Beirut Art Fair turns 10 years old! Time to take a second look!

Nélida Nassar 09.26.2019

The Beirut Art Fair, the brainchild of Laure d’Hauteville-Taslé d’Héliand, opened on September 18, 2019 and continues to the 22nd at the Seaside Arena. Over the last ten years, its founder has overcomer many challenges and setbacks. Installed in a large space close to the waterfront, the fair presents the offerings of 50 galleries from 18 countries, representing 380 artists of 35 nationalities.

Modern and Contemporary art is one of the most highly scrutinized fields, sometimes generating more mockery than praise. Like all such fairs it presents some pieces whose artistic qualities are not immediately apparent along with others which are much stronger. Some works seem totally inaccessible, and others call for several layers of interpretation.

A kind of  Olympics of the modern and contemporary art world, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, it is a rich hunting ground for collectors, who will certainly be among the earliest visitors. Although not a world-class cultural event, the Beirut Art Fair is, all the same, the showcase for contemporary art in Lebanon, and perhaps in the whole Middle East.

Besides the 50 galleries showing their own stables of artists, several exhibition spaces worth mentioning are dedicated to thematic shows. “A Tribute to Lebanon” the expansive Philippe Jabre collection of 70 Orientalist paintings, travel posters and objects de curiosité occupies a large portion of the floor space. Conceived by art agent Gabriel Daher and designed as a central pavilion by Jean-Louis Mainguy, it will soon move to its own sprawling quarters, a former bell factory transformed into a museum in Beit Chebab (which happens to be my maternal forebears’ birthplace). “Lebanon Modern,” curated by Abed al Kadiri, highlights artist Hussein Madi with 47 artworks created during his youth and stay in Rome between 1965 and 1970, which were only recently rediscovered by Mazen Zoueid, a Lebanese art collector.

The fair’s opening salvo is a talk by British war photographer Don McCullin who will speak about 49 photographs he took during the Lebanese civil war. Beirut was the scene of one of the most disturbing events in McCullin’s life. He thinks that when shooting some of his seminal images, thereby becoming a witness to humiliation, extreme violence, and even death, he was too quick to make photographs and sometimes made the wrong decisions. On this occasion, he felt that the pleasure of photography was stolen from him.

This year’s fair also includes the third edition of the Design Fair with an accompanying design competition. It is headed by none other than Guillaume Taslé d’Héliand, the founder’s  husband. And that’s not all, far from it! Outside the walls of the Arena, there is an exhibition entitled Off/Site at the Gray Hotel, further from the city center, organized by the Border Gallery. In Burj Hamoud, site-specific installations are displayed at the Abroyan Factory. The fair also has a presence at Beit Beirut in the form of an exhibition dedicated to Freedom of Speech, presented under the auspices of the Gebran Tueni Foundation. The fair, in collaboration with museums, foundations and private collectors, provides guided tours for visitors. Conferences and debates are designed to enrich visitors’ understanding of the arts from historical, theoretical and critical perspectives. But there is still more: you have hardly begun and you are already exhausted.

Why are all these events and activities packed within just 4 days, leaving one with absolutely no time to see everything? It is good, of course, to try to emulate and rise to the level of the world’s largest fairs, like Art Basel (Basel, Miami), The Armory (New York), Frieze (London), and Arco (Madrid), in an effort to secure a higher rank in the world of art. All the same, even these fairs are rethinking their dated paradigm. Competition has become fierce in the last ten years as the art world has gone from 4 or 5 important fairs per year to more than 40, and the costly investments in money and time for gallery owners have compelled them to be more selective about their participation. It is now a question of rationalizing one’s presence in the fairs in order not to spend most of one’s time on planes and most of the money from the sales in rent for stands and highly secure transport and insurance. Doesn’t this situation provide an opening for Lebanon to create a different kind of art fair?

Are there too many fairs, too much art? Should everything stop for two years to help restore a sense of stability and to provide an opportunity to re-conceive the whole scene? Many people have expressed their dismay at the current fragmentation of artistic offerings, which is especially hard on those galleries that did not anticipate the change in the artistic landscape. Some famous ones may end up having to put the key under the mat, particularly in Lebanon given the weakness of its economy.

But what is the Beirut Art Fair’s strategy in this volatile environment? Regional art fairs such as Art Dubai or Sharjah Biennale have no intention of being left behind by a younger and more dynamic fair. And to ensure that this does not happen, both have expanded their exhibition spaces as well as multiplied the number of “off-site” events. Indeed, the names of each of these fairs resonate in the minds of international collectors as Middle Eastern meccas of modern and contemporary art, marvelous destinations where the best art is concentrated in a single place for a weekend. Moreover, their media power is truly formidable. 

Can the Beirut Art Fair compete with these regional fairs and, perhaps, even eclipse them? It’s not sure, since some gallerists and merchants are already complaining about this scattering of artistic offerings at the fair, and some of them have snubbed it altogether. Yet, to talk about “dispersion” may be excessive, because the phenomenon in question is undoubtedly more of a “diversification.” In recent years the fair has – especially in this edition – opened new spaces dedicated to performance, debates, and art foundations, along with museums visits and more. As for the Beirut Fair’s internationalization, it should seek above all to adapt to its audience with an offer more fitted to the Lebanese market in Beirut. Though, at the same time, it still needs to sustain the interest of an international audience – a delicate balance which it might well achieve if it can manage to offer only the best of contemporary art. No small task!

The globalization of the art market does not necessarily imply its dilution. While fairs represent a geography of the new globalized wealth, they reflect the emergence of new regions of creativity, and Beirut is one of them. Art fairs remain the model for creating high-density, time-limited events filled with enthusiastic dealers, collectors, and artists from around the world, But the business is changing fast and radically, and the Beirut Art Fair’s mission has not changed significantly since its inception. So now seems to be the moment to consider these market changes and challenges. 

The history of European art in the globalization of the art world should not be given up, nor should Lebanese vernacular art, because it is important that the Beirut Art Fair retain its own flavor. The bridges of exchange need to remain open. Increasing online sales and current world events are affecting attendance numbers at many fairs. Emerging artists and new galleries are finding that they are often overlooked at the Beirut Art Fair as visitors flock to the more prestigious galleries and established artists. While Beirut’s small and regionally-focused fair hopes to boost the city’s tourism, it must also compete effectively with its well-known regional sisters. 

Galleries are experimenting with new, less costly ways to attract audiences to alternative spaces and “pop-ups,” especially people wanting mind-blowing experiences. Is the Beirut Art Fair capable of providing these new experiences? In a market filled with creative people, business models will continue to evolve, adapting tried-and-true methods to new ways of connecting collectors and artists. With business-savvy directors, these new events may be able to offer lower costs and higher benefits to galleries that cannot compete at or afford the costs of a fair. 

The art experience has to come first and the shopping experience second. The organizers of fairs should encourage meaningful conversation and represent a wider range of artworks and dealers, ones who feel that the fair is a part of the community and should become part of the conversation about its particular interests and needs. Can Beirut come to see gallerists as communicators, innovators, activists, and thinkers, as well as optimists and visionaries? Or will they be perceived as simply opportunists in the hectic mercantile environment in which they display their wares?

Art has become a product whose main use seems to be as wall filler for people so wealthy that, after several cars, many houses and couple of boats, they have run out of other things to buy. Let’s tax the hell out of them and put that money into grade school arts education, small public arts centers and inexpensive nonprofit arts programs and studio spaces. Then, maybe, an avant-garde visual art might emerge once again. The Beirut Art Fair is in the interest of everyone locally – and a few regionally – affiliated with the art world.  All these somewhat inbred actors get together and take out their big artillery. Galleries, foundations, artists, and collectors exhibit the best they have to create an emporium, real or fictitious, a hub of modern and contemporary art. Is it a genuine meeting place, where one can talk about art, open borders, and bring people together around the same discourse, the same language, that of art? Even a mere amateur can enjoy this momentary entertainment, but is that enough?

Beirut Art Fair
Beirut New Waterfront, Seaside Arena HALL 1&2
September 18 to September 22, 2019