"What do you get in an Italian restaurant in Beirut? Sashimi and a hamburger,” and perhaps some of the best Italian cooking outside Italy. This is how one member of the Arts Faculty at the American University of Beirut described the Beirut Art Fair 2012. In the aftermath of the third edition of Lebanon’s first art fair, Executive spoke to a wide range of participants: gallerists, critics, collectors, first-time buyers, sponsors, artists and the fair’s organizers Laure d’Hauteville and Pascal Odille. Each had something to say about an art fair exhibiting art of wildly varying calibre side by side. Yet for every word of criticism, of both the art itself and the conception of the fair, there has been levelheaded enthusiasm and support for the determination of Laure d’Hauteville and her tiny team — with its tiny budget — to put Beirut on the art world map.
And it is in spite of everything. Imagine persuading galleries, particularly those outside of the region, to ship in millions of dollars worth of work to a country that is beginning to feel like a pressure cooker. There were huge questions facing local and international gallerists about insurance, how many big spending Gulf Arab tourists would come and whether people would buy art at a time when many Lebanese are considering an exit plan from a country increasingly under threat of a wide ranging regional conflict.
Gallerists’ fears were justified when only 12 of the 52 Gulf collectors invited showed up. Once again Lebanon felt the power of the media: “[It was] when I saw what’s happening in Tripoli,” explained a representative from ABK Gallery in Metz in France, which pulled out at the last moment because they deemed the risks greater than the rewards, and the fact that the artists simply wouldn’t allow their work to travel to Lebanon. And yet, the organizers still convinced 14 galleries to travel from abroad, among them Portugal’s Cordeiros Galeriad that showed, for the first time in the region, its Andy Warhol portrait of 1970s American starlet Barbara Molasky — a piece whose import to Beirut was felt to be a measure of the fair’s credibility.
“Convincing galleries and collectors to come was the biggest challenge,” said Odille, who also devised the fair’s three-day cultural program. Yet some came here not to make sales, at least not immediately. For Bruno Simpelaere, director of ChinaToday Gallery in Belgium, the object of exhibiting in Beirut was to develop a new Middle East client base and scout artists from the region. Why doesn’t he do this in Dubai? A big factor is cost: there is nowhere else in the region, or globally, where he said he can run an exhibition for just $10,000 to $12,000, including the hire of a 20-square meter booth for $7,200. Organizer d’Hauteville cites the size of Art Dubai, which hosted 75 exhibitors this year, as a reason relatively small Beirut appeals to some exhibitors who she says feel lost in the vastness of Dubai; an equivalent. 20-square-meter booth, depending on location and other marketing factors, costs double that of Beirut at approximately $15,000. A similarly small booth at an established fair like Art Basel can easily cost $30,000 and galleries have to sell hard to make back their costs.
But fair comparisons, says Simpelaere, only go so far. “Beirut Art Fair needs time. It is young, let the market evolve,” he said. “In the 90s no one paid attention to Hong Kong; now it’s been bought by Art Basel.” Incidentally, China Today no longer exhibits in Miami and other fairs in the United States, which Simpelaere says are an “organizational disaster”. On that front he had no complaints about Beirut, which he said provides attractive practical services available in a city where artists have been working for centuries: “Where else do you find a framer who turns around five to six works overnight and does an impeccable job?” asks Simpelaere, answering: “Not in Dubai.”
Indeed, unlike the Gulf Cooperation Council states, Beirut’s own art community has grown organically over time; it is for this reason that local partners were lining up to support a commercial art fair that presents an opportunity for both the private and public sectors to cash in on spending from cultural tourism. While the three major international sponsors of the 2011 fair — Ferrari, luxury watch maker Girard Perregaux and Merrill Lynch — were feeling the pinch of declining budgets and withdrew their support, Mini Cooper Lebanon, Air France and major Lebanese banks and hotels provided significant financial and operational backup. For Rita Saad, public relations manager at Le Gray Hotel, the fair was an opportunity “to put Beirut in the limelight”. The downtown hotel opened its luxury suites to international visitors, threw a party and capitalized on an event which, said Saad, takes the city beyond its traditional tourist realms of “history, heritage and gastronomy."
BankMed was the biggest financial backer and hosted the opening party at the Phoenicia Hotel, while Byblos Bank launched its first event to support Lebanon’s young creative scene in conjunction with the art fair. In an award not unlike Deutsche Boerse’s annual photography prize (Lebanese photographer Walid Raad was the winner in 2007) Byblos short-listed 15 young Lebanese photographers who were given a collective exhibition space at the fair. Now the bank is giving the winner, Dora Younes, a student in Beirut, an exhibition, a catalogue and the kind of first break-through package every young artist looks for.
For Byblos Bank, the Beirut Art Fair “answered a specific CSR strategy in Lebanon,” said Nada Tawil, head of communications at Byblos, namely “a brand strategy to support contemporary art.” She said the bank perceives Lebanon as “an incubator of talent”, and wants to play an active part in that story.
So too does the public sector, even if funding is limited. For the first time since the fair’s inception, both the Ministry of Tourism and the Ministry of Culture were a visible part of the fair’s proceedings. When Executive spoke to Michel de Chedarevian, advisor to Culture Minister Gaby Layoun, he reiterated the sense that the public sector is waking up to the value of Lebanon’s artistic contribution in the international arena and there are plans to take Lebanon to next year’s Venice Biennale. (Last year the official Lebanese pavilion was withdrawn for reasons which are still unclear.) When asked what the ministry thought about the fair organizers flying in from France, de Chedarevian had no reservations: “Lebanon is a Francophone country — it’s not an issue.”
Too little Lebanese?
But for some it was. Local and foreign observers expressed dismay that this was not a locally conceived event. “But it is not my Beirut Art Fair,” repeats the French organizer d’Hauteville . In a country where debates surrounding national identity and power wielding inform every aspect of life, it should come as no surprise that an art fair in Lebanon is not immune from politics. But that is exactly the hope of Jean Doummar, a Lebanese businessman and collector whose views represent the many who are sick of Lebanon’s reputation for “cheap tourism and violence”.
“There is so much more,” he said, adding that he believed that whatever the shortcomings of some of the exhibits the organizers proved themselves first of all by managing to assemble 40-plus galleries, almost doubling the size of last year, and no less significantly by attracting wide coverage from the international press whose attention usually falls on political turmoil and Lebanon’s flailing economy.
At a time when the air was thick with the smell of burning tires, Paris Match, Le Figaro and art market publications such as Art Price cared more about revealing this new institution as a major success story for the country. But while galleries like Agial echoed this sentiment, achieving greater sales than expected (only five of the fair’s 43 galleries did not sell at all), and Mark Hachem’s works by autistic artists sold to both Christie’s and Sotheby’s on the back of the fair, many like Saleh Barakat, the director of Agial, were concerned about the quality of the art, the mixed-up souk effect of jewelry and design, and most of all, that this did not reflect the Lebanese art scene at its best.
“Its embarrassing,” said Kristine Khoury, an art writer based in Lebanon, who felt the overall “mishmash” impression and some of the embellishments of the fair overshadowed the stronger work represented in some of the booths. Rafiz Majzoub, an artist who exhibited at the fair (his studio is based in Beirut’s Dora neighborhood) told Executive that the fair was “simply not art in Lebanon.” Some of Lebanon’s most prominent galleries, including Sfeir Semmler, also choose not to exhibit.
Organizers, and many of those who care about this fledgling institution, want expansion. And not just in size. Art collector Doummar believes the regional MENASA criteria – Middle East North Africa South Asia – is limiting. “Why limit yourself when there are 10 million Lebanese living all over the world?” Real Diaspora figures aside, he’s got a point, and added that the fair has the potential to mobilize Lebanese populations in, say, South America, where artists relatively new to the international market are fetching high prices.
The touch-and-go regional political situation aside, many factors are at play in the search for institutional identity. Local audiences want to see what is being produced in the rest of the world, while international — specifically Western collectors — are often interested in artists responding to the political conditions of the MENASA region.
With the right consideration these demands are not necessarily incompatible — as the graffiti tour this year showed — and the organizer d’Hauteville stresses that Beirut Art Fair can be a commerical exchange as much as it is a cultural forum. If the fair can successfully incorporate the pluralism that defines this country it may have the potential to sell to a uniquely multifaceted audience. And yet however uncontrollable political insecurities may be, one thing is certain: the quality of the art will determine if this new institution flourishes or whether ultimately Beirut Art becomes synonymous with Beirut Art Supermarket and simply fades away.
The initial version of this article included factual errors. They have been amended as of 24 September 2012