Elham and Tony Salamé
Retail luxury stores; philanthropy (Aïshti Foundation)
Along with his wife, Elham, Lebanese businessman Tony Salamé has been collecting contemporary art for more than 10 years. In 2015, the entrepreneur opened a 40,000-square-foot exhibition space for his Aïshti Foundation in Jal el-Dib, Lebanon, a short drive up the Mediterranean Coast from downtown Beirut. Designed by British architect David Adjaye, the hall is part of an ambitious expansion of Aïshti Seaside, an outpost of Salamé’s fashion empire.
Salamé is one of Beirut’s post-civil-war success stories. Over the past quarter-century, he has built Aïshti 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 some consider politically and economically fraught.
The Aïshti Foundation exhibition space moved Salamé into the league of fashion-entrepreneur megacollectors—among them Prada, Pinault, and Arnault—who have opened museums to show their holdings.
“When Tony asked me how I wanted to do it,” Adjaye told ARTnews in 2015 . “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.” Nevertheless, he added, people have “found ways to have an outgoing life.”
The collection numbers over 2,000 works by about 150 artists, as the Salamés prefer to collector artists in-depth. Among those they own work by are Lucio Fontana, Piero Manzoni, Glenn Ligon, Urs Fischer, Rudolf Stingel, Wade Guyton, Mona Hatoum, Walid Raad, and Fouad Elkhoury. Massimiliano Gioni, the artistic director of the New Museum in New York who organized the Aïshti Foundation’s inaugural exhibition, said of Tony Salamé, “His interest in art is really genuine, at times bordering on pure, great madness.”
Another important facet of the foundation’s collection is that its grounds include a group of outdoor sculptures, a rarity in the city. Of the public sculptures, Adjaye said, ”It’s setting a precedent. Beirut has not had much public sculpture, because of security concerns.” (The foundation’s main exhibition spaces were not affected by the major explosion that rocked the Lebanese capital, destroying several buildings in its port and downtown areas, in the summer of 2020.)
Salamé has also worked to bring international contemporary art to Beirut for several years now. His foundation has lent support to exhibitions of Giuseppe Penone and Gerhard Richter at the Beirut Art Center. In 2013, 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.