Editor’s note: This is the first of two articles on the impact of Lebanon’s present security situation on commercial and nonprofit art spaces around Beirut
BEIRUT: When Lynda Abou Khater, director of Mark Hachem Gallery, arrived for work on the morning of Dec. 27 last year she was greeted with twisted metal and broken glass. The blast from the devastating car bomb explosion that left eight people dead and wounded more than 70 in downtown Beirut blew the windows of the gallery in and flung an employee sitting on the wall outside into the side of the building.“Thank God no one was in the gallery. No one was hurt,” said Abou Khater. “I had nearly $300,000 worth of damage – work by international sculptors and local artists as well. That was just the work, that wasn’t the cost of fixing up the gallery.”
Over the past three years the security situation in Lebanon has steadily declined. Despite increasingly violent spillover from Syria, the country’s art galleries and cultural institutions have soldiered on. Many are suffering the effects of the security situation, however, and the ramifications extend far beyond physical damage.
For commercial galleries, the biggest blow has been to the art market. Several gallerists confirmed that travel bans issued by many Gulf countries since mid-2012 – coupled with a significant drop in tourism since the onset of the Syrian crisis and the fragile local economy – have seen sales fall.
“The last four months were very slow,” said Joy Mardini, who launched Karantina-based Art Factum Gallery in December 2011. “Even December, a month where we make a good part of our profits, was lower this year. ... We have less people coming spontaneously to the gallery. A lot of tourists ... used to come. They don’t anymore.”
Veteran gallerists who have weathered Beirut’s political vagaries are more inured to market slumps.
“My gallery has been open for 24 years now,” said Agial Art Gallery founder Saleh Barakat. “I’ve been through many different cycles. I’ve seen many wars, many peaks and [troughs] ... Because we are pretty established, we have built our clientele and ... learned ... that you have to always be aware that things are volatile. Therefore you have to [develop] immunity.
“I’ve always tried to have many openings – a little in the Gulf, a little in Europe, a little in the States – without forgetting that my main bread and butter is Lebanon. ... This makes the crisis a little less volatile for me.”
“The situation is always moving,” observed Nadine Begdache, who opened Galerie Janine Rubeiz in 1993. “You have two very bad years. Then it comes back. Then it goes again. It’s [always been] like this. ... The situation affects the art market a lot.”
The local market may have slowed, but it hasn’t come to a complete halt.
“The art market was affected,” said Marc Mouarkech, director of Galerie Tanit-Beyrouth, “but not as much as we thought it would be. ... There’s not a lot of collectors in Lebanon, but the people who are able to buy art still buy.
“Usually sales take more time right now because people are ... taking care of their money.”
Barakat sees Lebanon’s small collectors as having saved the market from collapse.
“In Lebanon, if you know your market very well, it is less sensitive,” he explained. “Lebanon has never had big collectors, those who [spend] $5 or $10 million a year and who control or are very influential to the market.”
“Lebanon has always [had] a larger quantity of small-to-medium size collectors, mostly professionals.
“When there is a very big crisis they will buy one to two pieces instead of two to three pieces a year, but they will always buy, especially if they find something they like.
“I feel it more in the negotiation. In better times people ... don’t negotiate a lot. Now they will negotiate. They know that things are not selling well. ... Now I have more clients who are coming because they know they can buy better pieces at a cheaper price if they are willing to spend some money.”
Abou Khater said that business had been steady throughout most of 2011-13, but that the period following the December explosion was the slowest since Mark Hachem Gallery’s Beirut branch opened in 2010.
“We are not seeing the same traffic,” she said. “Everybody’s very cautious. January was just horrific. ... February somewhat picked up. In general it’s been nasty, especially because the bomb was in Downtown, so people are scared to go out.
“People were more reluctant to spend because they didn’t know if they were going to stay in Lebanon or leave. ... They’ll still buy, just at more accessible prices.”
Andree Sfeir-Semler, who founded Karantina’s Sfeir-Semler Gallery in 2005, had a bleaker outlook.
“No one is coming anymore,” she said. “People are frightened to travel to the country. Even Lebanese [expats] are not coming.
“We’re back to the war years. What’s very sad is that many idealistic young artists who came back wanting to proceed in Lebanon are leaving again.”
“The only reason I keep going is that I am not only relying on what happens in the country,” she added. “My artists only eat and drink because we are abroad and we are at all major art fairs ... I really wondered at one point if I should proceed with the Beirut gallery.”
Sfeir-Semler’s business is stabilized by her Hamburg gallery, just as Tanit and Mark Hachem also have spaces overseas. For commercial galleries with no overseas presence, however, international art fairs are becoming increasingly crucial as a means to generate income.
Art Factum has added two art fairs to its annual schedule, Mardini said. Begdache took a stand at London’s Art 14 for the first time earlier this year.
“It’s a very good way to sell your art and to let people discover many artists,” she explained. “If we don’t go to art fairs and have no personal relationships with museums it’s difficult. ... [During] these bad years if a gallery is still functioning it’s because of the international or regional market.
“I went to Art 14 [because] I wanted to check the European art field. ... We were very agreeably surprised. We sold five artists in London, where nobody knows about the gallery or the artists.
“It’s good that we can go outside. In the end the local market helps us to break even. ... Okay, so we don’t make money, but we cover all the costs of the gallery. ... We can continue. We can promote artists.”
International fairs have become crucial to staying afloat for many over the past three years. In the meantime, the Beirut Art Fair, the fifth edition of which is scheduled for September, has enticed curious international galleries to Lebanon, although few have made it an annual fixture.
In striking contrast to local gallerists’ experiences, BAF director Laure d’Hauteville opined that the security situation actually boosted sales at the fair’s 2013 edition.
During Lebanon’s Civil War, she said, “it was the best time for all the Lebanese galleries. They sold a lot ... because Lebanese people needed to forget the war. ... This is exactly what happened at BAF last year. ... We had 46 galleries and all of them sold. ... Everybody wants to forget what’s happening, to see art, to enjoy art and to buy art.”
D’Hauteville views maintaining the fair during difficult times to be an act of resistance.
“Beirut has never been a calm place,” she said. “People know that. We always tell the galleries coming to Beirut that the situation is up and down. ... We had only two galleries from Paris that canceled ... because they were afraid.”
Another challenge for many galleries is insuring artwork amid an unstable security climate that has led most firms to classify Lebanon as a “war zone.”
Abou Khater estimated that insurance costs for the work at Mark Hachem Gallery have increased by about 15 percent since 2010, but said insurers refused to pay for the damage done by the December bombing.
“Insurance does not cover acts of war or terrorism,” she explained. “The government response actually has been not too bad ... [but] we’ll never get back the total money. We’ll be lucky to get $10,000.”
Even in the wake of the attack, she said, more comprehensive coverage was not practical.
“There is insurance you can get to cover terrorism and acts of war, but the fees are horrendous,” she explained. “When you work it out it’s not feasible, especially because we’re in a war area. The premiums are automatically higher than anywhere else in the world. ... So I’m trusting to probability: It’s happened once so we just have to trust that it doesn’t happen again.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by all but one of the gallery owners. Mardini said that Art Factum’s insurance covers war and terrorism as well as the standard eventualities such as fire and water damage or theft. For the rest, however, the exorbitant cost of insurance against acts of war renders it out of reach.
“I used to insure with AXA insurance, Germany,” recalled Sfeir-Semler, “but [in2012] they refused to keep insuring me for Lebanon. I don’t trust the Lebanese insurers for art, so now I insure with another German company ... but I pay three times as much as I used to pay. ... They insure me now as a country at war, [but] I am not covered if a bomb falls.”
High-profile events that gather millions of dollars of work together in one location, such as the Beirut Art Fair, rely on individual policies. Galleries attending the fair must arrange their own insurance for the work they bring, D’Hauteville explained, something that she stressed was standard procedure for art fairs. She did admit that in the current climate finding insurers willing to cover terrorism or war damage can be challenging.
“It’s true with international insurance companies,” she said, “because they don’t really know Lebanon. But we offer all our galleries the possibility to insure their artwork with a Lebanese company.”
In the absence of comprehensive insurance, most local gallerists said they discuss the potential risks with artists and agree on a form of compensation should disaster strike.
“If you have to insure against bombings ... it becomes very expensive,” said Begdache. “Of course if you have a very important piece of work you have to do it. With the Lebanese artists, even if they sell at $50,000 [or] $100,000, because we are on very good terms we take out normal insurance. ... It’s as if you are buying the work from the artist. You pay a little amount – not the whole amount of course – and you decide with an artist the minimum amount he accepts if something happens.”
For an exhibition of work by Egyptian modernist Hamed Abdalla at Agial last month, imported from the family’s collection in France, Barakat chose to exhibit works on paper rather than valuable paintings, in light of the deteriorating security situation.
“If you bring big pieces ... you may not be able to bring them downstairs,” he said. “If I decide to send them back, I have had cases where things were stuck in the port for two months because there was a war, and you end up not knowing where they are. Fortunately nothing was lost, historically, but they’re not mine. Why should I put them in such a situation?”