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Bringing India to the Beirut Art Fair

A sit down with French curator Fabrice Bousteau

by Maya Sioufi

Despite the noise the Lebanese art market creates within the capital, it fails to generate a strong echo beyond the borders of the country. “We have a feeling that despite the fact that the country has recognized artists, the art scene is not developed,” says Fabrice Bousteau, chief editor of renowned French magazine Beaux Arts.

Over morning coffee at Le Gray hotel in Beirut, Bousteau shared his enthusiasm at discovering Lebanon for the first time, thanks to founder and director of the Beirut Art Fair (BAF) Laure d’Hauteville’s invitation to be the guest curator for the fifth edition of the fair to be held in September of this year. After welcoming more than 18,000 visitors last year, and with total sales of $2.8 million, the organizers of the fair announced this week that the BAF will host around 50 art and design galleries this year, and is expected to attract 20,000 visitors and generate sales of around $3 million. This is a significant improvement on its first edition, when just 3,500 visitors came to admire pieces from 30 galleries and invest a total of $800,000.

[pullquote]While there are many Lebanese who are avid art collectors, many invest only in art from international markets and not Lebanon[/pullquote]

Why Indian art? 

Aware of the fair from its first edition, Bousteau only got involved with the BAF in March of this year following d’Hauteville’s suggestion that he should curate an Indian pavilion. Bousteau’s admiration for Indian art began over 15 years ago, on a spontaneous holiday during which he fell in love with the country. He pursued his passion with regular trips, eventually culminating in an exhibition in Paris’ Georges Pompidou Center in 2011 entitled “Paris–Delhi–Bombay.” 

With a limited budget for the fair, Bousteau cannot ship monumental sculptures, so he opted for the opposite — a focus on smaller art. With only compact art pieces, he aims to represent “mini India with all of its richness and diversity,” he says. With artists from different confessions and cultures, he plans to portray the contemporary Indian art scene within the pavilion via numerous artists from the famed Subodh Gupta, the ‘Jeff Koons of India,’ to some lesser-known artists.

How will the Lebanese public react to Indian art? The streets of Beirut remind the French visitor of India, with their constant honking of car horns and abundance of odors. He labels the Indian way of thinking “schizophrenic cool,” saying it corresponds to his own. 

Constraints of the Lebanese art market

As for his thoughts and insights on the Lebanese scene, the French art critic stresses that there are several elements needed for the evolution of the country’s art market. First and foremost is the development of Lebanese collectors keen on investing in local talent and on supporting the BAF. “In an art fair, the most important collectors are the ones from the country,” he says. While there are many Lebanese who are avid art collectors, many invest only in art from international markets and not Lebanon, according to Bousteau.

The French contemporary art fair FIAC (Foire Internationale d’Art Contemporain) is now the second most important fair worldwide after Art Basel, surpassing London’s Frieze. “That was not at all the case 15 years ago, when we used to say that we lacked collectors. Now the art market in France is very strong because there are more and more French collectors,” he says. Bousteau argues that the Parisian art market was less hit by the 2008 financial crisis than its London contemporary because London had more “fake” collectors, the type who “after buying their Ferraris had fun with the remaining money [by buying art].”

Other critical issues that need to be addressed are the lack of renowned art schools and contemporary art museums, as well as the dearth of public funds. The Beirut Art Center — which is not related to the BAF — for instance, relies entirely on private financing, with the majority of sponsors of foreign origin, leaving the owners scrambling for funding project after project. 

A successful art fair would spur the country’s artistic progress, says Bousteau. While the BAF has evolved tremendously from its first edition four years ago, a lot remains to be done for the country’s artistic talent to develop further and gain the acclaim it deserves.

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Maya Sioufi

Maya is a research consultant on Arab youth entrepreneurship and employment. She headed Executive's banking, finance and entrepreneurship sections from 2011 to 2013. Previously, she worked at JP Morgan in London in equity sales for three years. She holds an MSc in Accounting and Finance from the London School of Economics (LSE) and a BA in Economics from the American University of Beirut (AUB).   

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