Accounting for the Arts in Beirut After the Blast

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, October 2020, pp. 36-37

Arts and Culture

By Eleni Zaras

THE AUG. 4 BLAST in Beirut, which shook the foundations of Lebanon’s urban and political environment also delivered a devastating blow to the arts and culture sector of the city. Local and international arts organizations spent the rest of the month assessing the damage and fundraising for reconstruction.

Based on reports from the Directorate General of Antiquities of Lebanon (DGA), UNESCO and other international institutions, at least 8,000 buildings, primarily in the historic districts of Gemmayzeh and Mar-Mikhaël, have been damaged. Approximately 640 are registered historic buildings and about 60 are “at risk of collapse,” according to Sarkis El Khoury, the Director General of the DGA. The Sursock Museum, the National Museum of Beirut, New York University the Arab Image Foundation, and the Archaeology Museum of the American University of Beirut are among the major arts institutions severely damaged by the blast.

From UNESCO initiatives to artists on Instagram, fundraising and solidarity campaigns have been launched worldwide to support the countless imperiled artists, museums, monuments, libraries, archives and artifacts. On Aug. 24, the International Alliance for the Protection of Heritage in Conflict Areas (ALIPH) announced the most substantive allocation of funds for the arts yet, promising $5 million to “stabilize, protect, or rehabilitate the city’s cultural heritage.” This followed a joint statement of solidarity released on Aug. 11 and signed by 27 cultural institutions, including UNESCO, the Louvre in Paris, the British Council and the World Monuments Fund in New York. UNESCO estimates that about $500 million will be needed “for heritage and [the] creative economy.”

With the support of the Louvre Museum and the DGA, ALIPH pledged to prioritize the restoration of the National Museum of Beirut, as well as “emergency relief for some 20 cultural heritage entities (museums, libraries, etc.), in cooperation with the Prince Claus Fund and the Lebanese Committee of the Blue Shield,” as stated in their press release.

Local and regional arts organizations and artists have mobilized to provide immediate, smaller-scale relief by hosting virtual performances, art sales, and other fundraising campaigns. The Arab Fund for Arts and Culture (AFAC) and Culture Resource (Al Mawred Al Thaqafy), for instance, launched an international “Lebanon Solidarity Fund” with the goal of raising $500,000 for arts organizations and artists who have lost their homes. Partnering with the Arab Documentary Photography Program (ADPP), they have promoted their initiative via Instagram with an account takeover series, “Stories From Beirut,” which features posts by Beirut-based photographers.

Initiatives, such as “For the Love of Beirut” and the newly created Instagram account, Art Relief For Beirut (@artrelief4beirut), have also boosted aid to charities through sales of artworks donated by the artists. “For the Love of Beirut” sold prints by 60 Lebanese and regional artists and donated all proceeds to the Lebanese Red Cross. It was organized by Gulf Photo Plus (GFF) and Ruwa, in partnership with Beirut Center of Photography, In My House and Jadaliyya.

Art Relief For Beirut, launched by Beirut-born artist Mohamad Kanaan, posts one artwork for sale per day on Instagram and donates all proceeds to a selection of Beirut-based charities. The artworks sold have included two prints by winners of the 2019 Turner Prize, which alone raised $60,000, according to Artnet News.

“I am sure [the art community] will recover,” Andrée Sfeir-Semler, the owner of Sfeir-Semler Gallery, told Artnet. “The Lebanese resilience is legendary—but it will take a lot of work, a lot of effort, and we will have to band together to make it happen.”

However, given Lebanon’s dire economic situation, Sursock Museum director Zeina Arida warned in a webinar with the organization Afrika on Sept. 1 that “only international solidarity” can ensure reconstruction. “There is no other way.”

Eleni Zaras is the former assistant bookstore director at Middle East Books and More. She is a student in Near Eastern studies at New York University’s Kevorkian Center and has a BA in the History of Art from the University of Michigan and a Masters degree in History from the Universite Paris Diderot.





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