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Contemporary art as country’s intellectual reconstruction

Architecture

Three young Lebanese entrepreneurs have joined forces to create a new initiative that strays far afield of their usual business plans. Maya Karanouh, Hala Fadel and Tarek Sadi have backgrounds in branding, fund management and venture capitalism, respectively.

This article was first featured on the Daily Star’s website (www.dailystar.com.lb), written by Kaelen Wilson-Goldie on December 12, 2011.
Their joint project, however, is all about contemporary art. Art Beirut is a nonprofit organization the trio established a year ago to promote contemporary art in Lebanon. The group made its debut appearance last month, kicking off a yearlong speakers’ series with an evening of talks at Bank Audi Plaza. In two sessions, Anthony Downey, of the Sotheby’s Institute of Art, raced through a breakneck history of contemporary art around the world and in the Middle East since the 1990s.
The boisterous discussion that ensued was followed by a tour of Bank Audi’s corporate collection, which includes paintings by Shafic Abboud, Ali Chams and Jean-Marc Nahas, sculptures by Mireille Honein, a beautiful turn-of-the-last-century portrait by Edouard Vuillard and an intricate carved-wood interior, acquired from Farah Diba, wife of Iran’s last shah, which now lines the walls of a conference room.
Over the next 12 months, Art Beirut is planning to stage quarterly events, with the eventual goal of organizing a visit to a major exhibition, biennial or art fair abroad.
“In the beginning, we wanted to do an art fair in Beirut,” says Fadel. “We realized we could do that, but it would always be the same crowd that shows up, and maybe they wouldn’t get as much out of it as they could. We wanted to create something that would allow for asking questions and learning about what’s going on in the art world.
“So we decided, let’s start with a speakers’ series, so we can really educate the crowd and see where we can go together. Maybe two or three years down the line, we can revisit the idea of doing the art fair we were thinking about before.”
What sets Art Beirut apart from other nonprofit organizations devoted to contemporary art in Lebanon is the fact that Karanouh, Fadel and Sadi are thinking differently about the issue of audience. They are not after the artists and intellectuals, except as possible speakers. The crowd they want to attract is made up of people much like themselves: young, affluent, interested in collecting and supporting contemporary art, and hungry for the knowledge that would allow them to do so wisely.
Art Beirut is primarily the brainchild of Karanouh, who runs the Beirut- and Dubai-based branding and design agency Tagbrands.
Two years ago, she took a sabbatical of sorts to attend the Sotheby’s Institute in London.
“When I got back, everybody knew I had gone and done my master’s degree in the history of contemporary art,” she says.
“They would ask me to go with them to exhibitions and give them advice. I would tell them, ‘Whatever you love, you should buy.’ But they wanted more practical information. They wanted to know more about the artists. The art world can be quite intimidating at the end of the day. We wanted to demystify it in a certain way.”
“In the art world in Lebanon,” says Fadel, “the people who get really interested are the professionals,” meaning artists, curators, gallery owners and critics.
“We want to democratize it,” says Sadi, and adds: “We had a number of reservations in the beginning, but ultimately we looked at ourselves as our own target market. What do we want? We want to learn and evolve and grow and appreciate art and understand what’s happening.
“They are a lot of people who are interested in art but they don’t know where to start, and they have the courage to say, ‘I don’t know.’ There’s a real desire among these people to educate themselves and grow and gain some sense of the philosophy behind what they want to invest in.”
“The affluent people in Lebanon are art agnostic,” says Fadel. “They don’t know that much. But in every society they are the patrons of art, since the Renaissance. It’s the affluent people who are supposed to support art.”
“So many people are doing events and exhibitions now,” adds Karanouh. “We thought we should do something on the level of education that’s open to a completely different crowd, which is the crowd that can really support the work. We hear so much from the galleries that they need more support and they need more people to buy Lebanese art.”
The emergence of Art Beirut comes at a crucial time. Since the 1990s, some of the city’s most interesting young arts organizations have been sustained, primarily, on a project-to-project basis by foreign funding.
Now that so many nonprofit art spaces have opened – from the Beirut Art Center and the 98 Weeks Project Space to the Home Workspace by Ashkal Alwan – there is palpable need for local support and a new class of enlightened philanthropists. Art Beirut is addressing that need, with an approach that makes sense to the people who are capable of giving.
“Most people don’t study art history in university,” says Karanouh. “So unless they read a lot – and we’re talking about very, very busy people here – they would have to go back to school, and that’s never going to happen.”
“The trick,” says Fadel, is to create a situation where people get involved in Art Beirut “to really work on themselves and the knowledge around contemporary art in a way that is both entertaining and educational.”
“There’s a practical side of that knowledge,” adds Sadi. “People aren’t looking at this as art history. It’s more, ‘I want to learn how to look at art, what’s a good piece of art, what’s something worth investing in.’ Eventually we want to do roundtables with collectors and curators and artists, so it’s not just having people pontificate on what’s art and what’s not, but actually having people who curate and produce and support to talk about what they do and share what drives them, what’s the impetus behind their involvement, so people can take that into consideration for themselves.”
“People in our society and in Lebanon in general have lost their critical mind,” says Fadel. “I don’t know when they shut down, but art can make them think about their lives and react to what’s going on around them. Lebanese artists are on the edge of the country’s philosophy mind. We want to bring people there.”
As Sadi says, “It’s all part of the intellectual reconstruction of the country.”
For more information on Art Beirut, please visit www.art-beirut.com.

 

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