The art world anticipates a new face of Beirut as 5 exciting new institutions are slated to open in the Lebanese capital.

In spite of political instability, a cluster of institutions and museums are scheduled to open in Beirut within the next five years. Art Radar profiles the new arts venues powering this iconic city. 

The new building of the Aïshti Foundation in progress. Image courtesy the Aïshti Foundation.

The new building of the Aïshti Foundation in progress. Image courtesy the Aïshti Foundation.

In the year 2015, 40 years after the start of the Lebanese Civil War, museums and institutions are playing a key role in reviving the war-torn city of Beirut, giving it a new face and turning it into a major arts hub. With the aid of wealthy and passionate patrons and national fundraising campaigns, Beirut will welcome the birth of five exciting museums and institutions in the coming five years.

1. Sursock Museum – reopening this fall

Dubbed the “Sleeping Beauty of Lebanon’s art scene” by The Daily Star Lebanon, the Sursock Museum is slated to reawaken this fall. The modern and contemporary art museum first opened its doors in 1961 after the death of Nicolas Ibrahim, a wealthy Beirut aristocrat who bequeathed his grand villa to the city. For a period of time the museum was one of the most important and pioneering cultural sites in the country; since the civil war, however, it silently dropped off the radar.

The Daily Star Lebanon quotes Zeina Arida, the Sursock’s new director responsible for reviving the historic museum:

I would say that the museum was absent from the postwar period […]. It was not part of the cultural landscape. It’s as if the museum was somehow asleep for a while.

After being officially inactive for eight years, Sursock’s reopening is an event of great national anticipation. The refurbished space will preserve history while embracing the new; Ibrahim’s office will be reconstructed, while state-of-the-art facilities will be installed in four floors dug beneath the house. These include a 170-seat auditorium, a library, a sky-lit exhibition hall, temperature-controlled high-security storage spaces, a training centre and a restoration atelier.

Photography of the Sursock Museum’s façade, 2014. Image courtesy Jacques Abou Khaled (permission to use).

Photography of the Sursock Museum’s façade, 2014. Image courtesy Jacques Abou Khaled.

Reportedly costing USD14 million, the project expands the original building’s 2,000 square metres to approximately 8,500 square meters of total museum space. Architect Jacques Aboukhaled said, quoted by The Daily Star Lebanon,

We are building this museum for the future. […] We really were suffering from the lack of cultural infrastructure […]. And suddenly you have more than 8,000 square meters, super well-equipped, beautiful project, beautiful history, and very interesting.

In addition to showcasing its unparalleled collection of Lebanese art, the museum’s inaugural show will centre around the representation of Beirut between 1800 and 1960. Director Arida is determined that the Sursock’s re-opening will kickstart Beirut’s museum culture; she said, quoted by The Daily Star Lebanon:

I’m very interested in building a very strong public program […] I think that we really need to build this museum culture, which does not really exist yet in Beirut.

2. Aïshti exhibition space – opening October 2015

Another hotly anticipated opening this fall is the Aïshti Foundation‘s 40,000-square-foot exhibition space in coastal Jal el Dib, a short drive from downtown Beirut. The Aïshti Foundation was founded in 2005 by Lebanese businessman Tony Salamé, owner of the giant Aïshti fashion chain. The new exhibition space will showcase a portion of his 2,000-strong art collection, starting with an inaugural show organised by superstar curator and New Museum Artistic Director Massimiliano Gioni.

Salamé’s growing influence in the international art world is reflected by his recent inclusion into ARTnews Top 200. A significant lender to various exhibitions, he was a supporter of the last two Venice Biennales and a primary supporter of New Museum’s “Here and Elsewhere” (2014) exhibition of Arab art. Gioni told Artnews that the foundation’s inaugural show will feature 50 artists and concentrate on abstraction. The article quotes Gioni:

[The show will give a sense] of the variety of the collection and of the many threads that are woven into it […] [tracing] a speculative, formal lineage that runs from recent experiments in paintings – let’s say artists such as Kerstin Brätsch, Laura Owens, Michael Williams – all the way back to artists such as Agostino Bonalumi and Enrico Castellani […]. it is a very sensual show […] mostly about forms and textures.

Aerial view rendering of the Aïshti Foundation's new building. Image courtesy the Aïshti Foundation.

Aerial view rendering of the Aïshti Foundation’s new building. Image courtesy the Aïshti Foundation.

According to the Financial Times, Salamé “hopes to put Lebanon on the contemporary art map with [the] new museum”. The building is designed by British architect David Adjaye and is reported to cost USD100 million. Forming part of a commercial centre, the building boasts a sculpture terrace on the waterfront to be overseen by Cecilia Alemani, wife of Gioni and Director of New York’s High Line Art.

Artnews reports that the project is “a continuation of [Salamé’s] contributions to transforming the war-torn city”, with free admission for audiences and educational programming. The article quotes Salamé as saying:

Sometimes you like art but you are intimidated […]. We are democratizing it, so there is no barrier. It’s a way to give back to the community.

3. Beit Beirut (“Beirut House”) – reopening end of 2015

Just like the Sursock Museum, the Barakat House at the Sodeco intersection in Beirut’s Ashrafieh area is another historical building undergoing intense restoration and reconstruction. After seven years of work, the building will be reopened at the end of 2015 as a cultural and research centre. al-monitor reports that “Beit Beirut (“Beirut House”) will be a place of memory and heritage dedicated to the city and its evolution”.

Dubbed “the Yellow House”, the destroyed Barakat house suffered greatly from the violence of the civil war and the ravages of time. al-monitor writes:

The building is pockmarked with bullet holes from defenders and attackers, messages from snipers. From later years […] graffiti marks the walls. Ninety years of Beirut history and its people’s evolution are conserved on and in the Yellow House.

Rendering of the restored Beit Beirut. Image from beitbeirut.org.

Rendering of the restored Beit Beirut. Image from beitbeirut.org.

Architect Youssef Haidar tells al-monitor that his mission was not purely reconstruction, but a project to “fill in the missing parts as you would with dentures […] complet[ing] [the building], with all its layers of history, and to write our part of it”. He said:

Actually, the first collection of the museum is the building itself. Bullets’ impacts, drawings on the walls, old tiles and decorations as well as parts of windows and doors are kept as they are.

The refurbished building will house a war memorial centre, a museum on the life and evolution of Beirut, a space dedicated to permanent and temporary exhibitions, an auditorium, rooftop cafe and restaurant, and five basement levels for archives. Co-managed by the City of Beirut and the City of Paris, the ultimate aim of the project is to preserve Beit Beirut as a heritage symbol whilst nurturing its influence as a living cultural centre.

4. Beirut Contemporary – opening in 2020

Beirut Contemporary is an independent contemporary art museum slated to open in 2020. The ambitious project involves a campaign called “Museum in the Making” – since the Lebanese government is unlikely to provide any funding. The Association for the Promotion and Exhibition of the Arts in Lebanon (APEAL) partnered with Christie’s to launch the national fundraising initiative early in 2015 with an art auction (PDF download) and gala.

Scheduled to open its doors in 2020, Beirut Contemporary will be “inaugurated at a historical and strategic intersection in Beirut, facing the National Museum, to connect the city’s different cultures”. al-monitor writes that the museum will “[constitute] a hub for dialogue and education and [cater] to the needs of the local communities”:

After having supported Arab capitals with its creative productions, Beirut is searching for a haven to accommodate the works of its artists and to spread the culture of museums and lure a new audience.

Rayyane Tabet, 'Steel Rings', 2013, rolled engraved steel, 80 x 10 x 0.6 cm each. Collection of Tariq Al Jaidah; collection of Abdullah K. AlTurki; collection of Adam Sheffer; collection of Marie-Claude Stobart; and collection of Julia Zaouk. Installation view at Sharjah Biennial 12. Photo by Deema Shahin. Image courtesy the artist, Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut and Hamburg, and the Sharjah Art Foundation.

Rayyane Tabet, ‘Steel Rings’, 2013, rolled engraved steel, 80 x 10 x 0.6 cm each. Collection of Tariq Al Jaidah; collection of Abdullah K. AlTurki; collection of Adam Sheffer; collection of Marie-Claude Stobart; and collection of Julia Zaouk. Installation view at Sharjah Biennial 12. Photo by Deema Shahin. Image courtesy the artist, Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut and Hamburg, and the Sharjah Art Foundation.

According to to Artnet News, the planned institution also hopes to fuel the country’s art scene through tourism. The article continues:

[The museum] also hopes to appeal to tourists, turning Beirut into an international arts destination alá (sic) Abu Dhabi with its planned Louvre and Guggenheim outposts […].

However, with uncertain funding and long years of construction ahead, the future of Beirut Contemporary is still uncertain. Michael Jeha, Regional Manager of Christie’s in the Middle East, commented to Artnet News in February:

It is no big secret that Lebanon’s security situation is unstable […] but art mainly aims at uniting people rather than dividing them. Art lovers and supporters consider this their starting point to move forward, armed with the hope of completing the construction and gathering the necessary funds.

5. Saradar ACE museum – opening in 2020-2021

ACE (Artistic Cultural Events sal) is a company created by Saradar Group that “operates exclusively in the artistic and cultural fields”. According to its website, one of its main objectives is to build and manage a collection of Lebanese modern and contemporary art, and Saradar Group aims to launch a private museum in Karantina to host this collection.

According to The Daily Star Lebanon, Saradar’s museum project dates from 2012 when Mario Saradar assembled an international panel of experts to build the company’s collection. ACE Chairman and General Manager Kiryakos Chidiac told The Daily Star Lebanon:

We brainstormed for many months before going for the first acquisition. Which artists? Why? The collection focuses on [the work of] Lebanese artists who’ve touched on the Lebanese theme. It also depends on the importance of the piece and the artist […]. It’s a sort of curated collection, because [the] works communicate with each other.

Etel Adnan, 'Le Mont Tamalpaïs', 1985, oil on canvas. Image courtesy The Sursock Museum (permission to use).

Etel Adnan, ‘Le Mont Tamalpaïs’, 1985, oil on canvas. Image courtesy The Sursock Museum.

The new and still modest modern collection already features auction darlings Mohammed Rawas, Etel Adnan, Rafic Charaf, Aref Rayyes, Septem Manoukian, Hugette Caland and Paul Guiagosian. The contemporary collection includes similarly big names, such as Walid Raad, Marwan Rashmaoui, Akram Zaatari, Paola Yaacoub, Said Baalbaki and Ali Cherri.

The museum will find its home in a newly erected commercial-residential complex in Karantina, designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Christian de Portzamparc. Construction is estimated to take five to six years, and a 2,000-metre space is planned – “[o]ur vision is to go deep, not big”, Chidiac says to The Daily Star Lebanon. Chidiac also says, commenting on the upcoming surge of institutions in Lebanon:

In my opinion Lebanon is following a certain trend. In the first period we were behind. Then in 10 years we woke up and the markets were open, the Internet was here and we wanted to [move] very fast. That’s why you have many [museum] initiatives, all different.

Michele Chan

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Related Topics: Lebanese artists, art spaces, museums, institutions, foundations, art and tourism, collectors, corporate collectors, events in Lebanon

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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