Over the weekend, the art world descended on Beirut, a city far removed from the usual circuit, for the 25 October opening of retail magnate Tony Salamé’s vast museum-cum-shopping mall, the Aishti Foundation.
The new complex—which has 4,000 sq. m of exhibition space and around 90 retail units dedicated to luxury brands such as Gucci, Prada and Moncler—is located in Jal al El Dib, a coastal suburb in the Lebanese capital. Salamé, the founder of the Aishti fashion chain, has spent more than $100m on the project.
The London-based architect David Adjaye designed the building, which is enveloped in a distinctive red aluminium tubular structure geometric pattern “reminiscent of the mashrabiya, the perforated woodwork typical of traditional Arabic architecture”, according to a press statement. Adjaye said at the opening that Salamé aims to expand the building in the next five years, and plans to convert a series of adjacent gas tanks into exhibition spaces.
The complex also has a sea-facing sculpture park and running circuit, where joggers can run alongside works by artists such as Giuseppe Penone. “We’re thinking of having yoga classes in between the sculptures, this is a place where art is not intimidating,” Salamé said. “I’ve visited so many other foundations, and this one is not like any other.” He added that there will be an exhibition charge but this will be “waivered in many cases”.
Salamé began buying art in 2003, initially acquiring Arte Povera works by Penone, Lucio Fontana, Alberto Burri and Michelangelo Pistoletto. Around 200 works are drawn from the entrepreneur’s 2,500-strong collection for the opening show entitled New Skin, organised by Massimiliano Gioni. A phalanx of dealers—including Jay Jopling of White Cube, Sadie Coles and Thaddaeus Ropac—as well as Marc Spiegler, the director of Art Basel, attended the exhibition launch.
Gioni, the associate director and director of exhibitions at the New Museum in New York, said that there has been “a sudden acceleration of the [Salamé] collection in the past ten years”. Salamé, who works closely with the New York dealer Jeffrey Deitch, bought Sam Falls’s Untitled (Books for Jamie) (2014), a series of 24 dyed canvases, and works by John Armleder, Tauba Auerbach and Albert Oehlen at Art Basel in June.
Gioni’s selection focuses on abstract works by artists such as Auerbach, Carol Bove, Christopher Wool and R.H. Quaytman. The theme of expanding and transforming “the language of abstraction” is inspired by David Adjaye’s design for the building’s “skin”.
The show also attempts to establish a lineage from "the sensuous surfaces of work by Agostino Bonalumi, Enrico Castellani, Lucio Fontana and Piero Manzoni to the digitally rendered compositions of many contemporary artists”, the organisers say.
Asked about the mix of art and fashion, Gioni said that the proximity of the retail element “is not challenging or problematic. Tony makes the money behind the [gallery] wall and he spends it in here. Fashion can really open up the audience to art.”
There are a number of Lebanese artists in the show including Ziad Antar and Etel Adnan. “Tony loves art because it was a vehicle for him to go beyond Lebanon,” Gioni said. “For him, it’s a statement of optimism and faith in the future.”
The question of instability in the region was frequently aired at the inauguration (national security is still an issue because Lebanon borders Syria where civil war continues to rage). Salamé says in the exhibition catalogue: “our historic monuments are vandalised, minorities are threatened and new forms of governance rely on fear to remain in power…. When we build new architectural landmarks, we are proving that we believe in our country.”