Beirut explodes every now and then, often with tragic consequences. This past year, though, Lebanon witnessed a different and welcome kind of explosion: that of its contemporary arts scene. The opening of the Beirut Art Center, along with several smaller galleries such as The Running Horse – Contemporary Art Space and the Maqam Art Gallery, signals the development of Lebanon’s historically vibrant art market into a regional cultural center different from, but no less important than, the commerce-heavy hub of the United Arab Emirates.
“It’s a completely different new market here,” said Joy Mardini, the manager at Naila Kunigk’s Espace Kettaneh Kunigk, the Beirut sister gallery of Munich’s Galerie Tanit. “It’s booming, in parallel with Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Qatar,” Mardini said, referencing the major arts institutions and fairs that have opened, or are planning to open, in the Gulf.
The international auction house Christie’s opened a salesroom in Dubai in 2006, kicking off with an inaugural sale in May of that year. The opening was significant because it was the first auction in the Middle East of international and contemporary art in Christie’s history, and the first time the auction house featured a modern and contemporary Arab and Iranian art section. The auction pulled in over $2.2 million, and subsequent auctions set records for artists including the Lebanese painter Paul Guiragossian, whose “Le Grand Marché” sold for $230,500 in October 2008, a world auction record for him. In March of this year, rival auction house Sotheby’s held its first Middle East auction at its new Doha office.
Art Dubai, a fair that now features 70 galleries, more than a quarter of which are based in the Middle East, launched in March 2006. The Sharjah Biennial also held its ninth edition in March, and several museums including a Louvre and a Guggenheim are scheduled to open in the region within the next decade.
Although the recently constructed infrastructure in the Gulf has had ripple effects in Lebanon, local Lebanese art brokers distinguish between the bubble that, by most accounts, has burst in the Gulf, and Lebanon’s steadily evolving art market.
Natalie Khoury, director of the Beirut branch of Hamburg’s Galerie Sfeir-Semler for the past four years, said this is reflected in retail prices, which have grown at an even pace, in contrast to some of the record-setting prices achieved at recent auctions in the Gulf.
“[Now]they’re almost the same, and have been growing with the reputation of the artists,” she said in reference to Beirut’s prices vis-à-vis the Gulf. “We never had speculation like with the Iranians. The Lebanese artists established their careers very slowly and in a very balanced way.”
“Prices have increased, but not drastically. The prices have evolved with the careers of the artists,” she said.
Fadi Mogabgab, of the Fadi Mogabgab Gallery in Gemmayze, has been selling art in Lebanon for over 15 years, first alongside his sister Alice Mogabgab’s namesake gallery, and later on his own. He attributes the relative stability of the market to the distinct nature of his mostly local clientele.
“Because here in Lebanon we have culture and taste, people are very demanding,” he explained. “They are not necessarily following the trends of the big auction houses.”
Lebanese artist and collector Elias Maamari agrees.
“Today anyone with two pennies to rub together is buying and calling themselves an art collector. As soon as you have more paintings than walls, you’re a collector,” he noted.
Maamari, who trained as an architect, has also entered the art market through the other side of the looking glass, as an artist. His first publicly displayed piece, a cold cathode and rusting steel sculpture called “You are here for now,” was shown at the Scope Art Fair during Art Basel this year in Switzerland. It was priced at $78,290, but price, he said, can and should be irrelevant.
“You can buy art for $5,” said Maamari. “And sometimes that’s the most interesting stuff.”
More interesting to note, he said, is the relationship between the financial industry and the art market.
“They’re in bed together. They have to be. Look at the people collecting art today. The big collectors in Turkey, Russia — they’re a very small minority of individuals, and they’re the wealthy captains of industry, as they were historically,” Maamari said, citing the Frick Collection, which is housed in a museum in New York.
In Lebanon, though, there is an emerging group of young collectors, who, along with major Western arts institutions, are prying the market wide open.
Khoury of Sfeir-Semler gallery sells pieces to museums such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin. As far as private collectors are concerned, she said most of them live outside Lebanon, but are Lebanese. While corporate collections are still not a major factor in their business, they are reaching new regional buyers through fairs like Art Dubai.
The art appeal
A 29-year-old New York-based Palestinian-American collector who often purchases art from Sfeir-Semler gallery on her trips to Lebanon told Executive that despite the frenzy in the Gulf, she has observed the prices of her favorite Lebanese artists, such as Walid Raad, remaining fairly reasonable.
“You’ve seen maybe a 20 percent increase in value over the past few years,” she said. “It’s not like it’s doubled in value. There have been fluctuations in Dubai, excitement and hope, but none of those galleries represent the famous Lebanese artists.”
Saleh Barakat, who says his Agial Gallery in Hamra was the first to open in Beirut after the civil war, remembers that when he started, “Only old rich people and relatively established collectors came to this gallery.”
“Now it’s much younger people [who are buying],” he said. “I think it has to do with the evolution of the economy; with the e-economy, and telecoms, these industries make young people richer.”
“The market evolves, collectors evolve, and I am evolving,” he continued. In addition to promoting young, emerging artists at Agial, his newest project, Maqam Art Gallery, is exclusively focused on Lebanese modern art. It opened in early 2009 with a show of Lebanese landscape paintings.
“The international light is only on contemporary art” from the region, said Barakat. “They are completely neglecting Lebanese modern art.”
Jim Quilty, a journalist for The Daily Star who has covered the regional art scene for the last decade, says the art market is a “fickle thing.”
“It’s about trends, what’s new, what’s sexy,” he said. “People become aware of an artist or two artists that hail from a certain region, and PR takes over, and it becomes ‘a thing.’ Artists can be working unrecognized for years and years, and then the PR people take over and decide that something exists.”
Although it may be a passing fad, the international appetite for Middle Eastern art, as manifested by shows like the Saatchi Gallery’s “Unveiled” in London, is nonetheless encouraging local arts initiatives to flourish.
Sandra Dagher, a co-founder along with artist Lamia Joreige of the Beirut Art Center, a non-profit gallery that opened this year in the city’s Karantina district, acknowledges the link between her institution and the commercial galleries that operate nearby.
“Even though the space is totally non-commercial, it’s an advantage for artists to make exhibitions in a center like this, and could raise their prices,” Dagher said. Dagher, who ran the avant-garde gallery Espace SD from 2000 until 2007, found the non-profit model more workable for her vision of promoting contemporary art.
“I realized that to be able to help with production of less commercial art, I didn’t want to depend on commercial issues,” she said. “When you want to be sustainable and dependable, you shouldn’t be a private company.”
The center is funded by private individual donations, a few corporate sponsors, and organizations like the Prince Claus Fund of the Netherlands. A bookshop and café produce additional revenue, and as Dagher said, the massive, airy space is also available to rent for events.
Her disappointment with the commercialism of the Lebanese art market was echoed by some gallerists, who complain that it is often difficult to sell some of the newer media, such as installations and video, in the local market.
Twenty-three-year-old Lea Sednaoui, who opened the Running Horse gallery in Karantina, said that often buyers are reluctant to spend big on an unknown name.
“They need to know what they’re buying,” she said. Nonetheless, she has had relative success with her two first shows, one of the Swedish painter Sigrid Glöerselt, and another of Lebanese photographer Karim Joreige. Joreige’s show was already more than halfway sold out as Executive went to print.
Sfeir-Semler’s Khoury agreed that pedigree plays a role, citing one popular conceptual artist whose work is part of major museum collections.
“A lot of people are asking about established Lebanese artists, i.e. Walid Raad. We sell a lot of Walid Raad. When people want to buy contemporary art from Middle East, he’s one of the artists they want to buy.”
She also cited medium as a factor, which in an era of large-scale installation and video work, may be problematic.
“Generally, videos are really hard to sell,” Khoury said. “It’s much easier to sell photography and painting.”
Barakat agrees that the big names are the easiest to sell, but this phenomenon is normal.
“Of course in every part of the world you have super stars and less established artists. Here it’s [conceptual artist] Walid Raad, [painter] Nabil Nahas, [painter] Ayman Baalbecki,” he says. The works of the latter two are both available through his galleries.
Fadi Mogabgab, though, insists that Lebanese have an open mind when it comes to art.
“I have sold things here I couldn’t sell to the French public,” he said. “Here they are more curious. They want something artistic, not just to match the carpets.”
As Elias Maamari points out, art has “a lot to do with money and very little to do with good taste… Money is the universal currency and good taste is very subjective.”