Sudden Bloom

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie on Beirut’s Sursock Museum and Aïshti Foundation

Left: Dealers Thomas Dane and Martine d'Anglejan-Chatillon. Right: Artist Simone Fattal.

IT’S LATE ON A WARM FRIDAY EVENING and I’m wandering around a new addition to an old museum, feeling a bit like Alice in Wonderland. For all the years I’ve known it, the Sursock Museum has been a quaint but sleepy place to visit, housed in an ornate little palace on a quiet tree-lined street in one of Beirut’s wealthier, historically Greek Orthodox neighborhoods. Built at the end of the Ottoman Empire, the pile belonged to an aristocratic family whose patriarch, after the formation of the Lebanese state, donated the building to Beirut—on the condition that it become a museum after his death, which it did in 1961.

The museum stayed open, if not always active, throughout Lebanon’s fifteen years of civil war, which began in 1975, then closed for a major renovation in 2008. By that time, its glamour was threadbare, its ideas about art out of touch, its finances wrecked. Some artists began donating their works when the museum could no longer acquire anything. Others simply left behind the things they no longer wanted. The collection, which stands today at just under a thousand works, became eclectic at best. The fifteen-million-dollar upgrade and expansion dragged on for years.

In the meantime, a generation of upstart organizations such as Ashkal Alwan and the Arab Image Foundation took Beirut’s contemporary art scene to an entirely different place. In the absence of Sursock, plans for new museums were hatched, and always they seemed to fall apart before breaking ground. The projects on deck these days include an archaeological museum by Renzo Piano, which Solidere, the private real estate company in charge of the reconstruction of downtown Beirut, is building in collaboration with the Ministry of Culture, thanks to a thirty-million-dollar gift from the Kuwait Fund; a contemporary art center known as the House of Arts and Culture, which was jump-started a decade ago with a twenty-million-dollar gift from the Sultanate of Oman; Beit Beirut, a museum dedicated to the memory of the city, which is meant to open next March; and a museum of modern and contemporary art planned for a vast parking lot on the campus of the Jesuits’ Université Saint-Joseph, for which an international design competition was launched on October 1, open only to architects of Lebanese origin, a detail that seems off in its emphasis on static nationalism.

Left: Alia Fattouh of TandemWorks with curator Amanda Abi Khalil. Right: Artists Khalil Joreige and Joana Hadjithomas.

Then, suddenly, amid all of these fanciful plans, many of which are guaranteed never to materialize, Sursock roused itself from a long slumber. The museum hired a new director, poaching Zeina Arida from her seventeen-year perch at the Arab Image Foundation, as well as a director of exhibitions and public programs, Nora Razian from Tate Modern, and a head of collections and archives, Yasmine Chemali, who had been working on one of the most significant collections of photography in Lebanon, belonging to the family of Fouad Debbas.

The museum reopened on October 8 with four new exhibitions dedicated—albeit in very different ways—to Beirut. A fiercely loyal crowd of 3,500 people—including artists, socialites, politicians, and pop stars—turned out for the opening. Hundreds more have come for a symposium on the role of museums and a full slate of walking tours, workshops, and film programs, which, in the past three weeks, have been breathing real life into the place for the first time in decades.

“This is exactly what a public space should be,” Arida tells me, when I sit with her earlier in the week. “We are driven by a public mission, and we receive public funds, but we are run like a private institution,” she explains. “It’s super exciting that people are starting to trust the museum. And it’s important they see that Sursock has a role to play. Because we are witnessing big changes that are endangering the institutions that started in Beirut in the ’90s.”

There’s now five times as much space in the museum as before, much of it taken up by a cavernous, double-vaulted exhibition hall occupying two floors below ground. The renovation was necessary but the results are strange—which is why, on this particular evening, I feel like Alice eating the cake that makes me too big in the old parts of the building, and drinking the potion that makes me too small in the new.

Left: Patron Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo with Eva Presenhuber director Markus Rischgasser. Right: Reem Akl and Rima Mokaiesh of the Arab Image Foundation.

The rabbit hole I’ve tumbled into, however, is entirely different from anything else in the everyday life of Beirut. Huge white buses cram the narrow streets of the surrounding neighborhood. A crowd of overdressed art dealers, fashion people, publicists, and other hangers-on are milling around the museum. They have obviously come from far and are looking a little lost. I strain to understand why the owners and directors of seemingly every major gallery from Los Angles, Mexico City, New York, London, Paris, Milan, and Zurich have rushed into this small third-world city that is perpetually troubled and currently in the midst of a garbage crisis, next door to the most gruesome civil war of the century so far, and suffering from serious economic anemia and a totally dysfunctional government, which is nevertheless cracking down on protesters who, for two months now, have been challenging the state’s ineptitude.

And yet, the white rabbit who we’ve all eagerly followed here is surely, or at least allegorically, none other than Tony Salamé, the retail fashion impresario, founder and CEO of Aïshti (an empire of department stores, spas, high-end shops, restaurants, a few magazines, and more), who became a megacollector in a heartbeat and is now the art-world phenomenon of our moment. In forty-eight hours’ time, Salamé is meant to inaugurate the new, one-hundred-million-dollar building of the Aïshti Foundation, a curious hybrid of art and fashion, with four floors and some 40,000 square feet of pristine exhibition space flanking an enormous new shopping mall. All of it is wrapped in a patterned red facade by David Adjaye, which looks, to local eyes, like an accidental riff on the logo of a regional supermarket chain.

Every autumn, the art scene in Beirut spins through several weeks of hysterical hyperactivity before sliding into a gloomy winter. This year, however, the start of that season has been especially intense, and the subject of greater international attention than usual. It began with Sursock; rumbled through the arrival of a new gallery called Marfa (Arabic for “port”), where the artist Vartan Avakian opened his first solo show on Thursday; and then landed on Planet Aïshti, which, in addition to the opening of the foundation itself on Sunday (with the exhibition “New Skin” curated by Massimiliano Gioni), organized a full weekend of events, including a panel discussion at Sursock on Friday, a set of prints from Richard Prince’s Instagram feed hung in the windows of Aïshti’s downtown department store, the opening of “The Extreme Present” organized by Jeffrey Deitch at the Metropolitan Art Society on Saturday, and, on Sunday, and an excursion to one of the warehouses of Salamé’s 2,500-piece collection, where the artist Walid Raad has pulled off a devastatingly clever intervention on and among the crates.

Left: Fiza Akram of Alserkel Avenue with dealer Taymour Grahne. Right: Patron Yola Noujaim.

Back at the Sursock on Friday, the symposium is under way and the architect Bernard Khoury is holding forth. The local art scene’s enfant terrible is running through a fortified version of his usual shtick. “I started my career doing bars and clubs and places of debauchery,” he says. “I design for the rich, for bankers, people who want to make money, bad people, and they are my heroes. I have not built any museums and I probably never will. They are cemeteries of culture. I don’t see the possibility of political radicality in museums. I would rather build bordellos.”

“Some museums are bordellos,” says Gioni, who is moderating the event, without missing a beat.

Just as the stories of Salamé and the Aishti Foundation are couched in a lot of history and context, Khoury’s comments are framed in a rather formalist discussion featuring Adjaye (diplomatic), the Swiss artist Pamela Rosenkranz (timid), and the Beirut-based artist Rayyane Tabet (highly entertaining). It also sets an important tone for the weekend, as when Khoury speaks of the mix of influences that have always characterized the city. “This is what Beirut is about, but it’s important that we create meaning from our bad soil. Here you contradict yourself from one street corner to another, and you do so proudly and honestly.”

Khoury studied art to practice architecture. Tabet did the opposite. “I grew up in a city that was reconstructing itself. I didn’t go to museums. The National Museum was closed. My access to form, content, and ideas was just walking down the street. I need to study the practice that had produced and destroyed my city.” When the symposium ends in the dead silence of no questions or comments, I wonder how much the five hundred guests whom Salamé has invited really care about Beirut’s reconstruction, or any of the other local issues that have long been central to the art being made in the city.

Left: Dealer Isabella Bortolozzi. Right: Artist Haig Aivazian with writer Rayya Badran and artist Ahmad Ghossein.

The first time I understood that Salamé was collecting art was in 2007, when he invited me to see (and write about) four pieces that were on view in the restaurant of Aïshti Seaside, next door to the new foundation. (A building designed by Khoury for Salamé stands next to that.) There was a bronze Sphere Within Sphere sculpture by Arnaldo Pomodoro, a fabric throne by Gaetano Pesce, a silk and crystal wall work by Angelo Filomeno, and a flashy painting by Takagi Masakatsu and Saeko Takagi. Salamé described his taste at the time as neo-Baroque. This speaks to the fact that, up until this weekend, Salamé’s buying power was really better known abroad than in Beirut. Sure, he collected stamps and old books and carpets and a few seventeenth-century paintings that he displayed in his first shop, which opened in Jal al-Dib in 1989. But unless you were actually involved, or a part of the market abroad, who could have known that his collection of contemporary art was so substantial, or that it had been making so many waves internationally?

“When I first started collecting, Dino Facchini [founder of the fashion label Byblos] said, ‘You should buy serious art.’ He pushed me toward Pomodoro, Fontana. I was his agent in the Middle East when nobody trusted me, when I was a kid, just nineteen years old,” Salamé recalls. “At Art Basel in 2006, I met Jeffrey Deitch. He said, ‘You should meet Dakis Joannou. You’re going to open a great foundation one day. I can tell.’ So he pushed me in this direction.”

A few facts bear repeating (and correcting). Salamé’s foundation is not a museum. It really is an exhibition space attached to a shopping mall. And all the new boutiques were open during the inauguration on Sunday. By the end of the night, as the crowd dispersed and the bankers, local millionaires, television celebrities, and a handful of cabinet ministers were all long gone, a clutch of decked-out middle-aged women could be seen trying on vertiginous high-heeled shoes. The place where the foundation sits—squished between the highway, a commuter road, and the deep blue sea on an unloved strip of warehouses, drab office buildings, and oil tanks in Jal al-Dib—is also not a part of Beirut. It is in the Metn, at least four suburbs out from the city. While it may have been beautiful once, at the turn of the last century, Jal al-Dib is certainly not a resort town, or even a beach town. And while Salamé’s foundation may adopt a model that is increasingly recognizable in the intersecting worlds of art and fashion, that model is new to Beirut, and so it is naturally contentious.

Left: Patrons Farida Sultan and Huda Baroudi. Right: Artist Willem de Rooij.

A dealer from the Lebanese diaspora widens her eyes at Deitch’s opening on Saturday and says of her foreign counterparts: “They’re like vultures!” Another diaspora dealer gives me his summation of Salamé’s international guests while walking through the National Museum on Sunday: “All they hear about this place is ‘ISIS, ISIS, ISIS.’ Then they come here, and all they see is cleavage, cleavage, cleavage.”

I clock my favorite sarcophagus, bearing the legend of Achilles and showing a man being trampled by a chariot, which adequately captures my mood. Touching on an important truth, yet another dealer tells me: “Whatever happens in this city that is not garbage or war is positive. I wish there had been separate openings for the mall and the foundation. The art became like a dress from Prada. But some of the work is strong. And the foundation holds all the contradictions of the city and its history.”

Drifting through Gioni’s show on Sunday night, there are a number of inspired pairings, such as Glenn Ligon and Danh Vō in one room, Etel Adnan and R. H. Quaytman in another. It is true that the collection seems overwhelmingly concerned with young male abstract painters from New York. But the strengths and subtleties of the Arte Povera works on view almost balance that out. Wearing a leopard-print hat and gigantic pink-beaded necklace, Sarah Trad, the cofounder of the outpatient drug treatment center Skoun, tells me that she arrived skeptical but is leaving impressed. On the top floor of the foundation, I run into Akram Zaatari, who has a new version of an old video, Her + Him Van Leo, in the show. I ask him if the sultry pinup girl who figures in the piece is really his grandmother. “I wish! Both of my grandmothers were quite conservative.”

Left: Patron and Abraaj Group Art Prize chair Dana Farouki. Right: Delfina Foundation director Aaron Cezar with Art Dubai director Antonia Carver.

Much has been made of the fact that Zaatari is one of only a handful of Arab artists represented in Salamé’s collection. The others are Adnan, Tabet, Ziad Antar, and Mona Hatoum. The Raad in the warehouse is a loan. In general, many of Beirut’s more opinionated artists, writers, and curators are disturbed by Salamé’s achievements.

On Monday, after the circus has moved on, I run into one such artist in my neighborhood. “This is everything we never wanted to be or to do with art in Beirut,” he says to me sadly. I had just seen a new work of his earlier that day, in one of several shows around town that are explicitly devoted to the experience of Beirut. There’s a small but important installation by Jayce Salloum at the American University of Beirut, gathering a wealth of materials about how Lebanon is known. At the Beirut Exhibition Center, the curator Joanna Abou Sleiman Chevalier has installed a haunting recreation of the room where Adnan works, facing the text of her poem “There,” a gorgeous rumination on place, memory, imagination, and love.

The four shows affiliated with Aïshti are fantasies compared to this. And that may very well be Salamé’s point. I ask him why he spends money on art when he could spend it on so many other things:

“For me, art is the only thing that will take you out of your context, out of the problems of your daily life. Whether you are with an artist in a studio or among work in a gallery or a show, art is the only thing that can put you on another planet.”

Left: Sursock Museum director Zeina Arida with Yasmine Chemali, head of collections and archives. Right: Architect David Adjaye with curator Massimiliano Gioni. (All photos: Kaelen Wilson-Goldie)

Left: Artist Marwan Rechmaoui with patron Nayla Audi. Right: Artist Maurizio Cattelan.

Left: Curator Joanna Abou Sleiman Chevalier with designer Nada Debs. Right: Skoun cofounder Sarah Trad with artist Lamia Joreige.

Left: Artist Ziad Antar. Right: Dealer Esther Quiroga, architect Miggi Hood, and dealers Gíó Marconi and Carol Greene.

Left: Artist Mona Hatoum. Right: Artists Mounira al-Solh and Akram Zaatari.

Left: Dealer Joumana Asseily of Marfa with Protocinema founder Mari Spirito. Right: Dealers Andrée Sfeir-Semler and Eva Presenhuber.

Left: Dealer and curator Jeffrey Deitch. Right: Curator Eungie Joo with artist Glenn Ligon and dealer Shaun Caley Regen.

Left: Aïshti CEO Tony Salamé. Right: Dealer Jonathan Viner with publicist Noreen Ahmad and Independent Curators International director Renaud Proch.

Left: Amira Solh of Solidere's department of urban design and masterplanning with artist Vartan Avakian. Right: Sursock Museum's head of temporary exhibitions and public programs Nora Razian.