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Saleeby’s collection and Lebanon’s first fine arts museum

by Nabila Rahhal

The American University of Beirut (AUB) recently acquired a major, never-exhibited-before collection of work by the artist Khalil Saleeby (1870-1928), who is considered the father of modern art in Lebanon. This collection was donated to AUB by Dr. Sameer Saleeby, 87, a distant relative of the artist, who had acquired part of it from his father, Shaheen Saleeby, and developed the rest by adding works of friends and students of the artist, such as Saliba Douaihy, Cesar Gemayel and Omar Onsi. The collection consists of about 60 paintings, 30 of which are of Saleeby’s work, and is well preserved in its original condition. Speaking at the opening of the exhibition on June 8, Dr. Saleeby said that he felt like the collection was his daughter and that he was now giving her up gladly.

Indeed, he has been trying to find a suitable home for this collection for some eight years. According to his sister, Layla Saleeby Dagher, who is also the President of the Alumni Association Board at Lebanese American University (LAU), Dr. Saleeby had been insistent on keeping the collection in Lebanon as he felt it represented a piece of our country’s heritage. According to Richard Brow, vice president for advancement at AUB, Dr. Saleeby told him that he had received two serious offers from foreign parties looking to buy the entire collection, but since that would mean that it would leave Lebanon, Dr. Saleeby refused to sell.

“Dr. Saleeby knew that the Lebanese government is unequipped to handle such a body of art,” said Dagher, adding that he also rejected the idea of private galleries as his goal was not to sell the paintings, but to have them available for the public. Therefore, and after briefly considering opening his own museum, he turned to universities. According to Dagher, he first approached both LAU and AUB eight years ago with one main condition, that the collection be accessible to the public. “This condition, along with the long-term nature of the project and the cost involved were initially a challenge for both universities” said Dagher. AUB entered into long talks with Dr. Saleeby, during which Peter Dorman became president of AUB and Brow entered his current position. The parties were then able to come up with a solution that suited AUB and met the condition of public access, and in November 2011, Dr. Saleeby’s “daughter” had a new home.

Two floors in the newly acquired AUB Mayfair building have been renovated into an art gallery that temporarily exhibits the paintings, and there are plans for an on-campus fine arts museum with access to Bliss Street. This museum will be located above the archeology museum and involves renovating the Post Hall building.

“This is a major project that requires an ambitious sum of money and AUB is looking at endowments to cover it,” said Brow, though he said he was unable to give the exact figure as plans are still being discussed with museum experts. Brow said that AUB is approaching individual patrons of art interested in financing the project but are waiting to know the exact budget before they commit.

This museum is to be called the “Rose and Chaheen Fine Arts Museum”, after the donor’s parents and upon his request. According to Brow, several collectors have also approached AUB offering their collections on a loan basis, or as donations. Brow declined to give names, but did confirm that one of the collections offered is even larger than Saleeby’s.

The exhibition opened to the public on June 12, and will run until November 2012. It is curated by Octavian Esanu, who was recently appointed by AUB as its first curator. Esanu is already planning for the gallery’s next exhibition, which will draw on the rest of Saleeby’s work and may include other artwork on loan to AUB. Whatever he decides, this gallery and the future museum are hopefully a step in the right direction toward public appreciation of fine art in Lebanon.

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Nabila Rahhal

Nabila is Executive's hospitality, tourism and retail editor. She also covers other topics she's interested in such as education and mental health. Prior to joining Executive, she worked as a teacher for eight years in Beirut. Nabila holds a Masters in Educational Psychology from the American University of Beirut. Send mail

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