A new beginning for Beirut’s Sursock Museum

Friday 30/10/2015
An outside view of Sursock Museum in Beirut

BEIRUT - While next door in Syria skies are buzz­ing with warplanes from various coun­tries, Beirut is ex­periencing a cultural buzz. This in­cludes the relaunch of the Sursock Museum, a landmark art space, among other milestones that en­rich the Lebanese capital’s cultural scene.

Seven years after it closed for renovation, Sursock Museum is set for a new beginning at a time when Lebanon’s cultural sector is gain­ing momentum with the impeding launch of the private Aishti Foun­dation, a mixed-use cultural centre, and Marfa’, a contemporary art gal­lery in Beirut Port.
Museum Director Zeina Arida noted that the timing of the reopen­ing of Sursock was not coordinated with the launch of the two new gal­leries to make a cultural buzz but was a coincidence.
“This is happening in the post-war period, after years of initiative and support of contemporary ar­tistic practices,” Arida said, com­mending Lebanese curator Chris­tine Tohme as one of the main contributors to the art scene today through her organisation Ashkal Alwan, which has been promot­ing Lebanese and Arab artists since 1993.
“We all participated in the prepa­ration of what is happening now, somehow. The institutions that were set in the ‘90s made [it] pos­sible [for] the work of certain con­temporary artists to have exposure internationally,” she said.
Tohme stressed that “whole gen­erations of artists, intellectuals, writers and cultural practitioners” have worked to pave the road for such a surge. “Things do not really happen overnight. It’s been around 30 years that people have been working, and what is happening is very positive,” Tohme said.
However, Sursock Museum oc­cupies a special place in Tohme’s heart. “It is a museum that has affected me a lot since my child­hood. I can see the way it had an impact on our generation and I’m very happy to have it there for the local community,” she said.
The exquisite villa housing the museum was originally the private home of aristocratic art-enthusiast Nicolas Sursock, bequeathed to the city of Beirut after his death in 1952.
By 1961, the private residence, which had once served to enter­tain the country’s upper crust, was turned into a museum carrying a mission to inform audiences about art practices within Lebanon and the region.
The museum housed a rich per­manent collection of Lebanese modern art and hosted the annual Salon d’Automne. This juried ex­hibition of contemporary art was modeled after its French predeces­sor, which was established in 1903 as a reaction against conservative policies of the official Salon de Par­is.
While the 1975-90 civil war rav­aged Lebanon, the museum stayed open, albeit remaining relatively under the radar. Initially offering nearly 2,000 square metres of floor space, the premises have now ex­panded to about 8,500 square me­tres with the renovation estimated to cost nearly $14 million.
A sleek, glass-walled structure, which harbours a restaurant and bookshop, stands alongside the museum’s Venetian- and Ottoman-styled façade, with the interior housing a new 164-seat auditori­um, a specialised research library, climate-controlled storage spaces, a restoration workshop space, a temporary exhibition hall and twin galleries on the ground floor.
The grand reopening of the mu­seum created a cultural buzz but, as far as Arida is concerned, the impact can only be measured in the long term. “I’m conscious this is the opening week, so we’re going to have lot of people but I don’t know if this means there is a lot of people interested in arts, or they are curi­ous about the museum. Some have been waiting for years for the mu­seum to reopen,” she said.
In October and November, the museum offers an eclectic pro­gramme that caters to a broad spec­trum of audiences from children to aficionados. Displayed in the main exhibitions hall, Views on Beirut: 160 years of Images showcases more than 200 rarely seen works from private collections, including paint­ings, etchings and photographs that explore the history and evolution of Beirut’s identity from 1800-1960.
The twin galleries house a group exhibition The City in The City, which assembles recent work by artists, designers and researchers concerned with mapping and ex­ploring contemporary Beirut.
Along the upper two floors, visi­tors can also survey the museum’s extensive collection display, which traces the development of Leba­nese modern art from the late 1800s to the early 2000s.
Picturing Identity, Selection of Photographs from the Fouad Debbas Collection offers a compelling selec­tion of postcards and studio photo­graphs from the fervent collector’s intricate collection.
The blend of contemporary and historic works provides an interest­ing dichotomy of art for visitors to consume.
“What is interesting is to really build bridges. It’s [important] to link your own identity and history to your contemporary time. I’m [part of] the war generation in Leb­anon and maybe for us it was a real concern to find links between our past and present,” Arida said.
With the country’s current tur­moil and continuously shifting po­litical landscape, time will reveal whether the Sursock Museum will preserve a central position within the city’s art scene but for Tohme, “Such art institutions can play a pivotal role in shaping our notions of how to live together collectively and as a community.”