Preserving heritage in troubled times

Editor’s note: This piece is the second of a series of two looking into the impact of Lebanon’s present security situation on commercial and nonprofit art spaces around Beirut.

BEIRUT: The third edition of Ashkal Alwan’s Home Workspace Program was scheduled to commence in September 2013. The launch was delayed five weeks, due to the threat of a U.S. airstrike on Syria. “The first chapter of the HWP was moved from late September to early January,” said program director Amal Issa, “and we started with the second chapter in early November. There have been no other major changes due to security issues over the past year, although this happened in the past and may happen again. It’s [been] part of the work contingencies in Lebanon for everyone ... over the past 20 years.”

Lebanon’s precarious security situation and the resulting slowdown in the country’s economy have had a financial impact on Beirut’s art exhibitors. Commercial and nonprofit spaces alike have felt the effect on attendance, insurance, programming and ensuring the safety of work.

Like Ashkal Alwan, most institutions have found ways to ensure their programmed events and exhibitions have gone ahead, though the threat of unpredictable violence makes attracting viewers more of a challenge.

“We haven’t had to reschedule any events,” said Beirut Art Center co-founder Sandra Dagher, “but of course we feel like the audience numbers are lower ... Every time there’s [a security incident] the streets become empty. People stay home.”

The effect of security threats on attendance fluctuates on a monthly, weekly or even daily basis.

Issa told The Daily Star that attendance at last May’s Homeworks – Ashkal Alwan’s more-or-less biannual contemporary art forum – had outstripped that of previous years. “There was a marked increased presence of visitors from the Arab world,” she recalled, “especially young people.”

As for the association’s regular events, audiences always vary. “Over the years we have lost as well as gained audiences,” she said. “If the situation is ... particularly precarious, then this is our gauge.”

In Ashkal Alwan’s Home Workspace Program, its post-secondary arts education platform, international students constitute roughly half those enrolled. This gives organizers something else to think about.

Issa says that, like international guests invited to speak or perform, international students sometimes express concerns about their safety, but it is rare that they choose not to come.

“A couple of people ended up canceling their plans to come,” she said, “but among those who came, no one has left because of the security situation. We discuss security issues openly with our students, and there is an understanding that if ever things get particularly precarious and they feel uncomfortable staying, or if we feel uncomfortable that they stay, we would help them to make necessary arrangements.”

Like commercial galleries, nonprofit spaces such as the BAC – which often imports valuable work for temporary exhibitions – also grapple with the issue of insurance, which is negotiated on a case-by-case basis.

“In the case of the [Gerhard] Richter exhibition,” Dagher recalled, “we were doing it in partnership with the Goethe Institute, so luckily enough we could benefit from the insurance they have for all their institutes all around the world ... In other cases you have specialized insurance companies in Lebanon ... If it was just me alone asking for an insurance company abroad to cover it would be more difficult, but you have other ways to do it.”

The issue of damage from terrorist attacks remains a problem. “That’s a big risk,” she admitted, “and that’s something that no insurance will cover ... The artists know that.”

Dagher added that the artists have all agreed to show their work in spite of the lack of coverage. Ensuring the safety of artwork against car bombs is virtually impossible for galleries and institutions, who simply hope their neighborhoods will not be targeted.

The city’s largest noncommercial gallery, Solidere’s Beirut Exhibition Center, often exhibits work on loan from private collectors. Asked about programming, attendance and insurance in light of the present security concerns, the center’s director Randa al-Manazi said simply, “Nothing has changed.”

Saleh Barakat, founder of Hamra’s Agial Art Gallery, also works on nonprofit ventures.

For him, the risk of exhibiting work is more than just financial.

“A painting that is 100 years old, you don’t have the right to lose it,” he said. “Even if I own it physically, I consider myself the custodian until another person takes over.”

This ethical question arose during the BEC’s 2012 Shafic Abboud retrospective, which Barakat co-curated with Galerie Janine Rubeiz’s Nadine Begdache.

“A few days after we opened Abboud something happened,” he recalled, “something major. For a few days I was in a torment, [wondering]: ‘Shall I bring things back to their owners?’ ... You can have insurance, but most of those people ... just want their piece back. They like it. They would not trade it for all the money in the world.”

For organizations such as the Arab Image Foundation, who archive irreplaceable documents, ensuring physical safety of the work is paramount. The AIF recently received a grant from the International Council of Archives to work on an emergency protocol.

“We’ve been thinking about implementing an emergency plan for a while now,” said Rima Mokaiesh, the AIF’s acting director. “Firstly to identify what kind of emergencies could happen when you have archives and collections and, secondly, to plan for their recovery or preservation in case of said emergency.

“Our collections manager has identified a number of risks, among [them] ... war or car bombs. Definitely the recent situation has created a sense of urgency ... We need to work on it more than ever.”

The funding from the grant will allow the foundation to finance training, additional staff and resources.

“There’s an organization called the Blue Shield,” Mokaiesh explained, “the Red Cross for archives. They’re experts in emergency situations, so we’re going to get training from them ... [In addition] we’re going to be able to hire a photo conservator, to work hand-in-hand with our collections manager ... You have to prioritize your collection: What would we save first? This could be different types of formats, depending on priority.

“We also need to train other people. We have partnerships with people like AUB or the Fouad Debbas Collection, so the goal is for each of us to know each other’s collections and know what to do in case of emergency.

“We would also like to organize training with the fire department – any actors that might be involved in case of an emergency – so they know how to manipulate our archive. The last part that we need funding for is to create ... an emergency tool kit, which we can use to clean and preserve [the collection].”

Despite the challenges, gallerists like Barakat, Begdache and Andree Sfeir-Semler remain dedicated to promoting art in Lebanon, whether or not their exhibitions are profitable.

Barakat organizes regular, nonprofit exhibitions at Baabda’s Jesuit school, College Notre Dame de Jamhour. He’s had to scale these down recently.

“I am restricting myself,” he explained, “downsizing to only pieces from my collection and [from] collectors and artists that I am very close to, because I’m telling them: ‘I can’t tell you there are no risks ... I don’t guarantee anything.’

“The people who I am going to borrow from have accepted this ... If I’m taking [the work] from here to the school, who guarantees that there will be no car bombs? ... I usually put them in my car and take them myself. If something happens to me, I’m a bigger loss. I can [work] with those who understand this...

“I’m one of those people who thinks that these periods of crisis are extremely important,” he added. “If you are a pure trader you would move because you’re losing. We are not pure traders. Yes, we are a commercial gallery, but me and many of my colleagues who are in the same situation ... consider [ourselves] custodians of heritage.

“It’s not the best time, but to a certain extent this makes us stronger. This makes us more attached to what we are doing, fiercer in what we defend and more passionate, because this financial factor at least is put away.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 01, 2014, on page 16.




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