Shoring up Lebanon’s art sector

BEIRUT: Few would argue that 2020’s been a great year. It’s been so miserable for Lebanon’s creative community that it’s tempting to imagine that, if we could just be rid of COVID-19 and get the country’s economy and finances in order, it would all be fixed.

Others know better.

“The port explosion was a horrible thing,” says Mayssa Abou Rahal. “That happened, but what has been happening is much deeper. It took a long time for us to reach the point we’re at today. It’s not going to be solved in the next two or three months. It’ll get worse when the emergency relief stops.

“When you see how all these institutions and artists have been handicapped for over a year now, it’s obvious the system doesn’t work. You can’t count on one or two philanthropists giving you money. When you’re an institution with responsibility for your artists ... you can’t just live day-by-day, hoping to survive on one or two grants a year. We need to find a sustainable system.”

The director of Galerie Tanit from 2016 to 2020, Abou Rahal is among a group of arts professionals and cultural institutions that’s come together to, as they put it, “investigate and assess the effects of Lebanon’s economic and socio-political instability on the various artistic disciplines.” The aim is to to carry out practical changes to strengthen Lebanon’s cultural sector.

The “Creative Cultural Industry Analysis Arts and Culture Survey for Lebanon,” as the project is called, is also driven by the Directorate-General of Antiquities (the one public sector institution visible in the wake of the Beirut Port blast), with the Association for the Promotion and Exhibition of the Arts in Lebanon, its affiliate the Beirut Museum of Art USA, and Studiocur/art, the non-profit curatorial platform of Karina Helou.

Abou Rahal is spearheading the project’s preliminary study. She was in Mar Mikhail, adjacent Beirut Port, on Aug.4 when the blast threw her through a plate glass window, leaving her seriously injured. She started work on this study not long after.

“I started coordinating with the DGA and UNESCO, the other international organizations that were here and, as much as I could, the artists that were hit or injured or had lost their studios and homes” Abou Rahal says. “I knew I wasn’t alone in this, but being here, hands on, with images and testimonies, it was therapeutic.”

The project is a joint effort, she stresses, with all contributors sharing complementary goals while contributing their own insights.

“The DGA and APEAL understand we need a comprehensive study to understand what needs to be done,” she says. “Yes the DGA is a government entity, but it is somehow the only part of the government that’s apolitical. They don’t have a lot of resources but they are active.”

BeMA put her in touch with Fares Dahdah, an architect working with the Spatial Studies Lab at Rice University’s Center for Research Computing, who shared a significant cache of data on neighbourhoods affected by the blast.

Studiocur/art is best known for “The Silent Echo,” in Baalbak, and “Cycles of Collapsing Progress,” in Trablous, a pair of large international exhibitions staged in 2016 and in 2018 in partnership with APEAL and BeMA. In May 2020, Helou and APEAL were working on an artist-support initiative.

“APEAL’s idea to fund some artist went nowhere because we couldn’t decide on who to help,” Helou said from Moscow, where she’s presently based. “Who is the cultural scene? We all have our own networks, but not a comprehensive picture. The information wasn’t available.”

The Aug. 4 explosion propelled them to collaborate in this study.

“I feel we’re back to a blank page,” she said. “When I was growing up, there was no space to discuss issues like these. Now, with the thawra, I feel it’s here, this space.”

Helou said Studiocur/art is managing the project’s website while APEAL is financing the study, which is scheduled to conclude by the end of November. In December the project will move to strategy, developing a two-to-three-year response plan. It’s hoped international cultural organisations will help raise financing for implementation.

The study is itself an ambitious project, not least because “Lebanon’s economic and socio-political instability” isn’t new. An optimist could argue that volatility has been a feature of the post-civil war neo-liberal regime; pessimists might suggest French mandate administrators and their local clients built fragility into the basic nature of the state.

It’s difficult to make definitive statements about the workings of Lebanon’s diverse and multifaceted arts sector because public records are scant. (Among the first things students of Lebanon learn is that the most-recent national census was held in 1932.)

Sparse public records help explain the long delay in erecting a national library, or national archive. In the 1990s, when contemporary art was burrowing into the roles and meanings of archives, museums and the institutional collection of “facts,” Lebanon’s want of such institutions was so palpable that for years it inspired a wide array of work by Lebanese contemporary artists.

“AUB did an arts sector study in 2007,” Abou Rahal says. “They admitted that they had no resources, that no other study had been done before. They decided to focus on cinema and fashion design, which are more lucrative and actually supply numbers.

“Agenda Culturel did another study, a general description of the cultural industry, in 2016.

“In late-2018, early-2019, Institut Français commissioned the Basil Fuleihan Institut des Finances to do a study on the cultural sector. The findings aren’t available yet but it seems it has a strictly economic trajectory, with the goal of documenting the economic weight of the sector – which, apparently, is 4.75 percent on the country’s economy.”

Given everything that’s happened in 2020, Abu Rahal argues a 2019 study is already dated. “It reflects how things were,” she says, but “it complements my work. I’m not doing an economic study.I’m trying to understand the entire complexity of our industry, in all its aspects, not just through quantitative data.”

The backbone of Abu Rahal’s study is three surveys – targeting individual art practitioners, art institutions, and Lebanon’s expat practitioners.

“If we’re gonna start from scratch, we need new strategies to secure sustainability, so that artists can make a living from their work,” Helou said. “We have only a vague sense of artists’ incomes. Some live from what they make working in the cultural sector. Others have supplementary income. Many work as teachers.

“A lot of artists are telling us they’re tired. The real problem of the blast is that professionals are leaving. We can’t keep them with charity. We need to give them a professional platform and know-how.

“First we have to listen to what individual cultural workers are saying. Maybe they need a space where all the institutions can work together? Transcultural spaces? Maybe they need help with visibility? Creating a dialogue among institutional synergies? Residency programs? What do they think an institution should invest in today?”

As sociologist and pollsters have learned, surveys are a vexing tool for gathering information. Participation is voluntary and Lebanon’s cultural workers are weighed down by a lot of pressing matters these days.

Abu Rahal hopes arts professionals will participate in the survey but she isn’t naïve. She believes fragmentary quantitative data must be supplemented by qualitative data. She’s been working to tap the wealth of experience of individuals who helped build Lebanon’s post-Civil War arts sector.

Any plan for a sustainable Lebanese art sector will share the same premise as the ad hoc system assembled in the ’90s – namely, that it’s unlikely the arts will find reliable partners in the neo-liberal state’s public sector.

“Now you have discussions about how to create a system that will protect you,” Abu Rahal says, “because the government won’t. I don’t think the answers are there yet. That’s one of the reasons we’re doing this study. What do professional art practitioners want? What are the other models?

“A few years ago the artists’ syndicate tried to create a fund. To finance it, they put a two percent tax on foreign artists coming to perform. They say it fell apart because people who were bringing the artists weren’t accurately reporting the artists’ fees, to avoid paying the tax. So, no fund.

“It’s not just the government that’s corrupt. It’s the entire system. Collateral corruption,” she sighs. “A lot of people would hate me for saying that. I’d hate myself for saying it.”

She lights a cigarette.

“Yet you do have people who want to do things right. I’m looking for them.”

For those interested in participating in the study, see:





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