How Beirut’s Art Scene was Reduced to Rubble
On Tuesday 4th August 2020, two explosions went off at the Port of Beirut in Lebanon, killing over two hundred people and injuring a further six thousand. Caused by a fire which came into contact with 2,750 tons of explosive ammonium nitrate, the blast was responsible for widespread damages both to Beirut’s physical structure and people.
Several major galleries were destroyed, including the Opera Gallery, Galerie Tanit, and Marfa Gallery, which were all within very close proximity of the port. The Marfa Gallery in particular was noted by Art Asia Pacific for its extensive damage, with the metal grate having been blown off the front, destroying the gallery’s interior, and collapsing the office in the back of the building.
These weren’t the only art institutions affected either; the blast caused a ripple of destruction throughout the city that had a huge impact on many galleries and museums. The Sfeir-Semler Gallery, for example, incurred damages in the form of shattered windows, with one witness describing how a giant glass shard from the windows had pierced the wall opposite like a spear.
The Sursock Museum was also severely damaged, with the blast ripping paintings and drawings from the walls, collapsing ceilings, and shattering the museum’s doors, windows, and skylights. Sursock is a contemporary art institution that has played a big role in the city’s art scene, housing major works by the likes of Etel Adnan and Saloua Raouda Choucair. The explosion, coming only five years after the museum’s renovation and reopening, not only damaged the building itself but also a large number of artworks from Sursock’s personal collection. A 1930 portrait of the museum’s founder, Nicolas Sursock, and two ceramics by Simone Fattal are only a small selection of the material casualties in the collection. Fortunately, the museum itself had closed and evacuated its visitors shortly before the blast, which meant that there were no casualties on the scene.
Leading figures in Beirut’s art scene were also impacted, as both Letitia Gallery director Gaia Foudolian and architect Jean-Marc Bonfils (who designed the East Village building housing Galerie Tanit) were killed in the blast.
The explosion came in the middle of a long period of political unrest and economic crisis in Lebanon, further enraging the public and pushing the country’s government to resign. News reports from Beirut following the explosion show protesters clashing with police in the streets as they accuse their political leaders of negligence and corruption. With a complex political system built on power-sharing between leaders of various religious groups and former warlords from the 1975-1990 Civil War, Beirut appears to be stuck in a cycle of literal self-destruction – a position which could have a catastrophic impact on the city’s art scene.
Attention has turned to how Beirut can overcome these recent events and begin the process of rebuilding. Looking back to previous examples of destruction concerning art and heritage, it may be worth seeing how other cities have pulled themselves back up from tough times.
Notre Dame, 2019
Back in April last year, the biggest news to hit our feed was the fire which collapsed the thirteenth century roof of Notre Dame. The fire caused the spire of the building to collapse, destroying the roof, damaging the walls, melting the lead joints on the stained-glass windows, and causing smoke damage to the artworks and relics held inside.
Rebuilding was launched through an international funding campaign, as the cathedral itself was not privately insured. As such, the response to the accident was immediate, with donation pledges reaching €880 million within twenty-four hours of the news of the fire. As of this year, it is indicated that this figure has been received from a collective input of around 320,000 contributors- a truly huge outpouring of help.
Relief was also offered in other forms, from the Louvre taking in damaged paintings for restoration to Germany offering to restore some of the large clerestory windows impacted by the fire.
The great flood of 1966 was considered the worst natural disaster to siege the city. Unlike the people of Venice, who were used to the high-water levels and had spent several years perfecting precautionary measures against future flooding, Florence was not as prepared. Hundreds of artworks were destroyed or very badly damaged, with many of them seen floating along the streets of the flooded city.
Relief was found in volunteers, named ‘angeli del fango’ or ‘mud angels’, who took to the streets of Florence to try and salvage uprooted artworks and treasures. Additionally, help and donations were offered by various governments across the world, UNESCO, and the International Committee for the Assistance of Museums, Works of Art, Libraries and Archives. Several other international committees were also set up with the intention of supporting specific institutions in Florence; for example, the U.S. Committee to Rescue Italian Art, which assisted in the restoration of frescoes in the city. As well as this, charity auctions were set up to raise funds for Florence, and famously included the internationally televised auction of Pablo Picasso’s ‘Recumbent Woman Reading’ for $105,000.
The flood was also seen to be a defining factor in the development of conservation practice, as it led to the creation of new laboratories in which chemicals were used to treat materials such as marble for the first time in restoration. In particular, the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, a global leader in art restoration, benefitted as it grew and began to undertake more research into restoration methods. This produced innovative results, including the restoration of frescoes without lifting them from the wall and the preservation of manuscripts using historically relevant materials and techniques. Donal Cooper, a lecturer in Italian Renaissance art at Cambridge, also indicated how new developments such as these have also encouraged international collaboration, where leading Italian experts in restoration have provided knowledge and advice regarding restoration projects outside the country.
Nevertheless, restoration is still taking place today, with a sizeable portion of Florence’s art collection still needing restoration. The fiftieth anniversary of the flood was marked by the completed restoration of Giorgio Vasari’s ‘Last Supper’, providing some testament to the sheer time and effort needed to rebuild the art scene of the city.
The pattern in both of these cases is that the rebuilding of art and heritage relies on global help and funding. Pledges of millions and billions are needed for historical buildings and art collections to support their cleaning, rebuilding, and restoration. Many artworks in Beirut have been completely destroyed and therefore lost, while several of those that survived need restoration work. With that in mind, these artworks are now housed in highly damaged buildings that need the funding to be rebuilt. But this raises the question: how do you rebuild an entire city, and where do art galleries and museums come in the list of priorities?
Will Beirut receive the same global outpouring of help as Paris or Florence? It’s located on the Asian continent, not Europe, making it easier for people to use the physical distance to keep to their own and have less involvement in the rebuilding effort. Additionally, with economies across the world impacted by the Coronavirus pandemic it becomes even less likely that other countries will hurry to provide relief at the same pace as they did in the past. As of the 9th August 2020, around €252 million has been raised in emergency funding to aid the entire city, of which £20 million came from the UK. When you consider how much was raised just for a cathedral within twenty-four hours compared to what has been raised for an entire city in five days, it puts into perspective which is considered more historically and economically valuable from a global perspective.
Aid closer to home largely came in the form of medicine, food, and care packages rather than any monetary aid. Turkey’s Humanitarian Relief Foundation is noted to have played an active role in the search for survivors in the debris of the city, whilst Egypt and Iraq sent planes with medical and emergency supplies. Iran also reportedly sent medical supplies, along with nine tonnes of food, medical equipment, personnel, and a field hospital. Saudi Arabia, despite diplomatic conflict in recent years, also sent aid in the form of two planes of medicine, emergency supplies, tents, and food. Nevertheless, it’s still odd that most of the financial aid came from further afield in Europe and America. With the likes of Saudi Arabia and Turkey currently boasting a GDP of over $700 billion, the money raised for Notre Dame Cathedral could have easily been raised to aid Beirut within hours of the explosion. Medical support may benefit Beirut now, but it will do nothing to help rebuild its city and economy- placing it in a somewhat precarious position amongst its neighbours.
It took fifty years to restore most of the artworks in Florence, and the rebuilding of Notre Dame is still incomplete nearly a year and a half after the fire. Beirut has an entire city’s worth of art that needs restoration, and with their own economic difficulties it is likely that it will take more than a long time for things to be restored to how they once were.
The recovery period has been discussed at length by various figures in Beirut’s art scene, with Zeina Arida, director of the Sursock Museum, indicating the uncertainty of whether museums and galleries will be able to get back on their feet. In recent years, the government had drastically reduced the funding supplied to the city’s art and culture due to the snowballing economic crisis, meaning the art scene as a whole had to continue without the usual economic support afforded in other countries. Speaking to the Art Newspaper, Arida emphasised how:
A lot of people in the arts sector will also have been made jobless if they no longer have a gallery or museum to go to. For those who still have standing buildings, jobs will likely now have less focus on public interaction and more on clean-up, rebuilding, and restoration. Tour guides, curators, and gallery assistants will be massively hit due to the fact that they simply won’t be able to do their job. The impact of the explosion and Coronavirus on tourism will also affect this, resulting in the stigma of Beirut being a dangerous place to travel to at the moment. Economic funds will also likely come to the arts sector last, as priority will be given to casualties and the rebuilding of crucial structures such as hospitals, supermarkets, community centres, and offices. However, the long-term effect of this on the arts is that there will ultimately be fewer and lower-paying jobs.
Nevertheless, institutes in Beirut are helping each other to try and protect their collections from further damage, with the Arab Image Foundation having relocated its servers to safe storage at the Sursock Museum at the invitation of its director. With this in mind, there is some hope that people will continue to provide a helping hand in the coming time that Beirut will need it, both nationally and globally.
What do you think will become of Beirut’s art scene and industry? Let us know in the comments