Private fortunes drive Beirut’s museum boom

Zaha Hadid, Renzo Piano and David Adjaye get involved as donors step in to fill the funding gap

by Gareth Harris  |  7 October 2015
Private fortunes drive Beirut’s museum boom
Beirut is beset by civic problems, but private patrons are supporting cultural initiatives—including the Lebanese businessman Tony Salamé, who is funding a contemporary art museum in Jal El Dib
A raft of museums, most backed by private money, are springing up in what is, for many, an unlikely cultural hub: Beirut, the capital of Lebanon. Most people associate the city with the turbulent civil war of the 1970s and 1980s, in which Syria and Israel were also involved. National security is still an issue because Lebanon borders Syria, where civil war continues to rage. And Lebanon’s failed political system—the country has been without a president for more than a year—has made life in the capital a challenge. During the summer, for example, huge piles of rubbish accumulated on the streets after the city’s main landfill closed in July due to overcapacity, spurring frequent and angry demonstrations.

A woman covers her nose from the smell as she walks on a street partly blocked by piles of garbage in Beirut, Lebanon, 27 July 2015. Photo: AP/Hassan Ammar
This turmoil has not deterred Tony Salamé, a Lebanese retail magnate, from investing in a large-scale private foundation modelled on those in Europe, the US and, increasingly, Asia. Nor has it stopped the non-profit organisation Apeal—the Association for the Promotion and Exhibition of the Arts in Lebanon—from launching an ambitious private fundraising campaign to build a museum of Modern and contemporary Lebanese art in central Beirut by 2020. The design competition launched on 1 October; the architect Zaha Hadid is on the jury along with Hans Ulrich Obrist and Julia Peyton-Jones of London's Serpentine Galleries.

Salamé, who founded the Aïshti fashion chain, invested $100m in funding a contemporary art museum, designed by the British architect David Adjaye, in Jal El Dib, a coastal resort near Beirut. The Aïshti Foundation building, which is due to open on 25 October, will show works from his 2,000-strong collection. The inaugural exhibition is organised by Massimiliano Gioni, the artistic director of the New Museum in New York.

“A lot of Lebanese [citizens] are eager to have a museum for contemporary art,” Salamé says. “In addition, we have a huge Lebanese diaspora of more than ten million people. Every year, two million people visit Lebanon, and I am sure that a lot of people from the region will come, too.”

A new commercial contemporary art gallery called Marfa will also open in the port of Beirut on 22 October. The inaugural show is dedicated to the Lebanese artist Vartan Avakian. "We want to take part in a bilateral dynamic: redefining global interest in Lebanese contemporary art and participating in the rising interest in art in Lebanon," says the gallery founder, Joumana Asseily. 

In the face of limited state funding for cultural initiatives, private patrons have filled the gap. High-profile local collectors include Johnny and Nadine Mokbel, who have amassed works by important national artists such as the late painter Paul Guiragossian. “It is the absence of state funding for contemporary art initiatives that has motivated the private sector to take on the fundraising and creation of such museums,” says the Beirut-born artist Lena Kelekian.

Cultural policy “not coherent”

The government has agreed to loan Modern works by Lebanese artists from its 1,600-strong collection to Apeal’s proposed museum. It is also involved in several public-private initiatives, including the $13m expansion of the Sursock Museum, which is due to reopen on 8 October after a seven-year refurbishment. The institution, housed in an Italianate mansion donated to the city by the late collector Nicolas Sursock, manages a collection of more than 800 works dating from the late 1800s to the early 2000s.

The cultural policy of the government—a coalition made up of two factions—is not coherent, however, says the commentator and Dubai-based collector Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi. “Beirut is now the site of what seem to be two unrelated museums tackling civilisation and archaeology,” he says.

The Italian architect Renzo Piano has been commissioned to provide a masterplan for the redevelopment of Martyrs’ Square in central Beirut, funded through both public and private investment. The scheme includes two institutions: a new archaeological museum called the Beirut City Museum, which Al-Qassemi says has secured $30m in funding from Kuwait, and the Museum of Civilisations, to be designed by the Lebanese firm GM Architects. “One may wonder whether all this is happening perhaps a little too fast and with little oversight and co-ordination,” Al-Qassemi says.

It remains to be seen how many international visitors will visit these new institutions in the current climate. “There is an unshakable cloud of political uncertainty that looms over Beirut,” Al-Qassemi says.

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