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On the Beaten Path: A Short Reflection on Art Spaces in Beirut

by Rayya Badran

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Like so many art scenes around the world, Beirut’s is a multifaceted and evolving one. Thanks to the many organisations and institutions operating in the field, Beirut continues to foster a critical and engaging arts community composed of local, regional and international artists. It is also, at present, in a somewhat advantageous position to host such dynamic artistic production considering the particularly bleak period the region is going through— from the devastating war in its neighbouring country Syria to the ongoing political and human rights repressions and abuses experienced in cities like Cairo, Istanbul, Teheran, and others. For more than twenty-five years, non-commercial art spaces, organisations, and institutions in Lebanon have worked through very turbulent periods of financial instability given that none of them (with the exception of the Sursock Museum) benefit from state funding or support. They also weathered periodic outbursts of violence and political turmoil, namely the killing of Prime Minister Rafic Hariri in 2005 and the July War waged by Israel in 2006. 

While a great number of Beirut’s most internationally recognised artists began their practices in the early 1990s in the aftermath of the Lebanese civil war (1975–1990), public institutions or exhibition spaces dedicated to cultural and artistic practices were scarce during the decade following the end of the war. One of the few and oldest non-profit organisations that started in those days is Ashkal Alwan (The Lebanese Association for Plastic Arts), which was created in 1993. Other noteworthy organisations whose activities did not exclusively promote contemporary art but also photography, cinema, performing arts, and other cultural practices like the Arab Image Foundation, Né à Beyrouth, Beirut DC, Zico House, and Espace SD were created before or on the cusp of the new millennium. In 2009, the Beirut Art Center, a non-commercial exhibition space opened in Beirut. This was significant because none of the aforementioned organisations had substantial spaces of their own to exhibit or implement their diverse programs. Writers and scholars argued that this state of affairs helped create a unique environment in which alternative modes of art and knowledge production, described as ‘non-institutional’ or ‘proto-institutional’ came to the fore.1

The Beirut Art Center was, in 2009, the only institution where artists, writers, curators, researchers, musicians, students and others could regularly attend the centre’s diverse exhibitions and programmes showcasing international, regional, and local contemporary artists. The centre also hosts a number of other institutions’ festivals, exhibitions, and fora such as Ashkal Alwan’s Home Works. It turns ten this year and is moving to a new building, not far from where it is currently located (next door to Ashkal Alwan) in the Jisr Al Wati neighbourhood. It is slated to re-open sometime this coming spring. The Nicolas Ibrahim Sursock Museum is the oldest of these institutions in Beirut and the only art museum proper. The former Lebanese collector and promoter of the arts Nicolas Ibrahim Sursock bequeathed his mansion and collection to the state in 1952 when he died. The museum opened in 1961 with the Salon d’Automne, which runs to this day, showcasing works by new artists through an open call. In 2008, it underwent major renovations and expansion works and re-opened in 2015 under a new mission and direction. In 2016, Dar El-Nimer for Arts and Culture opened in the Clémenceau neighborhood by Rami El-Nimer, a Lebanese-Palestinian banker and collector of Islamic and Palestinian art. The institution, which houses El-Nimer’s vast collection, is primarily concerned with historical, modern, and contemporary practices from Palestine. Art spaces and organisations in Lebanon have thus far adopted the legal model of non-profit organisations. They require the implementation of memberships, elections and are accountable to the Ministry of Interior. The prevalence of the non-profit model does not necessarily imply an expectation of funding or support by the state or other public institutions, however strange this might sound from a European perspective. These legal structures enable organisations to receive funds or donations from other local and international funding bodies and individuals without the pressure to generate income. Furthermore, considering the lamentable state of public institutions dedicated to the arts after the cessation of the civil war, these organisations primarily sought to promote and help produce contemporary art, therefore replacing the role of the state in this regard. 

In an essay published by the online platform Ibraaz in May 2013, scholar and writer Hanan Toukan looks critically at the formation of these institutions and spaces and proposes an alternative way of thinking about contemporary art or visual production that have been generated by these spaces over the course of their existence. Toukan suggests that “in the case of Lebanon, the international support of local initiatives began in the late 1990s and early 2000s to build upon the homegrown initiatives of young Beirut-based artists and cultural organizations active since the early to mid-1990s.”2 The ‘new’ infrastructure that Toukan evokes was thus built on the institutional and financial gap left by the state in the wake of the postwar period. Although these institutions remain precarious because of it and despite any clear vision for a funding of the arts, they have now become more established or ‘institutionalised’ with the advent of newer and distinct initiatives popping up in Beirut. Ten years ago, in 2009, art critic and writer Kaelen Wilson-Goldie charted the state and evolution of this infrastructure and stressed the fact that while a lot of significant spaces that were central in the production, curation, and exhibition of art did not have physical spaces to do so, this “‘spacelessness’ has encouraged artists and curators to engage more meaningfully and directly with the city itself”.3 With regard to the launch of Beirut Art Center within this changing landscape, she also reminded the reader that “while it is tempting to read the creating of art spaces as a reflection of increased stability in the country, the situation in Lebanon has, in fact, been anything but stable of late”.4

This rings even more true ten years later. But also, a lot has changed since then. For one thing, the support of international funding bodies and NGOs such as the Ford Foundation and the Open Society Institute (along with others) on which most of the older institutions and spaces have relied for more than a decade has waned or come to a complete halt because of shifts in policy and interest in the MENA region. This necessitated a change in thinking about means to sustain the institutions. During this weaning period, other exciting organisations like 98weeks, Mansion, Temporary Art Platform (TAP) and the short-lived and eccentric AIW:A, the Artists International Workshop Aley, Batroun Projects, and Art Residence Aley cultivated distinct spaces and programmes with little means and in often exiguous or challenging physical spaces. There are many reasons why most of the latter spaces no longer exist today — with the exception of Mansion and Temporary Art Platform. These changes speak to the transience of Beirut, to the displacement and flow of its artists and cultural workers, and to steep hikes in rent and real estate. These ebbs and flows have also allowed other spaces and endeavours to supplant those who did not survive or simply moved on, and they are doing so through very different means. Whether or not these means will affect the ways in which art is being made, formulated, or disseminated is the question at hand. 

Meanwhile, private initiatives to erect more established, traditional museums continued. The large-scale Beirut Museum of Art (BeMA) has been planned for some time now, pending the gargantuan funding it requires. The project was set in motion by APEAL (the Association for the Promotion and Exhibition of the Arts in Lebanon) and is set to open in 2020. Other, more recent efforts have sprung up in the last few years to contribute to the already shifting landscape of art spaces such as the Beirut Art Residency (BAR) and its sister endeavour CUB Gallery, as well as Haven for Artists and Hammana Artist House, which represent just a few of these kinds of spaces. Created in 2015, BAR boasts three different spaces in the neighbourhood of Gemmayzeh. BAR is a residency programme and exhibition space that is open to regional and international artists. That entity eventually opened La Vitrine as well as Project Space, located near the two other venues. The duo later created CUB gallery in 2017 along with Jean Riachi, a banker, to exhibit art school or recently graduated students’ works. This particular initiative is aimed at a much younger generation who is eager to exhibit and to whom the other existing structures or galleries in Beirut might seem out of reach.

 Although BAR’s residency programme and La Vitrine are not profit-making undertakings, it’s in the very mélange of both non-profit and commercial spaces (like CUB and Project Space) where we are seeing shifts in the processes of production in contemporary art. Younger generations of cultural workers or practitioners — some of whom are new to the art scene — have turned to the banking system to fund their endeavours. It’s not the first time that such spaces have turned to banks to support their activities (the Beirut Art Center has benefited from Société Générale in the past, although not as consistently) but we are witnessing increased interest from banks not merely in the development or sustainability of art, but in its discourse as well. BAR receives its main funding from Bank Med (whose main shareholder is the late Prime Minister Rafic Hariri’s family) and partnered with a banker on CUB Gallery. Founded by Mario Saradar Chairman-CEO of Marius Saradar Holding (MSH) and Saradar Bank, the Saradar Collection comprises a great number of works by prominent Lebanese modern and contemporary artists. In 2018, The Collection invited independent curators and academics Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath to curate Perspective #1, a long-term research initiative as well as an online database and mapping project, which looks at Beirut’s art scene from 1955 to 1975. Saradar Collection also launched its own website containing archival and research material as well as critical or historical essays by scholars and writers. The banks’ attempts at participating in the discourse of contemporary art reveals a more conspicuous move to become part of the engines that drive the art scene. The perceived informality or ‘non-institutionality’ of Beirut's older organisations must now grapple with the emergence of distinct proposals and agendas in relation to art production and circulation. The race for funds had been a prickly issue among contemporary art and cultural spaces because they vied for the same funding opportunities. Has the recourse to the world of finance and banking become inevitable as older, more traditional avenues for support from international funding bodies became nonexistent or harder to obtain? This current transformation does not solely rest on matters of funding but also depends on how these new spaces position themselves within this landscape. Concerns over questions of autonomy or dependency towards funding bodies have always loomed large over art spaces in Lebanon. But it is worth asking here how long the support by the banks will last and what kind of accountability is demanded in return. Is it time perhaps to think about funding possibilities other than grant-based models or corporate sponsorship such as crowd-sourcing, thus pooling the support of Lebanon’s residents and citizens? 

It is perhaps difficult to predict how new organisations will evolve or how the construction of a massive museum such as BeMA will affect smaller, more humble spaces in Beirut. There is a sense, however, that the very foundations on which Beirut has garnered the attention and appreciation of its audiences and the international art world will be drastically transformed soon. 

Toukan asserts that “Lebanon’s contemporary art scene lends itself to a reflection upon the meanings and possibilities embedded within unsupported and commonly understood independent production processes. This is despite the country’s lack of a conventional infrastructure of institutionalism and due to Beirut’s self-conscious positioning as a ‘space for congregation, debate, and planning’ or even as a ‘laboratory’ (as artists and writers often describe it).5 How possible will it be for newcomers, in this era of late-stage capitalism and in the midst of a very grave local economic crisis, to build new spaces for contemporary art now that we are seeing the opening of more institutionalised organisations and the institutional entrenchment of existing ones? How will non-profit spaces resist or survive this changing landscape? And what are the ways to ensure that other alternative spaces, with new and different ideas about contemporary art, can open? We have asked these questions before but since we are contending with a very different set of circumstances and factors, it is worth asking how these shifts will not only affect the longevity of such spaces but also how they engage art, manage its production and shape its audiences over time. 

The author would like to thank independent writer and researcher Kristine Khouri for her insightful notes on this article

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