BEIRUT: At the end of this month the Gemmayzeh gallery Espace SD is closing its door for good, putting the final ending on a story of an art space that has grown over the years into one of the most important venues for contemporary cultural production in Beirut. On April 1, the city will find itself with one less venue for artists, musicians, filmmakers and designers to present their work to an audience that has become, on the whole, loyal to what goes on inside the whoosh of those sliding glass doors at Espace SD's entrance.
It is tempting to read this news as a narrative of an arts initiative cracking under the pressure of Lebanon's ongoing economic crisis and political stalemate. But Espace SD's closure is more complicated.
Sandra Dagher, who has been running the space since 2000, two years after it opened, originally planned to cut Espace SD's cord in June 2006. But then a side-project she was working on got delayed, and she realized she wasn't ready yet. She decided to continue for six months more. Then, of course, there was the war in Lebanon and everything else. But the end of Espace SD comes as Dagher prepares to start something new - another arts initiative that may build on Espace SD's successes, and redress its failures.
Espace SD is squished between Charles Helou Avenue and a fork that turns off Pasteur Street in Gemmayzeh, a neighborhood that was little more than a sleepy, densely residential quarter when the gunmetal gray Dagher Building was first constructed in the mid 1990s.
Today, the gallery sprawls across three floors - the main exhibition hall, a tiny laboratory space and a 30-seat movie theater are located on the first floor; the second floor boasts an expansive showcase for Lebanese designers - including fashion, furniture and jewelry - a cafe and a shop for books, music, magazines and more; the third floor houses the gallery's permanent collection and opens on occasion for joint exhibitions with cultural foundations like Ashkal Alwan, the Goethe Institute and the Heinrich Boell Foundation.
Espace SD has never really functioned like a commercial gallery. Dagher likens it instead to a platform or a polyvalent space for multidisciplinary work. Espace SD has shown between 10 and 15 exhibitions a year since 2002. It has hosted frequent concerts of free improvised music and a weekly cine-club devoted to Lebanese film, video art and themed programs.
But it has never had a recognizable or defined aesthetic. Fadi Mogabgab Contemporary Art, a private gallery in Gemmayzeh, focuses on large-scale, expressive, international paintings. The Agial Art Gallery in Hamra concentrates on modernist art movements in the Arab world. Galerie Sfeir-Semler in Karantina emphasizes blue-chip artists and conceptual art practices. Espace SD, by contrast, has been something of a free-for-all contained within a self-made structure that allowed it to continue in that loose vein for seven years.
Dagher didn't take a high percentage on the works that sold but did require artists to contribute to the cost of their exhibitions. She didn't exclusively represent any of the artists who filled the space. And she didn't put great effort into cultivating a base of local collectors. The gallery has, as a result, hit a number of highs and lows over the years in terms of the quality of art on show.
But Dagher did make it priority, where other galleries did not, to find emerging artists and give them their first shot at exhibiting. From that experience, she says she realized Beirut needs another kind of art space, one that Espace SD - because it is a private initiative and located in a building owned by her father, meaning it covers its costs but operates rent free - could never accommodate.
"The very beginning of Espace SD was in 1998," she recalls. "It started with an exhibition on photography and fashion. It was Karine Wehbe and Wadih Safieddine who started the project. The basic idea was that there was an empty space and there was a lack of exhibitions venues in Beirut. They proposed to my father to use the space to do exhibitions and events."
Dagher's father agreed and Wehbe and Safieddine began organizing group shows and offering the space to different artists to present their work on their own terms. At the time, Dagher, who was born in Bikfaya and left Lebanon with her fa-mily when
she was 6 months old, was studying in London.
"There wasn't a real structure around [Espace SD] then," says Dagher, "and there wasn't any regularity to the programming. In the summer of 1999, I was in Lebanon, and they proposed to me to come back, live here and take care of Espace SD - because they were also working on other things and doing Espace SD in parallel, and obviously someone needed to be completely dedicated to it to make it work.
"To be very honest," she says, "my plan wasn't to open a gallery or even an exhibition space, but I knew that I wanted to work in this field. I knew also that I wanted to come and live here, to know my country. So I accepted," she laughs, "without knowing the consequences.
"I came back in January and I did my first exhibition in March ... But it's true that I was young. I was 22. I didn't know the cultural scene in Lebanon. I didn't know a lot of people. I didn't have a network. So as I was working I was starting to understand the needs of the country. Very objectively, it took a while to understand what was going on."
By 2002, Dagher had hit her stride. She closed in June to renovate the space and reopened in September with Espace SD as it is today.
"My work was always to make Espace SD dynamic and active. Since I started I felt as if you always have to evolve. Even if it was small, I felt that every season we had to add something new. And the more I was working, the more I found there were limitations.
"My main problem is with the structure - the fact that it is a private space, the fact that it is self-financed. I also felt there was a huge responsibility on the shoulders of one person.
"So basically, this is where I started thinking about what I would like to do. What are the other lacks in the country? Can I fill these gaps? No, I cannot, at least not alone. So this is where I started to think that it was time to change."
For two years, Dagher has been working on the creation of the Beirut Art Center, an association that will eventually take up residence in a permanent space for exhibitions and events free from commercial pressure, funded instead by sponsors, donors and membership programs. Normally, Dagher says, a city has private galleries, art spaces and museums. Beirut only has private galleries. Noting that is unfair to expect those private galleries to do the work of all three entities, Dagher hopes the art center will be a necessary step on the way to the city realizing a proper museum for contemporary art.
"The idea comes from the fact that there is a lack of spaces like this in Lebanon, and they shouldn't be private initiatives but group initiatives that become institutions that are supported by the Lebanese community," she says. "I think people should get more involved.
"With Espace SD, when I told people we were closing, they were shocked and sad. The reaction was great and for that I was grateful. But then some people said to me: 'No, you are not allowed to close.' And I wanted to ask them: 'Well, what have you done to make the space work?' For me it's important to say: 'Okay, you want a space to happen? You have to participate in one way or another.'"