Walking through the buoyant Beirut Art Fair on its opening night last month, one could understand why the city has been featured as one of 12 worldwide to watch for contemporary art according to a new book published by Phaidon Press, titled “Art Cities of the future: 21st-century Avant Gardes”. Lebanese artistic talent has even caught the attention of renowned British art collector Charles Saatchi, the backer of Britain’s richest living artist Damien Hirst. Saatchi has amassed work from Lebanese arists including Hussein Madi and Zena Assi in his Middle Eastern art collection. Many were put up for online auction last month. Facing mighty neighbors such as Dubai and Doha, which have significant financial muscle and a keen interest in promoting their image as ‘art savvy’ destinations, Lebanon’s artistic talent is still taking a back row seat on the international art scene. But the country’s gallerists are not sitting idle.
Keeping up appearances
The fourth edition of the Beirut Art Fair, held at the Beirut International Exhibition and Leisure center (BIEL), was a busy affair. Gallerists and collectors mingled with curators, artists and passers by. The backdrop was trendy, with Momo at the Souks’ Blow Up installation, a lounge in the center of the fair, playing hip music. The opening night drew in 7,500 visitors with total attendance standing at 18,000 — up from 11,000 last year — a surprisingly strong figure given current circumstances. Similarly, sales from the 46 galleries present at the fair totaled $2.6 million —up from $2.15 million last year — according to the organizers.
Most gallerists Executive spoke to had not been expecting such a large turnout. Aida Cherfan, a newcomer to the fair this year and one of Lebanon’s best-established gallerists, opened her first art space near Antelias in 2000. Cherfan refused to participate in the previous fairs, partly because they took place in July “when most people are busy or away” and partly because of restriction on art from outside the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia regions, meaning she could not bring along the international artists she represents. “This year they changed it, they said 60 percent Middle Eastern artists,” she says.
With 13 years of experience in the art market and notable artists on her roster including Madi, sometimes referred to as the ‘Oriental Picasso’, Cherfan says that her gallery is performing in line with previous years. When asked if she is worried about the country’s economic crisis, she says “It can’t be worse than [during the war in] 2006 when we couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel”.
The performance of Lebanon’s galleries is difficult to know as most galleries, which take between 25 to 50 percent of total art sales, refuse to share their figures. Gallerists need their clients to be economically confident in order for them to reach into their pockets to purchase a piece of art — whether it is a coup de coeur, a short term investment or a strong belief in the potential of the artist. The most established names, however, still manage to flourish even in distressed times.
Established galleries holding up
Mark Hachem, a Lebanese gallerist based in Paris, established his downtown Beirut gallery three years ago. Since then, its sales have grown at a faster rate than in his New York or Paris galleries, with revenues in the past year north of 200 percent. “It is the fastest growing project I have ever entertained,” says Hachem, who opened his Paris gallery in 1996 before branching out to the Big Apple in 2006.
Initially focusing on kinetic art that depends on motion for its effect, Hachem’s interest for art from the region was triggered after the opening of his New York gallery. “The contemporary expression became more interesting and genuine,” he says. “There is an economic renaissance in the region pushing private Middle Eastern collectors to start developing their own collections. Historically, most collectors are patriotic and that’s what you see here too,” he adds.
Hachem has been participating in the Beirut Art Fair for the last three years. “I would never consider not participating, as it’s a way to resist and show that with culture we can do more than anything else,” he says. Hachem’s optimism comes off the back of an exhibition held in September in Beirut exhibiting the work of French sculptor Polles. Forty percent of the work on display sold in the first two days. “It was an amazing success and I was really surprised as we are living in a tough moment now” says Hachem. Two days after the fair, the gallery opened an exhibition for seven Syrian artists to a packed audience.
Another gallery performing well despite the economic crisis is the well-rooted Agial Art gallery, which has been operating from Beirut’s Hamra district for the past 23 years. The ongoing “Belt” exhibition of Lebanese artist Mohammad Said Baalbaki was 70 percent sold on opening night. “That’s because I’ve been around for 20 years, people trust me; in my first five years it was hard,” says Saleh Barakat, owner of the gallery. Upon opening in 1990 the Agial gallery presented art from throughout the Middle East but shifted its focus in 2005 to exhibit exclusively the work of Lebanese artists.
A painting by Lebanese artist Hussein Madi
The Janine Rubeiz gallery in Raouche follws a similar business model. Nadine Begdache, daughter of the late Janine Rubeiz, says that it’s becoming harder and harder for the gallery to sustain itself. “There are years and months when we have to make sacrifices. Gallerists are a bit crazy like the artists. They have messages and we have messages too,” she says.
Begdache is an established name in the Lebanese art scene. In her office, surrounded by numerous books and art pieces, she shares her frustration with the current crop of Lebanese collectors, without whose investment homegrown art will be unable to flourish. “The Lebanese collector, the old one, collected by pleasure, taste and education. When we bought [prominent Lebanese artist] Chafic Abboud in the 50s, we didn’t think he’d have extraordinary prices in 2013, we bought to help because we appreciated his pieces. Today the collector, the young one, invests in known names at high prices because it’s safe. It blocks a lot of artists, the emerging and the already emerged [from getting financial support],” she says. But not all young collectors are looking to acquire renowned names.
Facing big players like Agial and Janine Rubeiz, Lea Sednaoui’s Running Horse contemporary art gallery, located in the industrial Qarantina zone, has fought hard to establish a name for itself since its 2009 opening. To stand out, Sednaoui chose to represent emerging artists — both from Lebanon and abroad — targeting a younger clientele, with more affordable prices reaching up to a maximum of $10,000. One of her artists, 33 year-old Alfred Tarazi, has featured in an exhibition at the Austrian Krinzinger gallery that represents controversial performance and installation artist Chris Burden. Last year was a record year for the gallery, however in 2013 sales are down 30 percent. “People don’t want to spend as much anymore” she says.
Going international to stay afloat
Many gallerists in Lebanon have had to represent more than just local talent to remain in business. Throughout her career dealing contemporary art, Cherfan has featured international as well as Lebanese artists. “I felt the gallery couldn’t function with only Lebanese art,” she says. Naila Kettaneh-Kunigk’s Tanit gallery, which has exhibit spaces in both Mar Mkhayel and Munich, represents 55 artists of whom 15 are Lebanese. Tanit represents several world renowned artists such as the late American artists Sol LeWitt and Donald Judd. LeWitt also features among gallery Sfeir Semler’s roster of 34 artists, seven of whom are Lebanese. The gallery also owns exhibition spaces in both Beirut and Munich.
But some galleries such as Agial and Janine Rubeiz continue to focus exclusively on local talent, representing some of the most established names in the Lebanese art pantheon: from the late Shafik Abboud to Huguette Caland — daughter of Lebanon’s first president Bechara al-Khoury — to pieces by Lebanon’s first abstract artist Saloua Rouada Choucair. Barakat is proud of his Lebanese heritage and disagrees that Lebanese art is not up to international standards. “Look at Saloua Rouada Choucair: she is sharing headlines with Roy Liechtenstein at the Tate Modern. She was a blockbuster this year,” he says.
A sculpture by Kamel Hawa in downtown Beirut
Lebanon at the Venice Bienniale
Gondolas on the Venetian canals have been packed with more than just sightseers this year as curators, artists and collectors have flocked to the city for its 55th Bienniale, a celebration of arts held in Venice every two years. This year, for the second time in the Bienniale’s history, the Lebanese flag has been planted on one of Venice’s tiny islands. Barakat, along with Sandra Dagher — currently co-director of Beirut Art Center — curated Lebanon’s first pavilion at the Venice Bienniale in 2007, bringing along five artists with the support of Lebanese foundations and corporate donors. This year, artist Akram Zaatari is representing Lebanon. His piece, a video entitled “Letter to a Refusing Pilot”, concerns an Israeli pilot who objected to bombing a school in Zaatari’s hometown of Saida in 1982.
Unlike in Britain, where the British Council manages the country’s national pavilion, or in the United States where the Department of State selects a public gallery to manage its pavilion, in the case of Lebanon a private non-governmental organization called the Association for the Promotion and Exhibition of the Arts in Lebanon (APEAL) was behind this year’s initiative. This year’s Bienniale was the third time APEAL has brought Lebanese artists to an international audience, having organized collective exhibitions in Washington DC in 2011 and London in 2012.
The apathy of the public sector
When it comes to supporting the arts in Lebanon through the purchase of Lebanese artists’ works, again, public sector efforts are negligible. Long gone are the days when the Ministry of Culture selected top quality pieces for its collection, which features some of Lebanon’s most prominent names such as Khalil Saleeby, Bibi Zogbe and Said Akl. “The Ministry of Education and of Tourism had a buying committee that went around galleries and bought paintings; that’s how the collection of the government was built,” says Begdache, who regards Michel Edde as the only former minister of culture that had a strong interest in supporting the arts.
Stepping into the public sector’s shoes when it comes to funding and acquiring art pieces are private donors and foundations such as the Mikati Foundation, the Philippe Jabre Assocation, Foundation Saradar and Marwan Assaf. The banking sector is also not averse to the occasional dalliance in the market: Bank Audi has a wide collection of Lebanese and international works, while BankMed and Banque Libano Francaise support the Beirut Art Fair and the Beirut Art Center respectively. “Art is also social visibility and it indicates where the person or organization stands with regards to their evolution,” says Pascal Odille, art critic and artistic director at the Beirut Art Fair.
With no national museum displaying Lebanon’s contemporary art, the private sector has had to fill the cultural gap to increase public access to both national and international art. The Beirut Art Center (BAC), which opened in 2009, and the Beirut Exhibition Center (BEC), which opened last year, are examples of spaces exposing contemporary art. While BEC’s mission is to promote art from Lebanon and the region through regular exhibitions, BAC is increasing the country’s artistic exposure by bringing international art to its space. Another example of a private initiative taking the lead is the Modern and Contemporary Art Museum (MACAM) opened by Lebanese art critic Cesar Nammour in a large compound factory in Jbeil.
The lure of the Gulf
With auction house Christie’s choosing Dubai as its Middle East base and competitor Sotheby’s opting for Doha, collectors and their deep pocket capital have been flowing into neighboring cities in search of the latest names capturing the zeitgeist. “We are now on a wave, it’s unbelievable what’s happening in the region,” says Hachem as he describes how his clients in the United States have been increasingly interested in art from the region, particularly Syrian art. Dubai’s artsy reputation has suffered in recent years due to the financial crisis the city has experienced — Christie’s latest auction for modern and contemporary Arab, Turkish and Iranian art held in April brought in just over $6 million, down $8 million from 2011.
Doha, on the other hand is faring better — Sotheby’s successfully raked in $15 million this year in its second auction in the city, during which international as well as Middle Eastern artists’ work was exhibited. While Beirut currently has no auction houses Odille strikes an optimistic note: “It will come,” he says.
But will it? Lebanon’s well-established gallerists aren’t so sure. “The platform is gone and for a long time to Dubai: they have the stability and the money” says Barakat. Even the younger generation is not optimistic. “We don’t see the end of the tunnel, it’s been years and years, from the days of our fathers and grandfathers” says Sednaoui.
Lebanon’s fatigued financial muscle has not allowed its homegrown creative talent to reach its full potential, curtailing the arts and culture from developing and contributing to the growth of the country’s tired economy. While the private sector — from gallerists to private individual sponsors and donors to associations — fights hard to establish international and local recognition for the country’s artists, the country still has a lot of artistic potential to explore. To support the development of the country’s art and culture and help it gain deserved recognition, it’s up to the Lebanese private sector to discover, enjoy and continue making efforts to promote the abundant local artistic talent.