Philanthropist and Patron of the Arts Rami El-Nimer Opens His Foundation to the Public

Nélida Nassar   05.27.2016

Rami El-Nimer began compiling art at a young age. His substantial collection reflects a multi-faceted identity, rooted in Palestine, and harks back to a time when borders were open and the cultural exchange of art and ideas were unimpeded. Thanks to his passionate engagement with art, the collection has come to represent an act of commemoration and resilience against the modern erasure of memory and the distortion of identity. Focused not only on expanding his own acquisitions, but on sharing it with the public, Rami founded Dar El-Nimer for Arts and Culture in 2015 to encourage a healthy discussion around the collection’s items and to re-imagine a more inclusive and coherent cultural narrative for the region. He also initiated a corporate art collection for the First National Bank in 2009, and sits on the board of several cultural institutions, among them the Palestinian Museum.

His generosity and concern for others led him to transform Villa Salem, located in Beirut, Lebanon’s vibrant capital, into Dar El-Nimer for Arts and Culture dedicated to dialogue and intellectual discourse. The foundation comprises an exhibition space, a library, a research center, an auditorium, offices and an Oriental café. Its inaugural exhibition opens on May 25. The show, “At the Seams,” explores the history of Palestinian embroidery and is organized in partnership with the Palestinian Museum, which itself is scheduled to open in this same week at Birzeit on May 18.

The foundation’s home is a white building constructed in 1930 by the architect Lucien Cavro and renovated by veteran interior designer Serge Brunst; it was inspired by Le Corbusier’s design for the Maison Dom-Ino – perhaps the first example in the history of architecture of a standardized construction system designed as an open space for residents to complete as they see fit. Not only will El-Nimer’s name be visible on the façade. Rami has put his stamp on just about everything else.

He wants his foundation to constitute a tipping point, a spark that will attract artists and scholars from all over the world to come and examine the historical complexities of the Ottoman Empire and contemporary cultural issues in the Middle East in an open, critical and creative environment. He aims to foster new narratives while at the same time highlighting Palestine’s cultural heritage and, more generally, the endangered legacy of the Middle East. Reacting to the violence and brutality of the present day, he is promoting tolerance and ways to reconnect us with our roots.

El-Nimer, who describes himself as “curious” and “stubborn,” is the father of two children, a son and an artist daughter. A native of Nablus, he was raised in a patrician family with roots going back to the Ottoman Empire. His grandfather served in the Empire’s army and was granted land and a fiefdom in Palestine. Part of the family estate was a Museum of Arms and Armor, some of which is still on display. His father, a notable learned figure in his community, was also a passionate advocate of Arab nationalism, and it comes as no surprise that Rami continues in his family’s beneficence and altruistic footsteps. Educated in Switzerland, where he earned a degree in both history and philosophy, he moved to New York to study finance and banking before opening his own bank in Beirut.

El-Nimer, who travels the world pursuing potential additions for his collection, has spoken about the “overwhelming” moment when art speaks directly to you and about the different places art has taken him. His collecting passion, now entering its fifth decade, encompasses major aspects of Islamic art, including ancient coins, Iznik tiles, Chinese objects for the Orient market and decorative arts, mainly from and for the Ottoman Empire. There are also works from the Umayyad, Abbasid, Fatimid, Mameluke, Seljuk and Timurid eras. He is particularly interested in Arabic calligraphy, believing that historically it has united many Islamic lands and regions worldwide.

The collection’s second major area contains extremely important and rare material relating to Palestine, with objects which will be essential elements in the effort to preserve its cultural memory. Christian pieces from the 16th and 17th centuries include two unique groups of icons of the School of Jerusalem, and there are also exquisite examples of 18th and 19th century mother of pearl objects from Bethlehem. The modern and contemporary art section is still being assembled, but Palestinian artists are already well represented. The works on paper include precious old manuscripts, archives of religious and political documents, Lebanese posters and old photographs of the Levant.

The El-Nimer collection encompasses at least 15 themes, and it could mount a number of interesting exhibitions without having to borrow anything from other holdings or museums. However, cultural exchange among institutions is very important to its founder. The opening show, “At The Seams,” will be followed on October 5th by “The Return,” organized by the International Qalandia, 2016, which will consist of performances and installations on that topic. The first exhibition drawn from El Nimer’s private collection and dubbed “Midad” will take place in January 2017. A voyage through the art of Arabic calligraphy and its evolution, it will take viewers from the first Kufi scripts to the use of calligraphy in contemporary works of art. And a major exhibition on “Palestinian History and Heritage” is scheduled for May 2017.

El-Nimer and his spouse give generously and quietly. They contribute to many organizations and causes, and they go out of their way to make sure that their philanthropic organizations are well managed. Through their humanitarian foundation “U.L.Y.P, United Lebanon Youth Project” they help educate Lebanon’s younger generation in the arts, sports, English, IT and other areas with a view to bringing about change by empowering children, older youth and women with new skills, and to creating thereby a more united Lebanon.

Rami is an inspiration to everyone in Beirut’s Palestinian and Lebanese communities. Although a kind and humble man, he is intensely proud of his heritage and has a deep desire to share it with others. He expects a lot from people, but he is also a good listener who is his willing to take the advice of others. It is very clear that he cares about what his collaborators think and feel, and this makes him a good role model for anyone wanting to learn how to work effectively in the world of foundations.

El-Nimer thinks very carefully about art, he consults many experts, and makes his own decisions. I cannot think of many individuals in the Middle East whose actions could potentially have a more profound effect than his on the arts or on culture in general in the region. His greatest impact comes from serving as a kind of focal point for artistic activity. A completely apolitical and non-religious individual, Rami believes that artists are the most important people – infinitely more important in his eyes than any politician. What matters, he says, are the seeds you plant for the future. There have been plenty of opportunities in that regard amid the proliferation of foundations in Lebanon in recent years, but El-Nimer holds perhaps a unique position in that world. For not only is he an original and synthetic thinker; his sympathies are broad enough and his humanitarian commitment is deep enough to get even deeply opposed parties to work together for a common goal.