BEIRUT: Time was, artists and arts administrators in this country wished that Lebanon were more European. Standards vary from state to state but, historically, Western European governments have demonstrated a degree of financial and institutional commitment to art and cultural production that the managers of Lebanon’s meager state had no means, and little interest, to emulate.
With no local support for cultural production, Lebanese artists without independent means have had to rely on financial assistance from Europe, whether from Mother France or the EU.
Perceived as extensions of the social welfare state, Europe’s art funding infrastructure has been under threat since the end of last century, the ideological menace finding populist political traction in the wake of the crisis in global finance capitalism that coincided with the end of the second Bush administration.
While the European model of arts infrastructure has come under siege, alternative sources of funding have been evolving in the Middle East. Arab filmmakers have increasingly been lured to a web of production grants spinning out of film festivals in Qatar and the UAE (in both Dubai and Abu Dhabi).
Operating more quietly, but with a more catholic mandate – extending to performing arts, literature, music and visual arts, as well as cinema – has been the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture. Established in 2007 by such cultural lobbyists as Egypt’s Mawred al-Thaqaf, the fund has been accepting applications for grants from Arab artists, playing a role most Arab states cannot.
“I am not an orphan of this model,” says AFAC chairman Ghassan Salameh. “I never believed in it.
“If you look elsewhere in this region, you see that the relationship of governments to culture is at least ambiguous and probably counterproductive most of the time. Because governments are generally defined in terms of nepotism and partisanship, you are never sure that when governments pay for culture that real talent is going to be identified and helped.
“I think the role of anybody in some kind of position of power is to raise funds, not to ask the government for them,” he adds.
Salameh says that based on his experience, not least as the country’s minister of culture, cultural production has not thrived on state spending.
“I think that the one area where everything should remain in government hands is in antiquities,” he says. “Because this is part of state sovereignty and so cannot be privatized. Cultural production should look elsewhere.”
In the era of retrenchment initiated by Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan et al, the obvious alternative to state spending is the market.
“A lot of people believe in the market,” Salameh says. “I don’t. I believe the market is extremely important but it’s not enough [because] unlike a car or a fridge, a cultural product is also an expression of some kind of collective memory. It has content and this content needs to be supported.”
Salameh is also skeptical of the commodification of art.
“Market forces do devote a lot of interest, obsession in fact, to those cultural products that can be bought ... Art collectors are good because they help the painters, but they are bad insofar as they give too much importance to those arts that can be bought and sold ... This isn’t the case with other arts – theater and performing arts and documentary film.
“So you have the government that should be concerned with heritage conservation and maintenance, and you have the market forces that are very powerful in commodifying certain arts. The rest is in disarray.
“This is where AFAC – and other initiatives, we hope – come in, to compensate for the state’s extremely ambiguous relationship to culture and the market’s extreme distortion of culture.
“If they’re properly run, funds like AFAC, need to fill that dual gap by subsidizing or helping to subsidize unknown, and therefore not commodifiable, artists and arts, and identify new talents.”
When it was founded in 2007, AFAC was based in Amman but it relocated earlier this year to Beirut. Both choices were, Salameh says, strictly pragmatic.
“We started in Amman because we thought offices must be close to the people we want to help – the Iraqis and Palestinians – and we thought that they would have difficulty getting visas to Lebanon,” he explains.
“Then we found that most of the applications, all in fact, are coming over the Internet. Once you’ve decided that the location of the office isn’t important, then you’d better look for a place where there is a critical mass of cultural activity, so there is some osmosis between your staff and the environment. Cairo and Beirut immediately come to mind.
“There’s no Lebanese chauvinism on my part in bringing the offices to Beirut,” he laughs. “All non-Lebanese members of the board wanted to come to Beirut. I was the only one that was reticent. It was much easier for me to get the licence to operate in Amman than it was here in Beirut, and I’m not an absolutely unknown individual in this town.”
Salameh says AFAC has faced several challenges in its first five years, both with artists, who he feels must be educated to be more self-reliant, and with Arab donors.
“Arabs are extremely generous,” he says, “but they are generous within the limits of their anthropology. They aren’t generous for abstract, modern, nonpersonal things.
“It’s not that we need a law to do this, to have a tax exemption like in the West. You need to educate them to be interested in the abstract – non-family, nonsectarian, non-national initiatives.
“Third, you need to maintain some kind of credibility – with real juries, with anonymous copies, with double-check, which is heavy and costly but you cannot do without it ... It’s more revolutionary than people believe.
“I’m not unhappy with the result. We’ve been able to raise a little less than $10 million in five years. In my view not enough of this has come from individuals and that’s where I’d like the fund to be much more active.”
Salameh’s principal donors have been comprised of four groups: the Kuwait-based Arab Fund for Social Development, the Open Society Foundation, the Ford Foundation and, to a more limited extent, the Netherlands’ DOEN Foundation.
“We are also getting about half a million dollars a year from people that have been associated with the fund from day one – board members and so forth,” he says. “The big challenge in the next two to three years is to have regular contributions from individuals in the region.”
Salameh is a firm advocate of investing in individuals rather than investing in buildings.
“Since 1973, the real estate view of things has been dominant,” he says, “with people investing a lot in building things. I think this is the infantile version of development ... I think we’re now entering a phase that I call the real estate saturation. Everywhere it is overbuilt.
“It doesn’t usually come to people’s mind, to invest in people, in talent. Apparently Arabs are no different in this. Like the medieval Europeans, they think the best thing to do is to build cathedrals.
“Then after some time you realize that what gave the West its edge was the industrial revolution, when they started investing in people, when they started having serious education and serious cultural production. Culture is more like industry than it is commerce. You have to invest over the long term.
“I’m quite optimistic that this infantile obsession with buildings is soon to be behind us.”
Aside from ensuring the professionalism of the fund’s management and application-vetting process, Salameh believes that an element of affirmative action must be part of AFAC’s practice.
“That’s why I asked the executive director and his team to put aside a certain amount of money for affirmative action in Yemen,” he says. “Poverty should be something that we take into consideration. I’m not dying to give a grant to a citizen of Qatar or the Emirates or Saudi Arabia. It’s not that I love Yemen. It’s because nobody’s taking care of Yemen.”