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Beirut finally has a permanent, non-commercial arts centre

Posted by artradar on March 24, 2009



Beirut Art Center

Beirut Art Center

The Lebanese capital hosts one of the most vibrant and celebrated contemporary art scenes in the Middle East, reports Kaelen Wilson-Goldie in an article for The National.

L’Agenda Culturel, Beirut’s biweekly listings guide to cultural happenings in and around the city, routinely fills its pages with enough events to keep art lovers active every night of the week.

Until now the city has not had a non-commercial art space but the new Beirut Art Centre fills that gap and significant repercussions are expected to result. 

Five years in the making, the Beirut Art Centre is the first sign of a potentially major shift in how artist, curators and cultural organisers function in Beirut.

Even though Beirut possesses a critical mass of creative figures, the contemporary art scene has operated for 15 years as a hyper-flexible, ever-malleable system with precious few brick and mortar spaces to call its own. The city boasts no modern or contemporary art museum. You can count its commercial art galleries on two hands (the good ones, on one). And the Lebanese government allocates little to no money for the arts.

The lack of state support has had benefits though

In fact, Beirut’s cultural vitality may be a by-product of Lebanon’s weakness as a state: censorship is arbitrary at best, and the city has long been a laboratory for free experimentation in politics as in art. The city’s contemporary art scene may be defined by a lack of official infrastructure more than anything else (for this reason, some refer to Beirut as a post-museum city). 

Beirut’s contemporary art scene is therefore ephemeral by definition and design; one cannot pin its energy to any specific sites. It materialises in bursts of activity: here today, gone tomorrow, back in a few weeks. All of it is documented in catalogues and archival videos. But aside from some rather high-minded graffiti, it makes few physical impressions on the city itself.

That might not be the case a year from now, and not just because of the Beirut Art Center.

Ashkal Alwan, which is directed by the curator Christine Tohme, is planning to open a permanent space – with studios, a library and a multimedia theatre – in seven or eight months time. Its primary functions will be to host Beirut’s first contemporary art academy and to give Ashkal Alwan’s annual Home Works Forum, until now a peripatetic event, a home.

At the same time, Lebanon’s Ministry of Culture is currently conducting an international architectural competition for Dar Bayrut, a centre for art and culture to be built in the downtown district with a $20 million gift from the Sultanate of Oman (it came just after Lebanon’s 2006 war). As such, Beirut may not be a post-museum city, but rather a city just beginning to experiment with different museum models.

Read more about how the Beirut Art Center came into existence and a review of its inaugural exhibiton ‘Closer’ which runs to April 2 2009 in the full article in The National 

The show features an impressive line-up of artists: Jananne Al-Ani, Tony Chakar, Antoine D’Agata, Mona Hatoum, Emily Jacir, Jil Magid, Anri Sala, Lina Saneh, Lisa Steele, Akram Zaatari, Cynthia Zaven.

Related links: Beirut Art Center

Related categories: Middle East reports, art spaces

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