Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Beirut’s Sursock Museum Reopens: A Space for Art and Healing

With no aid from Lebanon’s government, Beirut’s Sursock Museum raised over two million US dollars toward its restoration following the 2020 explosion.

Beirut’s Sursock Museum Reopens
Candles light-up pictures of victims of August’s Beirut blast during a commemoration concert in the gardens of the damaged 19th-century Sursock Palace in Achrafieh in Lebanon’s capital, on September 20, 2020. ANWAR AMRO / AFP

Dana Hourany

Strolling through the Ashrafieh neighborhood of Beirut, an impressive historical palace stands out. Described as one of Lebanon’s architectural marvels, Sursock Palace was built by the prominent Greek Orthodox Sursock family in the 19th century.

Nicolas Sursock, who passed away in 1952, bequeathed his residence to be used as an art museum. His passion to nurture and promote art drove him to make this considerable gesture, recognizing artists’ need for institutional support.

Before its official launch in 1957, the Sursock Museum hosted an exhibition titled “First Imaginary Museum in the World” inside the UNESCO headquarters in Beirut. There, 664 framed color copies of fine art from Asia, Europe, and America were put on display. Finally, in 1961, it opened its doors to the public with Salon d’Automne, a public exhibition presenting new work by local contemporary artists.

Despite the disruption caused by the start of the 1975-1990 Lebanese Civil War, the museum remained open, hosting exhibitions from all corners of the globe. These included oriental carpets, Syrian contemporary art, 20th-century British watercolors, drawings, and Belgian contemporary art – not to mention its famous Salon, an annual event where various artworks are exhibited.

After closing for substantial renovations and expansions in 2008, the Sursock Museum reopened to the public in 2015. Visitors to the museum were able to admire a wide selection of modern and contemporary artworks by Lebanese artists dating back to the late 1800s thanks to an active exhibition timetable.

But the Beirut blast of 2020, which heavily damaged neighboring parts of the city and left over 200 dead, forced the museum to close its doors for over three years.

Today, it is teeming with people attempting to restore it to its former splendor. Hundreds of construction workers are painting and plastering the walls as they seek to rebuild the historic edifice, which has suffered extensive damage from the inside out.

Although the blast disrupted the art scene as a whole, experts and observers believe that the museum’s reopening signifies a new beginning for the city and lends to its rehabilitation efforts.

“The museum, like the country, has gone through a lot of changes internally and externally. Despite the difficulties, we are quite proud of what we have so far accomplished,” Karina el-Helou, the museum’s director, told Fanack.

The Sursock legacy

Prior to his death, Nicolas Sursock had a trust established and applied to all of his prized possessions, including the Achrafieh residence as well as his art collection. As trustee, he appointed the President of the Municipality of Beirut Salim Ali Salim, at the time.

Every year since the opening of the museum, a special event has been held to demonstrate the history and development of fine arts in Lebanon. The halls of this grand estate, described by UNESCO as the late President Camille Chamoun’s “pride and joy,” have drawn prestigious figures from not just the Middle East but also from around the globe. Renowned artists such as Etel Adnan, Chafic Abboud, Paul Guiragossian, Saloua Raouda Choucair, and Aref Rayess have left their imprints on Sursock’s history within these walls.

Apart from its selection of artworks, sculptures, and installations, the museum also features a collection of Oriental artifacts such as Islamic and Ottoman artwork, textiles, carpets and icons. Furthermore, visitors can explore Nicolas Sursock’s personal collection, which comprises furniture pieces, porcelain, and woodwork items.

The Fouad Debbas Photography Collection, which comprises approximately 30,000 photographs from Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and Turkey, is kept in the museum’s archives. 15 modern Japanese woodcut prints have also been donated by the Japanese Embassy in Lebanon, as well as Camille Aboussouan’s, the museum’s former conservator, collection of 250 printed photos of Lebanese architecture.

Previously, the museum housed a collection titled Picasso et la Famille (Picasso and the Family) by the renowned Spanish artist Pablo Picasso. This exhibition examined how Picasso depicted family members in his artworks, from mothers and children to his own personal views on his role as a father.

Beginning September 27, 2019, a total of 20 pieces were on show, ranging from drawings and paintings to etchings and sculptures.

Restoring history

With no aid from Lebanon’s government, the museum managed to raise over two million US dollars toward restoring the museum following the 2020 explosion. The Italian government was a major contributor, with $965,000 donated through UNESCO’s Li Beirut initiative. In addition, the French Ministry of Culture and the International Alliance for the Protection of Heritage in Conflict Areas generously contributed $500,000 each.

Documents reviewed by Fanack reveal the extent of the damage suffered by the museum, with two levels sustaining most of the devastation. 66 of the 132 artworks on show were destroyed in some form, including tears from shattered glass, white streaks from collapsing ceilings, and numerous paintings falling from place.

A restoration campaign was launched and carried out in stages to preserve the artworks. Each piece was carefully restored by several skilled experts. Due to their considerable devastation, two paintings and one paper-based piece had to be sent to the Centre Pompidou in Paris for restoration.

Kerstin Khalife, the Beirut Art Museum’s restoration team leader, was entrusted in May 2021 with filling, retouching, and thread-by-thread tear mending on various artworks that had previously been restored. Similarly, art conservation specialists Isabelle Skaf and Nathalie Hanna were tasked with salvaging sculptures, including two terracotta workwear pieces by Simone Fattal from 2006 that had been considered unsalvageable.

Sursock was able to collect the damaged artwork and return them to their rightful location on April 19, 2023. The explosion marks are still noticeable on the museum’s wooden entryway – a deliberate reminder of what happened on that fateful day.

Challenges and changes

Since the start of Lebanon’s economic crisis in 2019, which resulted in a historic collapse of the Lebanese lira compared to the US dollar, the museum has been forced to reconsider its financial strategy.

Historically, the majority of the museum’s activities were funded by a tax levied on building permits, according to el-Helou.

With official funds paid by the municipality losing value, the Friends of the Sursock Museum program was established as a new way to support the museum. Acting as an exclusive art club, membership fees range from $1,000 to $10,000. The program guarantees privileged access to various art hubs, and exclusive events.

Members receive unique curator-led tours, VIP passes to overseas art fairs, and discounts on certain products and locales as a reward of joining this program.

“We have also installed 80 solar panels, which will cover 20% of the energy consumption, helping to make the museum more sustainable in the long run,” el-Helou explained.

A model of resilience

El-Helou believes that the reopening on May 26 will be a cause for joy for people who have suffered tremendous trauma as a result of the explosion.

“Our message to the people is that we are here, that we are resisting, and that we want to be there for them, because Beirut has always been a platform for Arab artists, and we are committed to our mission,” she said.

Despite its position as the Middle East’s cultural hub, with dozens of yearly art festivals and thriving gallery scenes, economic difficulties and political turmoil have resulted in a fall in finances for Lebanese art in recent years. This decline has been noted in contrast to the Gulf States’ burgeoning art industries, such as the UAE, which has seen rocket growth due to increasing governmental financing.

According to the director, many people lost hope in the revival of the Lebanese cultural and artistic scene in the wake of the blast coupled with the flight of artists and the shutdown of many galleries.

“By reopening the museum, we aim to once again provide a platform for artists and to retain these talents within the country,” she said. The director also stated that the foundation intends to grow its collection through acquisition once a committee is formed.

Lebanese-Armenian gallerist and artist Dzovig Arnelian told Fanack that the museum has long put Lebanese artists on the map and is an integral part of helping the art scene recover from the destruction caused by the blast.

“Many galleries in central Beirut were destroyed, and artistic centers appeared to be dormant for a long time. Because the art scene has only lately begun to pick up, the reopening is an exciting event for all of us,” she said.

The artist says that the museum is also a major tourism destination, giving visitors a chance to learn about local and regional artists over the forthcoming summer months.

“Visitors to Sursock will undoubtedly visit nearby galleries, which will further support local artists,” she explained.

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