The following article is part of ARTnews’ annual coverage of collecting practices in the art market, anchored by the 200 Top Collectors list.
Recently the Lebanese businessman Tony Salamé bought a large artwork by John Armleder, creating a problem for himself, or rather, for his curator. If the ten-meter-long painting were to go on view in the inaugural exhibition in Salamé’s new private museum in Beirut, it would use up an awful lot of available wall space.
Well, maybe not that much. In late October, Salamé, who, along with his wife, Elham, is a new addition to the ARTnews Top 200 (which will be published online next week), will open a 40,000-square-foot exhibition space for his Aïshti Foundation in Jal el-Dib, a short drive up the Mediterranean coast from downtown Beirut. There he will show a portion of his vast art collection, kicking things off with a show curated by New Museum artistic director Massimiliano Gioni. In a city that doesn’t have a large contemporary-art museum, Aïshti’s opening is hotly anticipated.
Salamé is one of Beirut’s post-civil-war success stories. Over the past quarter century he has built his Aïshti retail empire from a single high-end clothing store to a region-wide enterprise that is among Lebanon’s largest employers, along the way facing the challenging task of persuading luxury brands to do business in an environment that remains politically and economically unstable.
That first store was in Jal el-Dib, and it grew into the 60,000-square-foot, 45-shop Aïshti Seaside. His art foundation’s exhibition hall is part of an ambitious expansion of Aïshti Seaside by British architect David Adjaye. “When Tony asked me how I wanted to do it,” Adjaye recalled, “I said I’d like to make a hybrid building combining lifestyle, wellness, and culture.
“This is a city that’s more or less been in conflict or at the border of conflict for more than 30 years,” Adjaye added. Nevertheless, people have “found ways to have an outgoing life.” His building’s design, he said, is meant to celebrate that. Inside the huge new space—around 350,000 square feet overall—a 10,000-square-foot atrium will open onto, on the left, a retail area with shops and restaurants and, on the right, the art foundation’s space. The rooftop will have a spa, a gym with a pool, and a small nightclub. The building is wrapped in a louvered skin of red-toned aluminum, a system Adjaye devised for filtering out the sound from a nearby highway and handling the region’s temperature fluctuations. Adjaye spent a part of his childhood in Beirut, and the skin’s color is a reference to the city’s past. “My father talked about Beirut as an incredible place where you would see a sea of red terra-cotta,” he said.
Also echoing the local setting is the public plaza Adjaye is designing for 150,000 square feet of land between Aïshti and the Mediterranean. With its undulating topography, it will look, Salamé said, “like you are seeing the waves from high up.” The landscaping was as complicated as the building itself. “We had to reclaim the land and, on top of that, we had to build huge retaining walls.” There will be regional Middle Eastern greenery, outdoor dining, and outdoor sculptures chosen by Gioni’s wife, Cecilia Alemani, curator of New York’s High Line park. “It’s setting a precedent,” said Adjaye. “Beirut has not had much public sculpture, because of security concerns.”
Salamé spends much of his time traveling, but when he’s in Beirut he’s on the building site seven days a week. The complex has come together in just two and a half years, at what has been reported by The Art Newspaper as a personal cost to him of $100 million.
Salamé has been bringing international contemporary art to Beirut for several years now. His foundation lent support to exhibitions of Giuseppe Penone and Gerhard Richter at the Beirut Art Center. Two years ago he rented an old villa in the heart of Beirut and began inviting gallerists from out of town to do selling exhibitions there. Milan’s Massimo de Carlo, Glasgow’s Modern Institute, New York’s Suzanne Geiss, and Balice Hertling and Kamel Mennour, both from Paris, have been among the exhibitors at Salamé’s Metropolitan Art Society. He helped the dealers organize dinners for their artists and had openings with upward of 400 people. It’s been a way for the gallerists to connect with other collectors in the region, and for a local audience to see emerging international artists.
For the last few years, Salamé has also been displaying artworks from his personal collection at his stores. The Aïshti Foundation exhibition space will move him into the league of fashion-entrepreneur megacollectors—Prada, Pinault, Arnault—who have opened museums in which to show their holdings.
Now in his late 40s, Salamé caught the collecting bug early. While still in university, he cycled through stamps and carpets, the latter of which he would install in his parents’ home. As CEO of Aïshti, he began traveling to Europe frequently, and it was there that he started buying 18th- and 19th-century art. His work with Aïshti often brought him into contact with Dino Facchini, owner of the fashion label Byblos, and an art collector. Facchini encouraged Salamé to move into postwar and contemporary.
In the mid-2000s, Salamé met Jeffrey Deitch at Art Basel. At that time, Deitch was an adviser to Greek collector Dakis Joannou. He took Salamé to visit Joannou’s Deste Foundation in Athens, and predicted that eventually Salamé would start a foundation of his own.
After creating the Aïshti Foundation in 2005, Salamé became even more committed to collecting contemporary artists in depth. He sees the galleries at Aïshti’s new space through the prism of his stores: a large gallery housing a group exhibition is comparable to a boutique with a tightly curated selection of designers; one devoted to multiple works by a single artist is like a mono-brand store, giving a deeper sense of a designer’s work. (In choosing the clothing for his stores, he said, he has often relied on Elham’s fashion sense, and it is she who makes many of the decisions regarding the artwork they place in their homes.)
The collection, now comprising some 2,000 works by around 150 artists, is focused on the first decade of the 21st century, though it also includes arte povera—Lucio Fontana, Piero Manzoni, Alberto Burri—and some Conceptual art. There are international talents—among them Glenn Ligon, Urs Fischer, Rudolf Stingel, Wade Guyton, Kelley Walker, Seth Price, Nate Lowman, Dan Colen, Aaron Young—and there are Lebanese artists, like Mona Hatoum, Akram Zaatari, Walid Raad, Ziad Antar, Rayyane Tabet, and Fouad Elkhoury. So far, Salamé has managed the collection himself, forgoing in-house curators. He spends a lot of time in his art-storage warehouse. “He lives there,” Elham joked during our interview.
“Tony told me he wanted to open his collection to the public,” Adjaye said. “He didn’t have to do that. He has the warehouse and his houses. The art in his stores is minimal. This is significant, to open the collection.”
Salamé had in mind finding an outside curator to organize his foundation’s inaugural exhibition, and it was another fashion designer’s art foundation that led him to Gioni. The two met several years ago in Milan, where Gioni was working with the Trussardi Foundation. “He came to one of our openings and it’s hard not to get along with him,” Gioni recalled. “Tony is a polyglot—he speaks Arabic, English, French, and Italian, and pretty much all in the same sentence. He is someone who can really be at ease in any part of the world: he is quite a force. And his interest in art is really genuine, at times bordering on pure, great madness.”
Gioni told me his show will include 50 artists and concentrate on abstraction, giving a sense “of the variety of the collection and of the many threads that are woven into it.” His show will trace “a speculative, formal lineage that runs from recent experiments in paintings—let’s say artists such as Kerstin Brätsch, Laura Owens, Michael Williams—all the way back to artists such as Agostino Bonalumi and Enrico Castellani.” Also on the roster are Etel Adnan, Carol Bove, Ligon, Guyton, Penone, Gianni Piacentino, and R. H. Quaytman. “In a way it is a very sensual show,” Gioni told me, “mostly about forms and textures.”
Meanwhile, Salamé’s influence has been resonating throughout the international art world. He was a supporter of the last two Venice Biennales, and has been a significant lender to numerous exhibitions, including the Museum of Modern Art’s 2015 painting survey, “The Forever Now,” for which he underwrote special frames for the work of Brätsch. Salamé and his wife were, along with the Andy Warhol Foundation, the primary supporters of “Here and Elsewhere,” the sweeping survey of contemporary art of and about the Arab world that appeared at New York’s New Museum last year. He was the first to come on board for that show, Gioni said. He helped with research trips for the curators and, Gioni added, “reached out to other supporters in Lebanon and beyond who came in support of the exhibition.”
Salamé sees AÏshti as a place where Lebanese art can be in dialogue with international contemporary art, and as a new concept for the city, a total experience encompassing art, retail, lifestyle, well-being, and food. In his view, it is a continuation of his contributions to transforming the war-torn city—when he was starting his company and opening stores in downtown Beirut, he restored two streets there. (These days he is planning some of the city’s more adventurous architecture; Zaha Hadid is designing his Beirut Souks department store.) He hopes the shops and other amenities will bring new audiences to the art—admission is free. And there will be educational programming. “Sometimes you like art but you are intimidated,” he said. “We are democratizing it, so there is no barrier. It’s a way to give back to the community.”
Deitch noted similarities between Deste’s role in Athens and what Aïshti’s could be in Beirut. Like Beirut now, there was no large contemporary-art museum in Athens when Joannou opened the Deste Foundation. As for Aïshti’s retail-abuts-museum experiment, “Tony has invented a new model he thinks is an exciting way to present contemporary art in Beirut. No one has really done this before.” The closest comparison, Deitch said, might be the Mori Museum. In 2003, the late real-estate developer Minoru Mori opened a Richard Gluckman–designed kunsthalle in the top floors of a 54-story mixed-use tower in Tokyo’s Roppongi Hills district; the development became not only an art center but also a kind of social center.
As Lebanese curator Christine Tohme recently pointed out in Artforum, this is a time of great change where Beirut’s art institutions are concerned, with a handful of new ones recently inaugurated and others, like Aïshti, about to open. “[It] is a new era,” she wrote, “where museums and corporate institutions are becoming central actors in Beirut’s art world. It’s time to reflect on what it means to be creating these new institutions.” Adjaye sees Aïshti’s building as “place-making,” changing the waterfront from a cluster of industrial buildings to a destination where families can spend the day. Salamé is a booster for Beirut—he peppered his conversation with the phrase “Beirut is fun”—and he understands Aïshti as a potential oasis for culture in a place where everyday life can still seem uncertain.
Sarah Douglas is editor-in-chief of ARTnews.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 62 under the title “Making Waves.”