Cisneros efforts enabled schools and their students to engage in an international dialogue fostering goodwill and peace.

“I dreamed about connecting people to one another through a computer network”, the inventive Fontanals -Cisneros admitted.

The Together Foundation was a remarkable success. Under Fontanals-Cisneros’ hand, it evolved into the Together Networks, the largest Internet service provider in northern New England. By 1999, the thriving non-profit went public and was sold for a handsome sum to Earthlink.

Her entrepreneurial prowess was accentuated by her artistic eye and both have subsequently informed the other and yielded much success throughout her life. Prior to moving to Miami as a young woman, Fontanals-Cisneros lived in Venezuela and her Latin roots have defined much of her life’s passion-art. Fontanals-Cisneros began collecting art in the early 1970s. Over the years, she developed a substantial variety of works from the Latin American abstract-geometric tradition to international contemporary pieces to photography and video art.

With the opening of Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation (CIFO) in 2002, Fontanals-Cisneros and her family formalized their commitment to the arts. The non-profit was established to support emerging and mid-career contemporary artists from Latin America. Fontanals-Cisneros’ focuses on brilliant young artists, who question the construction of knowledge, enables her to challenge the established boundaries and categories that define contemporary art today.

As with the Together Networks, Fontanals-Cisneros’ artistic vision is rooted in the desire to share and cultivate dialogue between the arts and humanity; after all, when one embraces knowledge, one can live freely and is better prepared for the journey of life. Fontanals-Cisneros profoundly believes this idea and finds fulfillment in creating, establishing and executing projects that can eventually sustain and influence the public’s way of thinking thus affixing her stamp on a greater societal evolution one e-mail and one painting at a time.

 Fontanals-Cisneros is a fearless pioneer. Today, she is also the CEO of EFC Holdings, a Florida-based company that constructs luxury homes-just one more example of ingenuity.

In 1928, Margaret Mead wrote in “Coming of Age in Samoa” that “the traveler who has once been from home is wiser than he who has never left his own doorstep, so a knowledge of one other culture should sharpen our ability to scrutinize more steadily, to appreciate more lovingly, our own.” In this spirit, Fontanals-Cisneros is inspired to honor and dedicate space and time to her remarkable arts award recipients such as Emilia Azcarate, Alessandro Balteo Yazbeck and Mariana Castillo Deball.

Her devotion to making the Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation (CIFO) the vehicle to encourage people to “start thinking about culture”, in particular, Latin American culture, is emphasized in the institution’s three main initiatives: CIFO Art Space – a permanent venue for the presentation of engaging and provocative contemporary art exhibitions highlighting works from the Ella Fontanals-Cisneros Collection, works by it’s grantees and commissioned artists and experimental, challenging art programs; Grants and Commissions Programs supporting emerging and mid-career contemporary multi-disciplinary artists from Latin America; and offering support to other cultural endeavors including Miami Art Central (MAC.)

Located in Miami’s Wynwood Art District, CIFO Art Space was designed as an exhibition space for Fontanals-Cisneros’ provocative contemporary art exhibitions as well as rotating exhibits showcasing works from the Ella Fontanals-Cisneros Collection. In anticipation of the upcoming Art Basel, Fontanals-Cisneros plans to highlight two sections from her personal anthology. Forms of Classification: Alternative Knowledge and Contemporary Art, curated by the much-respected and admired Cecilia Fajardo-Hill, explores the decades-old practice of critically analyzing the construction of knowledge-a popular theme in Fontanals-Cisneros’ work. And, The Sites of Latin American Abstraction curated by the wonderful Juan Ledezma.

The foundation’s new Grants and Commissions Program was launched to celebrate contemporary artists from Latin America. Its inaugural exhibition, The 10 Defining Experiments: CIFO 2006 Grants Program Recipients is complemented by Savage Modern by Alexander Apostol and Surfaces by Magdalena Fernandez, all of which have been popularly received. The inaugural show illustrates the diverse and wonderful use of various media. From photography and painting to video, performance and installations, the subject matter addresses issues and interpretations of major concepts such as knowledge, history and the nature of language.

Arguably the most-respected and admired female artist of the nineteenth century, Rosa Bonheur was notorious for her unyielding determination to break stylistic boundaries and explore unusual subject matter for a female artist of her time. Ella Fontanals-Cisneros shares a similar mold-breaking resolve. It is this resolve that makes her a role model for not only women but for anyone with a belief that they can make the world a better place.

Fontanals-Cisneros is a fearless pioneer. Today, she is also the CEO of EFC Holdings, a Florida-based company that constructs luxury homes-just one more example of ingenuity. Whether business, art or philanthropy, she has demonstrated a deep-seated commitment to the bettering of humanity simply by sharing of herself, her art and her resources. Interestingly, Fontanals-Cisneros was born on July 5th, the day of national Independence for her beloved Venezuela, a telling detail for a woman who has spent her life pursuing a passion for freedom and liberation through knowledge, breaking boundaries and exceeding expectations.

This is her lesson. “Focus on your dream because without a dream things will never happen. What you feel inside is the inner voice speaking. Listen to it. Things will fall into place.”

Things have certainly fallen into place for Ella Fontanals- Cisneros and Miami is a better place because of it. From the Together Networks to Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation (CIFO) to Miami Art Central (MAC), a venue for the exploration of contemporary art and culture, Cisneros has equipped us with tools to be better people simply by giving a piece of herself to a city, a community and a culture she calls home.

What else can she say? Well, I guess it can be summed up very sweetly and we should all take note. Smiling, she leaned in and admitted as if letting me in on a secret, “I love sharing.”