During a heated conference on Monday evening at the Museum of Modern Art, the leaders of the highly anticipated Beirut Art Museum revealed details of the project intended to transform the Lebanese cultural landscape. Named BeMA, the institution is expected to open in 2026 and will be the largest modern and contemporary art institution in the county.
The panel included architects Amale Andraos and Dan Wood of architecture firm WORKac, as well as BeMA co-directors Juliana Khalaf and Taline Boladian. BeMA President Joe Saddi and MoMA Director Glenn Lowery oversaw the proceedings. Lowery acknowledged that building a museum was a daunting undertaking “under any circumstances”, but even more so in Beirut, with all its “obvious challenges” and “sectarian strife”.
“We must recognize that museums are among the most important civic spaces in our society,” he said. “They mean even more [in Beirut] than they do in places like New York or Paris.
The Beirut Art Museum opened in February, a short walk from the National Museum of Beirut, a repository of Levantine antiquities, and along the strip of town that served as battle lines during the country’s 15-year civil war. Some 2,000 works of art collected since Lebanon’s formation as an independent nation will be displayed on rotation, with a focus on paintings, sculptures and works on paper dating from 1950 to 1975.
Most of the artworks have been inaccessible to the public, with those on display spread across five sites, including the presidential palace and various offices of the Ministry of Culture. The museum’s opening will be the first time the collection has been assembled for public view.
For six years, the museum team has been searching Lebanon for pieces from the national collection, with Khalaf likening it to an extensive Indian Jones scavenger hunt. In some cases, rotting canvases were stored haphazardly in palace rooms with poor ventilation. “We had to enter spaces with n95 masks, before these became fashionable”, Khalaf says.) A painting by the great abstract artist Elie Kannan, for example, was damaged by fire. Perseverance and restoration are the pillars of the new museum’s mission and, to date, 294 works have undergone treatment. BeMA also restored 17 paintings damaged in the 2020 Beirut port explosion as part of a joint initiative with UNESCO.
“We need to preserve our national identity right now during this crisis before it evaporates,” Khalaf said.
The idea that art is essential to creating and maintaining a cohesive national identity was the theme of the evening. Although BeMA will showcase new works by artists based in Lebanon and beyond, it is not an encyclopedic institution. Its galleries will be listed in chronological order, beginning with “A Modern Nation” (1880-1920), represented by founding artists like Khalil Gibran and Marie Haddad, through to the post-war period (1990-2001). A few thematic groupings include “People and Places” which presents Lebanon as a landing place for disparate art movements. It is an indispensable contribution to the history of modern Arab art, with 23 works by the essential painter and poet Said Akl, as well as pieces by Yvette Achkar, Rafic Charaf and Mohammad El Rawas.
“This collection has been overlooked to say the least,” Boladian said. “We want to display it in a place that deserves it.”
The museum will be housed in a 12,000 square meter building, with 2,700 square meters of exhibition space. A plan puts the size of the individual galleries around 520 square meters, compared to 375 square meters per gallery at the New Museum, or roughly the equivalent of a room in the old Met Breuer. The permanent collection will be housed on levels 2 and 3, while the fourth is dedicated to temporary exhibitions and performance.
It’s a curious design, with a vertical promenade that wraps around the building’s porous facade – Lowery described it as having no “museological background” – but Andraos and Wood said its mixture of space indoor-outdoor is meant to be reminiscent of traditional Mediterranean balconies. These “reimagined balconies” become “a series of exterior galleries in a multitude of scales and shapes, acting independently of the museum’s flexible floors within, and creating a new gradient of publicly accessible spaces,” according to the company. Exterior galleries can also be closed or veiled to protect light-sensitive structures.
Speaking of light: Beirut is suffering from an energy crisis, a byproduct of the broader economic depression plaguing Lebanon. Over the past year, fuel shortages and a downed power sector have led to blackouts and unreliable bursts in state-supplied electricity. Between June 2021 and 2022, inflation in Lebanon increased by 210%, and the insolvent banking sector limited withdrawals to only enough money to – perhaps – cover a month’s basic household needs. Meanwhile, the country’s population has swelled with an influx of refugees from Syria.
How will BeMA adapt to this reality?
“We have collaborated extensively with expertise based in Beirut and the United States regarding mechanical and environmental systems for museums,” Andraos said. ART news after the conversation. “The building relies on a combination of generators and battery backup from solar power on the roof [system] to manage periodic outages. According to Andraos, the building will be equipped with three generators and a “photovoltaic field on the roof”. Critical building systems, such as environmental controls, fire alarms and security, will depend on the generators, while the battery backup will manage the lighting.
During the event, Boladian shared that the museum plans to have free entry. Several community engagement programs are already in development or underway, including affordable shared workspaces and studios that can be used by local artists, and a list of art classes that will be accredited by the Saint Joseph University of Beirut, which donated the land where the museum will be built. BeMA’s collection will also be accessible via an online database, for those who cannot easily travel to Beirut.
“We plan not to duplicate efforts,” Boladian said, noting the intimacy of Beirut’s arts ecosystem, which includes Ashkal Alwan, Sursock Museum, Beirut Art Center and Haven for Artists, an organization non-profit dedicated to art and feminist and LGBQT activism which inaugurated its first permanent cultural center in February.
“We want to do things that don’t already exist,” and in Beirut, Boladian added, “there’s a lot to do.”