By Michele Anbar Haddad and Kerstin Khalife
The establishment of the Beirut Museum of Art (BeMA), which is due to open in 2026 on a site owned by the Université Saint-Joseph (USJ), will serve as the anchor along Beirut's Museum Mile (the National Museum; Museum of Lebanese Prehistory, the Mineral Museum (MiM), Beit Beirut). Situated in an area that once represented the city’s dividing line, BeMA stands as a symbol of reconciliation and unification through art and culture.
A belief in the transformative power of the arts and the right of all people to access culture
This new cultural platform for modern and contemporary art from Lebanon and the region will primarily showcase the work of local artists and the Lebanese diaspora while also introducing regional and international artistic traditions and production.
To serve as the foundation of its exhibition, BeMA has secured a trove of modern and contemporary Lebanese art held in trust by the Lebanese Ministry of Culture. The comprehensive collection is comprised of over 2,300 pieces and includes the masterworks of almost 500 Lebanese artists dating back to the 19th century.
Since 2017, this important art collection has been the focus of an extraordinary restoration campaign led by the Beirut Museum of Art. This public-private cooperation was made possible thanks to an indefinite loan agreement between the Ministry of Culture and BeMA.
The art collection of the Lebanese Ministry of Culture and the missing museum
The history of the country and its people can be traced through the Ministry’s collection. From early 19th-century masters like Khalil Saleeby, who painted portraits with exquisite accuracy, to the moderns like Khalil Zghaib, who brought village weddings to life through the use of bold, folkloric color, right through to contemporary figures like Yvette Achkar and Shafic Abboud, who experimented with abstract expressionism, as you watch Lebanese art evolve, it becomes clear that it was very much part of the global discourse on art history and trends.
Assembled over the course of Lebanon’s 75 years as an independent nation, the breadth and depth of the spectacular collection are unparalleled. With over 1,865 artworks from the 20th century alone, it covers a vast array of subjects and includes works by all of the important modern masters. The art collection was founded by the Lebanese Ministry of Education in the 1950s and was handed over to the Ministry of Culture in 1993 when the latter Ministry was formed.
Paintings, sculptures, and works on paper dating from 1950 to 1975 form the core of the collection. Among them are works by internationally acclaimed artists such as Paul Guiragossian, Aref el Rayess, and Saloua Rawda Choucair. A unique strength of this collection is the presence of lesser-known or forgotten artists. Through it, one can see the unfolding of an artist´s career and learn about the development of the different artistic movements in Lebanon.
Although collected over 75 years, the exact acquisition history and policy of the collection is not well known because of the difficulty in accessing the government archives; many artworks were gifted by the artists themselves to the Ministry whilst others were purchased or selected by the Ministry’s committee during the yearly open-call national exhibitions.
Since 1995, the Ministry continued its art purchases. However, a less critical selection process coupled with small budgets led to a noticeable decline in the quality of the acquired artworks.
Initially, the collection was created with the intention to build a National Museum for Modern Arts in Lebanon. One initiative consisted in transforming the building of the UNESCO-Palace, which hosted regular art exhibitions, into a museum. With the outbreak of the civil war in 1975, the plan had to be abandoned.
Despite many efforts by the Ministry, nearly all the artworks remain physically inaccessible to the public. Currently spread across five sites—the Presidential Palace, the Parliament, the Grand Serail-Prime Minister’s residence and offices, the Presidential Summer Residence (Beiteddine), the UNESCO-Palace, and assorted Ministry of Culture offices—the opening of BeMA in 2026 will mark the first occasion that the collection, a source of national pride, has been assembled in one place for everyone to enjoy.
The biggest part of the collection is stored in a warehouse, and only a small selection of artworks is on permanent display in the aforementioned governmental buildings and sites, the Beiteddine Palace being the only place where visitors do not need special permission to visit and enjoy seeing some of the exhibited paintings.
In 2016, under the initiative of the former minister of culture, H.E. Rony Araygi, and in collaboration with l’Académie des Beaux-Arts of the Alba University in Beirut, a virtual museum was launched featuring over 500 of the artworks from the collection. For the first time, the public could view some of the artworks, the first step to democratizing access to this collection, even if only through a digital window.
BeMA’s goal is to capitalize on its proximity to, and association with, the Université Saint-Joseph (USJ) as well as the museum’s state-of-the-art conservation lab to develop unique academic programs and training opportunities in the field of art conservation.
BeMACC – Beirut Museum of Art Collection Collaborative
In 2019 BeMA launched, in collaboration with Rice University, the Beirut Museum of Art Collection Collaborative (BeMACC), an interactive digital research platform, which showcases the Ministry of Culture collection.
By presenting these Lebanese and Levantine works online, BeMACC aims to facilitate the transmission of information on the collection. Art historians and museum professionals conducting research on artists and artworks will have the opportunity to add and link their findings to the images, while interested parties can simply browse through the collection’s treasures. The hope is that through BeMACC, the collection can go beyond borders and spark an international dialogue without even leaving its premises.
The restoration project
In 2016, BeMA commissioned BAKs art advisory (a fine art consulting firm) to conduct an in-depth inventory of the collection and do a preliminary condition assessment. The artworks stored out of sight in the government warehouses were in much worse condition than the art pieces on display in the public buildings. Decades of poor storage conditions, neglect due to lack of human and financial resources, unprofessional handling, and the long civil war have left their marks on the artworks. Around 100 paintings had tears or holes. The artworks exhibited mold, thick layers of dust, various surface hazes, paint losses, and damaged strainers. Numerous sculptures were broken and countless works on paper were torn.
A selection committee chose over 600 works for the restoration project, the launch of which was made possible by a grant from the Cultural Preservation Program of the German Federal Foreign Office. In 2017, BeMA was able to open its restoration lab at the UNESCO-Palace where the Ministry of Culture provided the space. The location was ideal due to its proximity to the storage, making the transport of very fragile works to the lab safer and less laborious. Until the beginning of the uprising in October 2019, BeMA’s restoration team was able to conserve and restore more than 250 paintings and works on paper.
A milestone of the restoration project was the renovation of the storage space where the majority of the artworks were conserved. The new storage area was fully financed and executed by the Council for Development and Reconstruction. Before moving the artworks to the new storage, the entire collection was carefully dusted, and instead of being returned and squeezed into the old wooden shelves, the paintings were safely hung on 350 sliding racks, the sculptures were placed on shelves, and artworks that needed to be stored flat were positioned in cabinet drawers.
From October 2019 on, the many crises that have hit the country have slowed the pace of the restoration work, yet it has never come to a complete halt. Regularly blocked roads during uprisings and electricity shortages and power cuts have made it challenging for the restoration work to progress consistently.
Professional Conservators Needed!
An important mission of BeMA’s restoration program is the training of Lebanese students in the field of heritage conservation by offering them paid internships and preparing them for future restoration studies abroad, as currently, there are no conservation programs in Lebanon. There is a need for academically trained conservators in Lebanon, and the need became much more obvious after the August 2020 explosion in Beirut. This specialization scarcity is due to many reasons: there is very little awareness about the profession itself or how to become a conservator-restorer, and its employment opportunities remain limited.
BeMA aims to contribute via its educational programs and future state-of-the-art center for art conservation to the area of cultural preservation and to the creation of a strong community of heritage professionals serving Lebanon and the region.
After August 4TH
At eight minutes past 6 p.m. on the 4th of August 2020, a deadly blast pulverized the port of Beirut destroying a significant part of the northeastern side of the city leaving 218 victims dead, wounding 2,750 others, and displacing 30,000. The massive explosion also destroyed numerous heritage buildings, museums, galleries, and private art collections.
Luckily, the BeMA-Lebanese Ministry of Culture collection suffered fewer damages compared to other collections in Beirut, mainly due to the fact that the largest part of the collection is stored relatively far from the blast. Yet some of the exhibited paintings in government offices and public buildings were damaged by flying glass and debris, just like many artworks across the city.
After the catastrophic explosion, BeMA’s restoration team rushed to help local institutions to pick up the pieces and salvage national cultural treasures:
- BeMA offered the expertise of its restoration team to support the dusting campaign at the severely impacted Sursock Museum, cleaning around 1,500 paintings.
- BeMA organized, in collaboration with the Cologne Institute of Conservation Sciences (CICS) in Germany and the Rachel Barker Associates in the United Kingdom, a series of online workshops to address tear mending techniques and emergency protocols, targeting local restorers working on blast damaged artworks.
- BeMA restored 17 damaged artworks of Lebanese artists. The selection prioritized paintings in the Ministry of Culture-BeMA collection exhibited at the Grand Serail as well as others from local galleries and private collectors.
Throughout the past years, BeMA’s restoration and conservation program demonstrated resilience by overcoming many challenges and remaining on course during tough times.
Late in 2021, with the UNESCO-Palace serving as the new head office of the Ministry of Culture and hosting most of the parliamentary sessions, it became almost impossible for BeMA’s restoration lab to operate, and it had to be moved to a new home at the Université Saint-Joseph (USJ) where the team will continue its valuable work on the collection in preparation for the upcoming museum opening.
Looking ahead, BeMA plans to continue developing fruitful public-private partnerships and collaboration with international professionals and institutes to position itself as a regional center of excellence in art conservation. The role of BeMA, the new Beirut Museum of Art, is critical in these trying times to sustain the cultural and motivational fabric of future generations. Lebanon’s cultural comeback, the education, and the cultivation of young minds to process modern history through art are essential ingredients for a healthy recovery.
For more information on BeMA, please consult the BeMA website and BeMA’s social media platforms.
Michele Anbar Haddad is currently the director of administration at the Beirut Museum of Art (BeMA) where she oversees the operations and programs. From 2015 to 2019 she was the head of the graduate programs at Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi, and from 2000 to 2015 she held different leadership positions at the Higher Colleges of Technology, Dubai.
Kerstin Khalife graduated in paintings conservation from the State Academy of Art and Design in Stuttgart, Germany. Since 2003 she has worked in Lebanon as a freelance conservator mainly on Modern art. She currently leads the restoration program at the Beirut Museum of Art (BeMA).
(Read the article and see all the images in the February-March 2022 "News in Conservation" Issue 88, p. 10-16)