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Beirut, the artistic capital

The eternal struggle between art and commerce continues

by Thomas Schellen

Beirut’s burgeoning cityscape of cultural and artistic endeavors may have taken a commercial downturn in 2014 compared to previous years. This, however, did not deter the city’s community of gallerists, curators and exhibition sponsors from staging highly ambitious events. Among the many impressive efforts debuting in 2014 were two openings in November with planned durations into 2015: an exposition of works by Italian artist Michelangelo Pistoletto at Beirut Exhibition Center (BEC) in the downtown waterfront district and a show by British artist and art historian John Carswell at the AUB Art Galleries and Collections.

The Carswell exhibition is a clear contrarian accent in the fine lure that Lebanon has long exercised over European cultural and artistic minds. According to AUB Art Galleries curator Octavian Esanu, while earlier generations of European artists, captivated by the Mediterranean light, emphasized color in their depictions of Lebanon, Carswell renounced it. The exhibited works were created in Beirut in the 1960s but, according to Esanu, are still awaiting broader discussions on how monochrome modernist art emerged in the Middle East at around the same time as in the, presumably more progressive, American and European art scenes.

As Esanu tells Executive in his office at AUB, Carswell’s stay in Beirut came during a vibrant period in the formative years of the university’s Fine Arts Department. Like all too many interactions between artists and the city, however, the Briton’s residence in Beirut and role as teacher at AUB came to an end in 1977 because of the Civil War.

Other examples of the country’s inspirational sway over foreign and local painters will be accessible to the public starting from spring, as the country’s venerated Sursock Museum will host a retrospective of different artists’ perceptions of Lebanon from the 1860s until the mid 20th century, according to Tarek Mitri, chairman of the museum’s board of directors.

A no less emphatic, but otherwise different, message accompanies the immersion into Pistoletto offered at BEC, thanks to an initiative by Tanit, an art gallery with outlets in Munich and Beirut. Pistoletto’s latest endeavors feature projects anchored in Cittadelarte, a building complex and foundation in his home region of Biella, perhaps known to some male fashion addicts as the original home of couturier Ermenegildo Zegna.

Cittadelarte (city of art) is linked to installations such as “Terzo Paradiso”, in which the artist seeks the convergence of man and nature in a third paradisiacal state of ‘us’, and “Love Difference”, a project that aims to bring people around the Mediterranean together in peaceful coexistence, explains Tanit’s proprietor, Naila Kettaneh-Kunigk. “We thought it was just the right thing to bring [Pistoletto’s work] here to this chaotic [environment] we are living in. It is important for us and also for the country to have exhibitions which open discussions and show that this [business of art] is not just about money,” Kettaneh-Kunigk says. 

She adds that not all presentations of European artists in her portfolio succeeded commercially when she brought them to her gallery in the hip Mar Mikhael quarter of Beirut; she attributes this, with some zeal in her voice, to shows which confronted the local clientele with “something that they were not used to.” But such exhibitions, often with low financial viability, constitute “the part of what we do that is educational,” she tells Executive in a conversation under Japanese bamboo in the garden that abuts the BEC, all the while waiting for the exhibits to arrive.

Labors of passion or commerce?

When the BEC welcomed the artsy and social connoisseurs to the opening on the following evening, November 11, some in the Tanit team of gallerists who had set up the show looked to be almost sleepwalking through the ensemble of 38 works representing Pistoletto’s oeuvre, spanning more than four decades.

This was for no other reason than the passionate labor of installing the show in the span of only 25 hours.

After the trucks delivered the precious pieces on the late afternoon of November 10, the gallerists toiled like galley slaves through the night and most of the following day to set up, among others, the mirror pieces, the “Venus of the Rags” and the circular installation offering encounters with multireligious as well as laic spirituality that formed the show’s experiential axes.

[pullquote]The drift of the local art scene into a state where art is becoming another commercial commodity is upsetting for many[/pullquote]

But beyond such investments of personal labor that escape conventional quantification via calculations of man hours, and besides the educational value that the Tanit team attributes to bringing an important European collection to Beirut, money certainly comes into the equation. According to Kettaneh-Kunigk, it cost around $150,000 to bring Pistoletto’s work to Beirut, and also entailed some “financial acrobatics” and last minute raising of contributions from donors.

As she describes it, her gallery has no expectation of financial returns from selling any of the artist’s pieces during the show because most are owned by Cittadelarte, and only a few were contributed by another gallery and could be sold. But as far as Kettaneh-Kunigk’s financial outlays, the exhibition constitutes a pure reputational investment. “The show is prestige for us, [presenting to] the Lebanese a direction of art they don’t know,” she confesses.

This puts the finger on a sore point by asking where the development of Beirut as an art hub is headed. The pecuniary issue is a definite point of debate for Saleh Barakat of gallery Agial, who adamantly argues that “art is an expression for change” and not a receptor or container of commercial value.

He is appalled by the drift of the art market, internationally and in Beirut, into a state whereby “art has become more accepted as an asset class.” That is unfortunate, he says, “as art has come to feature on the radar of financiers and bankers. I believe this could maybe be beneficial to art on one side but in the long run it is very harmful to the art scene in the sense that it is going to the wrong hands,” he tells Executive.

AUB curator Esanu confirms that the drift of the local art scene into a state where art is becoming another commercial commodity is upsetting for many, but opines that this trend is not all encompassing. “We here at AUB are protected from this world because as a university our main role is not to sell art, as a lot of institutions in Beirut and everywhere [else] do. Our role is to produce knowledge and that is what we emphasize in all our projects. We help students understand what art’s role in society is, raising questions and so on,” he says.

The natives are rightly restless 

The local debate over the perennial tension between art and commerce may be timely and called for, as the previously perhaps sleepy Beirut art market has been rudely shaken by several disruptions over the course of the past four to eight years.

As the stakeholders tell Executive, the increase in the number of art galleries, events — most notably the Beirut Art Fair — and institutions, such as the BEC and the Beirut Art Center, over the period has been prominent and positively significant. The downside of this, however, is a market that has also come to include a larger presence of galleries focused on sheer commercialism, and the monetary expressions of art transactions have been a lamentable preoccupation of media and public attention, say gallerists who describe themselves as the market’s minority by being more serious about art than about cash.

An additional magnet for curiosity in the past two years, and one quite prone to sensationalist spins on the art scene, has been the various tales of refuge-seeking Syrian artists who understandably flocked to Beirut in search for shelter, livelihood and room to produce their works.

This attracted a wave of international attention, just as the foreign interest in the Lebanese art scene was initially sparked in the 1990s by themes related to the experience of the Lebanese conflict and by the ways in which artists here were reviewing and archiving the war years, coping and coming to terms with those horrors.

Creative expressions of dealing with war and the political calamities in Lebanon and Syria were still on the forefront of two prominent galleries in the wealthy downtown of Beirut in November of 2014, as the Mark Hachem Gallery featured an exhibition by established Lebanese artist Chaouki Chamoun under the title “Peace in Waiting”, while nearby Ayyam presented a project named “Postponed Democracy” by locally based Syrian artist Abdul Karim Majdal Al-Beik. “Postponed Democracy” was the inaugural show at a space that the gallery had partitioned under the label Ayyam Projects to highlight Middle Eastern artists without the expectation of commercial return that is associated with the main Ayyam Gallery.

"Venus of the rags" by Michaelangelo Pistoletto

[/media-credit] “Venus of the rags” by Michaelangelo Pistoletto

However, as several people that Executive talked to in the art scene see it, the market has come to have “too many Syrians” and the fascination with them is fading, meaning that local gallerists are more interested in discovering new Lebanese talent and drawing attention to art with more durable impact and appreciation instead of focusing on work that commands fleeting attention.

On top of all these non-economic variables, the business environment is not conducive to the growth of galleries, confirms Moussa Hachem, who manages between 12 and 24 shows per year at Mark Hachem’s Beirut gallery. The number of clients was growing exceptionally in the first years after the gallery opened in mid 2010, but has stabilized since last year, with many clients leaving the city or simply not buying art because of “what is happening,” Hachem says. He points to a centerpiece painting in his Chaouki Chamoun exhibition and says, with a somewhat resigned laugh, “This painting is for $90,000 but I don’t have a buyer.”

As Kettaneh-Kunigk says, the number of foreign visitors has also waned at Tanit, as people have stayed away from Lebanon.

The number of galleries in Beirut is nonetheless still expanding, confirm both gallerists. Agial’s Barakat, whose gallery has been in operation since 1991, also expects the Lebanese art market to continue to grow further because of increasing demand for art from the wealthy, and because of the hype that attracts new investor generations to art. “It is clear that Beirut, in three to five years, will have more institutions than now because people are becoming more aware of this,” he says.

Flux in all, all in flux

All gallerists and art experts that Executive spoke to are in opposition to the growing commercialization of art. Barakat, most vociferous about the evils he perceives in the circus of investors and the moneyed class, says, “Bankers, who are now involved in art, don’t care about the artistic nature of the piece, they care about how much money it will make for them.”

When adding the views of real-life bankers to the discussion, such generalization may be simplistic, however. Asked about his approach to buying art, Bank Audi’s Freddie Baz says he does not know the monetary value of the pieces that he bought over the years and would have to look up receipts to see how much he invested in a standing Buddha that he owns.

He adds spontaneously, “But if you come to my house today and see the beautiful standing Buddha, I can tell you about how much I have been driven into thoughts [by this piece] … and I have a sense of that. This is what is fulfilling for me and this is why bankers are often involved in collections — because banking requires a lot of creativity, too. The common denominator between art and finance in my opinion is creativity. You cannot be an art collector if you are not creative.”

For Marc Mouarkech, who manages Kettaneh-Kunigk’s Tanit Gallery in Beirut, it is all cyclical. “Regarding the future of art, I think it’s a cycle that goes round and round. Now we are going into the commercial cycle, which is what the market wants and what the media led to by their coverage that made people see art as investment. But people will soon have enough of the commercial side and go into something more deep, controversial and interesting. And [from there we will be] going back to the commercial,” he says.

[pullquote]”All artists say they will bring revolution, but this is a joke, obviously. Artists nowadays need to find a new way to be critical”[/pullquote]

It is definitely a delicious exercise to muse about the eternal, ironic interplay between artists’ and art stakeholders’ repulsions of commerce and their embraces of the market when standing these days in the BEC in front of the “Venus of the Rags”. The Venus was created as an emblematic piece of antiestablishment uproar in the 1960s and is recognized as a leading example of Arte Povera — but pieces representing this ‘poor art’ movement are certainly on the market, and are by no means cheap.

Equally, and in the very period of the search for new meanings in the latter years of the 20th century, leading protagonists of art as the essence of social change, such as German Fluxus pioneer Joseph Beuys, were among the living artists whose works were already commanding top prices in the international art market in the 1970s and 1980s.

Emphasizing how art cannot really criticize anything when it has itself become an enterprise, AUB’s Esanu compares the situation of artists in Lebanon today to that of post-Soviet countries after 1989. He explains, “All artists say they will bring revolution, but this is a joke, obviously. Artists nowadays need to find a new way to be critical. How to do that I don’t know, but maybe someone will create a way.”

While its art market is growing and investments of passion are on the minds and books of an increasing number of wealthy residents, Lebanon is now part of this fundamental debate and dialog between artistic and commercial assets and values. The most interesting — and certainly utopian — possibility would be if an impressive new perspective on the issue were to emerge from Beirut.

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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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