Beirut’s Art Scene by Sarah Rogers
(Phd is the author of Postwar Art and the Historical Roots of Beirut's Cosmopolitanism. She has contributed to Parachute, Pensée du Midi, Arab Studies Journal and the Art Journal.) Extract from the book 'A Complete insiders Guide to Lebanon
The end of the civil war ushered in a new burst of activity on the Beirut art scene, which has continued to prosper ever since with any number of Lebanese artists and Beirut-based non-profit arts organizations garnering international accolades. Whereas local artists and critics are known to bemoan a lack of public support, the city's art scene is one of the most vibrant in the region. What characterizes Beirut's art scene as different from say Dubai, is its range: decidedly commercial galleries hold court next to those dedicated to emerging artists (and patrons); non-profit organizations fostering experimental contemporary practices offer an alternative to more traditional museum venues; and a slew of film festivals fill in the empty slots between gallery openings, museum exhibitions, and other arts-related events.
Before the outbreak of the civil war in 1975, Beirut had earned the title of cultural capital of the Arab world. Renowned for its welcoming embrace of a hedonistic nightlife, Beirut also lay claimed to the St. George Hotel, the journalistic hub of the region, a liberal press, and a vivacious enclave of galleries. By 1971, the small area of Ras Beirut was home to at least fifteen galleries. Today, the galleries are geographically dispersed, however they nonetheless pay tribute to the diversity of cultural agendas from the prewar days.
In the Hamra area, Gallery Zamman on Sadat St exhibits young, emerging artists, displaying an overcrowded stock room where potential buyers can sort through for bargains. If owner Dr. Moussa is there, be sure to enjoy a coffee and enlivened discussion about art. Nearby, but at the opposite price range, is Agial Gallery (Abdul Aziz St). Specializing in contemporary Arab art, Agial carries well-established artists with an emphasis on painting. Hopefully, charismatic owner Saleh Barakat is on hand to give you a brief tour through the history of Arab art. Several prominent galleries are reinventions of their former prewar selves like Galerie Janine Rubeiz (formerly Dar el-Fan) in Raouche. Those in search of the white cube should check out Sfeir-Semler in Qarantina, which exhibits contemporary Arab, Lebanese and international artists.
A number of non-profit organizations have also sprung up thanks to local and international, private and public funding. The most renowned of these ventures – and the one that seems to have the most staying power-is Ashkal Alwan. Since 1995, Ashkal Alwan, under the direction of Christine Tohme, has organized exhibitions in historically significant public sites through-out Beirut. In 2002, Tohme launched the now-internationally recognized contemporary arts festival, Home Works. Held every 18 months, Home Works is an excellent opportunity to experience new work in the region and includes films, lectures, performances, and an exhibition. Equally significant for travelers in search of the artistic and intellectual elite is Zico house, a fixture at the cutting edge art front, which like Ashkal Alwan moves beyond the conventional media of painting and sculpture. The photography archive, Arab Image Foundation is another worthy stop-although more for researchers (check out their collection online at aif.org).
The Nicolas Sursock Museum in Achrafieh offers a more traditional museum experience. Nestled in a quiet neighborhood, the Museum's beautiful gingerbread architecture is a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle of Beirut. In the fall, the Sursock holds an annual exhibition of contemporary local artists, but don't expect to find the same crowds as those at Home Works-come to think of it, don't expect to find any crowds. The museum is under renovation and will open again in 2010. Of note for those interested in modern Lebanese art are the Gibran Museum in Bécharré and the Ameen Rihani Musuem in Freike. Those interested in antiques, should hit the American University of Beirut's Museum, the Robert Mouawad Museum, and the National Museum.
Travelers in search of art will find little trouble in Beirut – whether it be wandering through the galleries in Saifi Village, hunting out bargains and potential investments at Zaman; or playing the artist-intellect figure at Ashkal Alwan-sponsored activities. Most events can be found in the pages of L'Agenda Culturel (available in newsstands), the pages of the daily newspapers, or by just aimlessly exploring the city and taking note of the posters announcing events that wallpaper the city walls. In all cases, Beirut's art scene flourishes