BEIRUT: The local art market has stagnated and at times come to a near standstill since the onset of the war in Syria in early 2011. Various gallerists describe their clientele in different terms but, generally speaking, Beirut’s art market does depend on international collectors, many of them Lebanese expats.
In spite of the optimism some expressed at Lebanon’s Saudi Ambassador Ali Awad Assiri’s lifting of Gulf travel bans last May, the steady decline in business is a trend that seems set to continue.
“July was a good month, whereas August is slower,” said Lynda Abou Khater, director of Downtown’s Mark Hachem Gallery. “Lebanese take this time to be with their families. They like to travel. They spend time in the mountains. They go swimming.
“It’s too humid to be thinking of going gallery hopping in Beirut, so it is a quieter month that usual, but we expect this every year.”
This summer has been particularly slow, she added.
“I’m seeing less tourists,” Abou Khater said. “It’s down compared to last year.”
Art Factum Gallery owner Joy Mardini said the summer months are typically quiet for her too.
“We opened in July and it was quite slow ... It’s the same [as last year],” she added.
“We have two periods during the year that are very slow, February and June/July ... That’s the reason we close in August.”
Mardini told The Daily Star in March that the gallery had suffered an usually slow winter due to the decline in the number of tourists.
“To be very honest there has been a lot less traffic this year from people coming from abroad ... much, much, much less than usual,” founder of Agial Art Gallery Saleh Barakat told The Daily Star.
“Nonetheless, I am not really a gallery that counts on passersby and those who are interested in my kind of artists, which are niche artists, are coming, so it was a fine summer. I’m not complaining.”
By contrast, Noha Moharram, the founder of Gemmayzeh-based gallery Art on 56th, said that, while slower than last year, this summer had brought in numerous tourists.
“It’s really been an amazing summer,” she said. “We’ve seen a lot of new people, mainly expat Lebanese who want to come and invest in Middle Eastern art ... We saw this change directly after the Saudi Embassy [lifted the travel ban] and the security was a bit better.”
While most of her collectors are Lebanese expats, rather than Gulf tourists, she said, the increase in Lebanese, Jordanian and Syrian tourists has meant that business picked up this summer after a lackluster first half of the year.
“We had a few collectors who saved the market,” she continued. “They bought a few pieces, just simple things ... This year was a disaster compared to last year, but since July it’s been a bit better.”
Khater too, says that while sales have not been booming, a significant number of tourists visited “Bridge to Palestine,” a collective show Hachem curated at the Beirut Exhibition Center from June 26 to Aug. 3.
“There were between 70 and 100 people a day visiting the Beirut Exhibition Center,” she said. “I wasn’t expecting that because it was Ramadan. There was the bomb that went off near Raouché a couple of days before the opening. So I thought that we’d have a bad opening because no one would want to go out.
“We had a good opening – not as much as I would have liked, but people did come out – and then a few days later Ramadan started. I thought people wouldn’t go out during Ramadan, but it wasn’t the locals who were going. Obviously I had my collectors but ... there were a lot of tourists going through, a lot of students, a lot of [people] from the [European] embassies.”
An increase in tourist traffic doesn’t necessarily correspond to an increase in sales, however, particularly for more established venues such as the Sfeir-Semler Gallery, who are accustomed to dealing with serious collectors.
“We normally schedule an exhibition in the summertime,” said founder Andree Sfeir-Semler. “Many Lebanese living abroad – our collectors who are based in London, Switzerland, the States, South America – usually come for the summertime to Beirut to visit their families. From our invite list that we sent to our clients none of them were in town. None at all.
“Of course it affected our work a lot. Mounira [Al Solh’s solo exhibition up from April to July] was very difficult. We managed to sell work because we have clients in Germany. She was at the Morocco Biennale, so we sold the work in Europe and in the States, but we sold just two works in Beirut, which is nothing, considering the energy we put into these exhibitions.”
Despite Beirut’s tentative calm this summer, Sfeir-Semler said that the decline in business was due to the regional security situation.
“We have no government, firstly,” she said. “Second, ISIS didn’t exist a year ago as it does now. Last year the Syrian border was almost safe. I went to Baalbek. Now you can’t go to Baalbek. I guess that the situation now is much worse than a year ago ...
“Last summer was a lot better than this summer,” she continued, “although we were [exhibiting] during Ramadan. I tried to avoid [showing] during Ramadan [this year] ... and that was even worse, because the Lebanese who live in Lebanon left in August. They waited for the end of Ramadan to leave.
“Those who were abroad did not come. So we had a very, very quiet opening. It was sad for us.”