In an impassioned talk Monday night at the Museum of Modern Art, leaders of the long-awaited Beirut Museum of Art revealed details of the project set to transform Lebanon’s cultural landscape. Dubbed BeMA, the institution is set to open in 2026 and it will be the county’s largest modern and contemporary art institution.
The panel included architects Amale Andraos and Dan Wood of the architecture firm WORKac, and 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 endeavor “under any circumstances”, but more so in Beirut, with all its “self-evident challenges” and “sectarian strife.”
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“We need to recognize that museums are some of 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 Museum of Art broke ground in February, steps from the National Museum of Beirut, a repository of Levantine antiquities, and along the city strip which served as battle lines during the country’s 15-year civil war. On rotating display will be some 2,000 artworks assembled since Lebanon’s formation as an independent nation, with an emphasis on paintings, sculptures, and works on paper dating from between 1950 and 1975.
Most of the artworks have been inaccessible to the public, with those on view spread across five sites, including the Presidential Palace and various Ministry of Culture offices. The museum’s opening will be the first time the collection is assembled for public view.
The museum team has been searching Lebanon for pieces of the national collection for six years, with Khalaf likening it to a vast Indian Jones treasure hunt. In some cases, decaying canvases were stored haphazardly in palace bedrooms with poor ventilation. (“We had to enter the spaces with n95 masks, before those became fashionable”, Khalaf said.) A painting by great abstract artist Elie Kannan, for example, had fire damage. Perseveration and restoration are pillars of the new museum’s mission and, so far, 294 works have undergone treatment. BeMA has also restored 17 paintings damaged during 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 vital to creating and maintaining a cohesive national identity was the theme of the night. While BeMA will present new work from artists based in Lebanon and beyond, it’s not an encyclopedic institution. Its galleries will be arranged chronologically, beginning with “A Modern Nation” (1880—1920), represented by foundational artists like Khalil Gibran and Marie Haddad, through the post-war period (1990—2001). A few thematic groupings include “People and Places” which present Lebanon as a landing place for disparate artistic movements. It’s set to be an indispensable contribution to modern Arab art history, with 23 works by essential painter and poet Said Akl, as well as pieces by Yvette Achkar, Rafic Charaf, and Mohammad El Rawas.
“This collection has been neglected to say the least,” Boladian said. “We want to display it in a place deserving of it.”
The museum will be housed in a 12,000-square-meter building, featuring 2,700-square-meters of exhibition space. A blueprint puts individual gallery sizes around 520 square-meters, compared to 375 square-meters per gallery at the New Museum, or roughly equivalent to a room at the former Met Breuer. The permanent collection will be housed on level 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 façade — Lowery described it as having no “museological antecedes”— but Andraos and Wood said its blend of indoor-outdoor space is meant to be reminiscent of traditional Mediterranean balconies. These “reinvented balconies” become “a series of outdoor galleries in a multitude of scales and shapes, acting independently of the flexible museum floors inside, and creating a new gradient of publicly accessible spaces,” according to the firm. The outdoor galleries can also be enclosed or curtained to protect light-sensitive works.
Speaking of light: Beirut is suffering from an energy crisis, a by-product of the broader economic depression plaguing Lebanon. In the past year, fuel shortages and a broken electricity sector have led to black-outs and unreliable bursts of state-supplied power. Between June 2021 and 2022, inflation in Lebanon rose 210 percent, and the insolvent banking sector has limited withdrawals to only enough cash to—maybe—cover a month of household basic necessitates. Meanwhile, the country’s population has swelled with an influx of refugees from Syria.
How will BeMA’s accommodate this reality?
“We have been intensely collaborating with Beirut and US-based expertise with regards to the mechanical and environmental systems for museum,” Andraos told ARTnews after the talk. “The building is relying on a combination of generators and battery back-up from the rooftop solar [system] to manage the periodic black-outs.” According to Andraos, the building will be equipped with three generators and a “photovoltaic array on the roof.” The building’s critical systems, such as environmental controls, fire alarms, and security, will be reliant on the generators, while the battery backup will handle lighting.
During the event, Boladian shared that the museum plans to have free admission. Several community engagement programs are either already in development or ongoing, including affordable shared workspaces and studios that can be used by local artists, and a slate of art classes that will be accredited by the Beirut’s Saint Joseph University, which donated the plot of land where the museum will be constructed. BeMA’s collection will also be accessible via an online database, for those who can’t easily travel to Beirut.
“We plan to not duplicate efforts,” Boladian said, noting the intimacy of Beirut’s art ecosystem, which includes Ashkal Alwan, the Sursock Museum, the Beirut Art Center, and Haven for Artists, a nonprofit dedicated to feminist and LGBQT art and activism that inaugurated its first permanent cultural center in February.
“We want to do things don’t already exist,” and in Beirut, Boladian added, “there’s plenty to be done.”