Executive caught up with Tarek Mitri weeks after his appointment as the director of Issam Fares Institute (IFI) at the American University of Beirut. Sitting in his office in IFI, a building whose design he says he is not very fond of, Mitri talks about plans for Sursock Museum’s reopening, the cultural and artistic scene in Beirut, as well as his new post.
As the chairman of Sursock Museum’s Board of Directors, can you tell us how the Sursock project is coming along?
We are hoping to inaugurate it in spring 2015. It took us more time than expected as it was far more expensive than we had projected, but that’s not the only reason. It had to do also with the fact that we had a famous French architect, Jean-Michel Wilmotte, who lives in France and so getting things done under his supervision here understandably delayed the inauguration as well.
Sursock is one of the traditional palaces that were built at the beginning of the century and so its preservation is essential to us. I am someone who has fought, when I was Minister of Culture, for the preservation of our heritage of patrimonial buildings and I drafted a law for this that was voted upon in the council of ministers, but for some mysterious reason never made it into the parliamentary sessions.
At least we are preserving a building such as Sursock before this whole area is invaded by those monuments of ugliness such as the [residential high rise] next to us.
How will the museum be divided? And are there are any additions to the original museum?
Restoration has proven to be extremely difficult and, since we didn’t want to change anything in the architectural character but we wanted to expand the space, we had to add three floors underneath. We needed to develop a library and a good system for organization, all of which take space.
The main exhibition room will be on the second underground floor and will be used for temporary exhibitions, while we will use the old building for our permanent collection. Temporary exhibitions will last between two to three months and we will be inaugurating the museum with a major exhibition about Beirut in the eyes of painters from 1850 until 1960.
We kept the office of Nicolas Sursock in its place, and the Arab Divan was restored as it was falling apart before.
We also have an auditorium which we will use for cultural activities and possibly even for chamber music. We added a small restaurant and a gift shop so that people will come and spend more time, not just visit and disappear.
We now have 7,500 square meters when before we had 1,700 square meters so it’s almost four times the space as before.
[pullquote]The budget is still under discussion because we have not inaugurated the place yet[/pullquote]
May we ask about the cost and the budget of Sursock Museum?
The budget is still under discussion because we have not inaugurated the place yet. But the construction has cost us $12 million so far. I think there is more to be spent in the next few months because we still have furniture, sonography is not over and we need more acquisitions before we re-open, mostly the library needs to be developed.
How long was the museum closed for renovations?
And were there any cultural activities by Sursock Museum during that period?
We kept organizing Le Salon d’Automne but having it in different locations, such as BIEL.
How will you reconcile the urban needs of Beirut with the kind of cultural need that will make the city better?
The challenge for us in the future is how to strike a balance between preservation and innovation, because culture is about creativity, and not all about preservation.
It is easier to continue doing the same things we did in the past, when we mostly organized exhibitions for Lebanese painters, had a yearly Salon d’Automne where we encouraged young artists to display their productions and gave them prizes, and finally, used to host international exhibitions. But now there is a new generation of artists who do things differently; you go to exhibitions now which are more about installations.
There is also a greater interest in Lebanon in photography, and we therefore want to integrate photography into our activities. We are in the process of agreeing with the Debbas family on transferring their archival material to us as they have the richest collection of photographs of Beirut and the region.
There are new ideas which are being discussed, as we would like to attract young people. I think they have, whether in music or figurative art, new talents and trends which we should not be oblivious to and instead try to engage with.
In the past seven years many galleries have opened around Beirut, such as the Beirut Exhibition Center or the Beirut Art Center, with each presenting a different focus. So where do you see Sursock being positioned in the context of the Beirut cultural field, starting next summer?
Galleries are commercial enterprises and we are not competing with galleries. We will not be selling paintings or any artwork. So we will continue to need galleries for the commercial side.
Now, there are a number of art centers that are mostly reflective of the innovation and creativity of the younger generation and I think they were the ones that were most pleased that Sursock is coming back to life because there will be a time, I hope sooner rather than later, where we will have synergy with those institutions. I mean, because of the history, size and location of Sursock, they may be able to benefit [from it] and we will have an open door policy with those spaces. So we don’t see each other as competition.
[pullquote]We are not managed, however, the way public institutions are, as we run it with a more private entrepreneurial culture[/pullquote]
AUB is starting its own museum in fine arts and has developed a gallery over the past three years. USJ is planning for another museum. Do you think there is a limit to how much art Beirut can take?
I think there are limits but it is up to those who are starting new institutions to think about that. We are not founding anything. We were there and we need to continue with our work. The other important difference is the relationship between public and private. We are unique in that we are a public institution but operate like a private institution.
We are public because we are a nonprofit foundation. Sursock donated this palace and the land as an endowed property and appointed the head of the municipal council as a custodian, and much of our money is public money. We are not managed, however, the way public institutions are, as we run it with a more private entrepreneurial culture. While everything else, such as AUB and USJ are private and that makes a difference, I think.
How many people came to Sursock on a regular basis?
We had about 5,000 visitors last year who came to the Salon d’Automne that we organized. But to be frank with you, those 5,000 are the [same] ones you will see in every other art event [in town]. I think the challenge for us is to widen the circle and try to get younger people and school children interested in art.
From your experience and background as minister of culture, is the interaction and intensity of exposure of the young Lebanese to art a priority?
I will always continue to insist on the need for cultural activity to transcend class, community and regional barriers in Lebanon. Part of the problem with cultural life in Lebanon is that it’s very fragmented.
I keep telling my staff that they have to remember every morning that Sursock is not a museum for Ashrafieh or Beirut, it is a museum for Lebanon. We used to be a francophone institution and now I am “Arabizing” it primarily for that reason. If you are a francophone institution, then you will get the French speaking elite. You won’t get school children from Southern Lebanon or Tripoli.
What is your program for the IFI, in terms of this public discourse?
I am still in the process of evaluating the existing programs so it will take some time before I orient them or add new programs. I won’t discontinue anything that used to be working so I will support all my staff who are engaged in solid work. There are very good pieces of research that are produced here, with others in progress.
But we are not just a classical research center, we are a public policy institute. So our main vocation is to bridge the gap between researchers, academics and intellectuals on the one hand, and policymakers and decisionmakers on the other. We need to facilitate dialogue between two communities of people that otherwise do not interact and often look down at each other.
Policymakers and politicians tend to think that academic work is irrelevant while the academic community thinks they are ignorant people. So there are two perceptions and our job is to tell policy leaders that some of the knowledge our university produces is relevant and useful for you. We also have to tell the academics that they can’t cut themselves off from public life as most of them do; they have to think of their relevance to society, especially in the social sciences.
As you are something of both, what do you see yourself as more: the academic or the politician and decisionmaker?
To politicians, I am an academic and to academics, I am a politician.
Do you see a role of the arts in bridging these differences between the public and academic stakeholders in Lebanon? Can art bring in added value on that side?
I think so, it is something for me to explore at this institute as well. I think art can play a role in bridging many gaps, including this one, because the two communities we are referring to are interested in its creation. Also because art in Lebanon will not survive if you are provincial and self enclosed. So you need to take into account people from other age groups, public opinions, social classes … If you only appeal to people like yourself, then your message will not be heard.