After seven years of stops and starts, the Beirut Museum of Art broke ground over the weekend, signaling a new era for modern and contemporary art in the Lebanese capital. The museum will be located steps from the National Museum of Beirut, a beloved repository of Levantine antiquities, and along the city strip which served as battle lines during the country’s 15-year civil war. On display will be works collected by Lebanon’s Ministry of Culture, as well regional and international art. Construction is expected to finished by 2026.
The collection consists of some 2,000 artworks assembled since the Lebanon’s formation as an independent nation, with an emphasis on paintings, sculptures, and works on paper dating from between 1950 and 1975. Among the collection are many figures at the forefront of Lebanese modernism like Khalil Zghaib, Yvette Achkar, and Shafic Abboud, who helped define a regional flavor of Abstract Expressionism. The majority of the artworks has been inaccessible to the public, with those on view spread across five sites, including the Presidential Palace and various Ministry of Culture offices.
An indefinite loan agreement was signed by the government and BeMA, marking the museum’s opening as the first time that collection will be assembled in one place for public view.
The project is spearheaded by the Beirut Museum of Art Association, launched in 2015 by the Association for the Promotion and Exhibition of the Arts in Lebanon. The group plans to fund the project privately, and though no exact figure for the total cost of construction has been made public, board member Richard Haykel told French Lebanese newspaper L’Orient Today that at least $50 million would need to be raised.
Public funding for arts and culture is uneven in Lebanon, despite the country’s extensive artistic history and its many archaeological treasures. Lebanon’s current economic crisis and political instability further hinders efforts to create opportunities for the development of new artistic work. The project to build BeMA, as the museum is known, was put on hold after Lebanon’s October revolution and the subsequent devastating port explosion.
Maybe because of the odds, realizing the city’s first modern and contemporary art museum became a project of principle for BeMA, which roots its mission in “a strong belief [in] the transformative power of the arts and the right of all people to access culture.”
Architect Amale Andraos, cofounder of WORK Architecture Company (WORKac) and dean of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture Planning and Preservation, was tapped to design the museum. The 12,000-square-meter museum will feature 2,700-square-meters of exhibition space and a vertical promenade that wraps around the building’s façade. The blend of indoor-outdoor space is meant to be reminiscent of Mediterranean balconies, and positions the museum “as a community, not a temple,” BeMA cofounder Rita Nammour told the newspaper.
“The porous façade of WORKac’s design dissolves the traditionally closed, white cube gallery model and invites the public to engage directly with the work, creating new and varied possibilities for encounters and dialogue with the art as well as amongst its visitors,” she added.
In line with the museum’s community focus, the design includes affordable shared workspaces and studios that can be used by local artists. The project is a collaboration with Beirut’s Saint Joseph University, which donated the plot of land where the museum will be constructed. Among the educational opportunities offered by the museum are art classes that will be accredited by the university.
Beirut’s contemporary art scene is buoyed by artist-led venues working to revive the city. Assuming BeMA opens on schedule, it will join institutions like Ashkal Alwan, a nonprofit whose collaborative programming recently included a visual art festival hosted in venues across Beirut and Frankfurt, and the Beirut Art Center, which since its opening in 2009 has played a significant role in promoting the work of Lebanese and regional contemporary artists through exhibitions and artist residency programs. (It’s currently exhibiting a solo exhibition by Nadim Choufi, the winner of the first digital commission by Jeddah-based Art Jameel.)
Haven for Artists, a Lebanese nonprofit cofounded by Dayna Ash and dedicated to feminist and LGBQT art and activism, has been active in Beirut since 2011. The organization inaugurated its first permanent cultural center earlier this month with a twilight performance by artist Yara Asmar.
“These past two years have been more than a rollercoaster and a turbulent landscape to endure. They have left our hearts heavy, troubled and lonely,” Haven for Artists wrote on Instagram ahead of the opening. “[All] we can do is slow down and attempt to heal, collect our thoughts, and move forward, together.”