Home Art Elitism, disruptiveness and a lack of strategy

Elitism, disruptiveness and a lack of strategy

Peculiarities and challenges of Beirut museum landscape

by Thomas Schellen

Works of art are of an infinite solitude, and no means of approach is so useless as criticism. Only love can touch and hold them and be fair to them.” (R.M. Rilke, third letter to a young poet)

When art maecenas Nicolas Ibrahim Sursock in his last will donated his mansion to the city of Beirut before he died in 1952, he did not just sign over a deed. He formulated a hope for his home country and city: “I wish there would exist in Beirut, capital of the Republic of Lebanon, museums and exhibition rooms open to everyone, where masterpieces and antiques would be preserved and displayed.”

To achieve this, Sursock apparently wanted an authority figure to exert custody over his treasure and appointed the mayor of Beirut as guardian of the Sursock Museum. The donor’s gift came moreover wrapped in another wish, that Sursock’s “fellow citizens would appreciate art and develop an artistic instinct.” With so much weight of patrician input on the museum, it was probably no wonder that the museum’s exhibition approach for many years exuded a certain flair of elitism and even orientalism until far after the time when orientalism fell out of favor with the Europeans who had perpetrated it.

Thankfully, with their reopening in October 2015, that approach has been replaced by a leap into the 21st century in the management of Sursock Museum. “They are coming down from their pedestal and I think it is very salutary. The women running it have a very clear idea of how they want to make an impact on a museum-going culture,” comments Nora Boustany, board member of the Association for the Promotion and Exhibition of the Arts in Lebanon (APEAL), an organization whose aims overlap with the Sursock Museum’s apparent strategy of bringing art closer to the people, instead of making people into appreciators of art. 

The bottom-up strategic design approach for developing a broad-based museum-going culture in Lebanon looks like a winner even as – and actually because – the top-down approach has been, and still is, prevalent in museums of recent vintage. A walk through either the diverse collections of the Robert Mouawad Private Museum (RMPM) near the Grand Serail or through the monolithic one at the Mineral Museum (MIM) that inhabits space at the Université Saint Joseph’s Campus of Innovation and Sports exposes the visitor to breathtaking exhibits – rare and many-colored treasures of the earth in MIM and in the RMPM superb antiques, tapestries, jewelry, historic Chinese porcelain and centuries-old Syrian pottery from places associated today only with terror.

The exhibits in both museums are private collections, and it is undeniable that their elite owners make all the important decisions about the delivery of these cultural goods to the public. Elite influence – which some economists might be fashionably tempted to call elite capture although the term in the sense of its definition appears applicable neither to art nor banking – is even more striking in the newest Beirut art museum, the Aïshti Foundation.

Truth be told, this museum takes the city to a new sphere of communing with art. The exhibition space is as perfect as an art museum can hope to be. Perhaps it is because the property is juxtaposed with a brutal environment of traffic and oil storage but from stepping into the first of the four exhibition floors until leaving the last, one feels there as if the UK’s Tate Modern, France’s Centre Pompidou and Germany’s Bundeskunsthalle had organized a joint venture for installing a museum in the best sense of the word in a locale that had for decades been seemingly deprived of culture and void of artistic atmosphere. At the same time, the reality of elite control could be no more visible than in this perfect museum’s attachment to an edifice of luxury consumption where the central interior space evokes reminiscence of a ziggurat filled with shrine after shrine dedicated to brands that represent consumerist deities of glitz and glamour.

Balancing bottom-up

and top-down

Given that the facts on the ground testify to the constructive role played by elite contributions, the best bet for developing an economy of culture and arts appears to be finding a balance between bottom-up egalitarian and top-down elite components. This also applies to financing of museums where it is difficult to avoid appealing to the generosity and self-interests of wealthy benefactors when one wants to develop a contemporary art museum from scratch. The financial attractiveness of artworks as investments under the wealth management paradigm and the contested market for museum-worthy art have led to ballooning of prices and this, as Boustany admits, is “a huge disadvantage for building a collection”. According to her, APEAL is still sorting out its approaches to entice art and financial donors, including the well-known lure of granting patrons the rights to have galleries named after them.

Besides this being a reminder that for any non-profit operator in culture and the arts there is always a thin line between giving deserved recognition and bowing to a presumptuous claim of elite status, the question over viable funding approaches looms as a yet-to-be resolved challenge over the Lebanese museum scene. According to Beirut Mayor Bilal Hamad this even applies to the Sursock Museum, where long-term baseline funding of operations is secured by inflow of money from the municipality. At legally secured transfers of 5 percent of fees for all building permits issued by the municipality, the funding represents “good money”, Hamad says, but cautions directly that the museum’s board cannot depend on this to suffice in the future, given that the museum is bigger and much more active in staging events and offering programs. “We can no longer operate the museum in the same way as in the past, with only one activity per year or every six months. We expect to have more visitors and [have] hired new employees whose salaries have to be paid, so [the board and us] have to look at other ways of supporting the budget. We are still thinking about how to do this,” he says.    

Noting that the museum landscape of Beirut is scattered with institutions funded by the state, the city, two major universities and private owners, and that insiders testify to the existence of the usual inter-institutional jealousies and quarrels, the sourcing of funds in the growing museum landscape seems certain to be a challenge. Foreign institutional donors are very helpful (and are usually well satisfied with small plaques of appreciation on the wall of a sponsored museum) but their contributions are based on decisions in their home constituencies and limited in time and amount. As for state contributions, the vagaries of political budget making and the overall situation of state funding in Lebanon are a strong deterrent from even thinking about how more political attention and public sector financing could be steered toward productive investments into the economy of culture.

But art spaces are no exception to the rule that competitiveness requires unrelenting efforts, including continual financial investments. In order to generate returns in job creation, social capital enhancement and positive direct impacts on gross domestic product, museums need to be competitive and enterprising. This in turn implies that there is a dual challenge present for the cultural sector; not only do museums individually need to acquire financial and strategic management capabilities to run themselves more productively, but private and public stakeholders in Beirut’s economy of culture are also in need of joint communication and strategic planning for the whole museum sector. Such planning would be prudent, agrees Beirut Mayor Hamad. “Today there is nothing called Beirut Municipality strategic cultural plan or vision. I am doing my best to support a lot of cultural activities and I have attended so many cultural activities but to tell you the truth, we have not even attempted to put together a cultural strategy for Beirut. This is a nice idea,” he tells Executive.

According to APEAL’s Boustany, collaboration with the Beirut Municipality and ministries such as the Ministry of Transport are part of the organization’s mission statement. Avenues of cooperation could start to be developed with the establishment of a museum mile or simple projects such as a culture bus, she says.

Once a museum-going culture gains traction in all quarters and strata of Lebanese society, there will be more interesting challenges than management and coordination. Every stakeholder and institution involved in culture tends to have their own ideology on what art should and should not do. One does not need to search far to see that freedom and disruption of the status quo are preeminent in the minds of many artists, in Lebanon as everywhere. A growing role of contemporary art in the country’s intercommunal transactions would very likely result in artists challenging both people and institutions who are currently in culturally dominant positions. However, from Boustany’s vantage point this is nothing to worry about in fundamental terms. “I have found in my experience working with contemporary art that artists coming from all confessions first of all work together. Their creative protests are more universal than sectarian, so even if the context is sectarian, the outcry is universal. Themes such as injustice, intolerance [and] gender inequality have found expressions in angry and provocative ways but the underlying subtext of values is not divisive,” she explains.

The harshest frontier

Thus remains the need to mention a barrier that already tremendously affects museums and has to be addressed for implementing a museum-going culture in Beirut. Quite literally going to a museum is a pain and a challenge in all too many cases. The American University of Beirut off-campus art museum is hard to find and some people say the on-campus museums are not easy to reach for all visitors, due to campus access controls. Walking to the Armenian art exhibition at the Beirut Exhibition Center in May 2015 meant to dash between noisy construction vehicles on a dust-covered road. The RMPM is sheltered from its road by trees and a magnificent garden – but to get there one has to first approach the soldiers at a security barrier for the embassy district. Executive has been told of numerous experiences by tourists who missed out on seeing the collections there because they could not find their way around the tightly controlled area.

As a whole impression, access to culture in Beirut is forbidden for anyone with disabilities and far too often a physical challenge even for able-bodied people. This is perhaps nowhere more acute than at the newest museum in the Beirut conurbation. Looking with a foreign visitor’s mind across to Aïshti Foundation after arriving in the Jal El Dib suburb from Beirut, the final approach to the edifice is about as inviting as a trip to Alcatraz across San Francisco Bay – without the boat. This is to say that the Beirut – Jounieh Autostrade is as formidable a barrier as any eight lane restricted-access motorway. There is a very rickety and repulsive looking pedestrian overpass but even after traversing its steep stairs, the visitor has to trail for five to 10 minutes along unsecured pavement that serves as an every-day racecourse to local motorists. Not appetizing in a country that is feared for its poor traffic safety (see automotive section page xxx).

All that could, of course, have been no hindrance for storied international guests at this museum’s opening who were ferried around Beirut in a fleet of German premium cars. Nor would it be a problem for the local clientele who drive their Porsche, Bentley or other luxury wheels up to the door of Aïshti Foundation, drop the keys into the valets’ hands and just walk up 10 steps to the entrance. But for the simple, culture-loving visitor who embarks on an individual journey to enjoy Beirut’s growing number of high-quality museums from the National Museum to the Aïshti Foundation, the barriers along the way are severe.

Beirut Mayor Hamad says he has a partial solution in the works, whereby a soft mobility project, which he presumes will be implemented before the end of his term in mid-2016, will transform Damascus Road and other streets in the capital into bicycle and pedestrian friendly roads with less space for motor vehicles. When taken in conjunction with plans such as APEAL’s Modern and Contemporary Art Museum, that sounds good enough to start dreaming about a better Beirut. But if one starts on that path, why not dream much bigger? Map note: addendum to legend of museums map: MAS describes itself as a venue that “facilitates cultural exchange” by “hosting temporary exhibitions”. While this entailed a show of works from the private collection of proprietor Tony Salameh in November 2015, the three-year-old venue functions at other times as a commercial gallery.

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Thomas Schellen

Thomas Schellen is Executive's editor-at-large. He has been reporting on Middle Eastern business and economy for over 20 years. Send mail

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