Art market echoes in Beirut

BEIRUT: Sales are down compared to the past five years, Saleh Barakat observed. He considers sales figures to be unimportant, he said, but noted that there had been some recent success. In a phone conversation with The Daily Star, the gallerist said most of his buyers have been Lebanese, though some Europeans have expressed interest in his artists’ works.

Most purchases have been made at his two galleries – Agial and the recently opened Saleh Barakat Gallery. Though he attends regional and international art fairs, he regards them to be more important for exposure than sales.

Barakat represents Lebanese artists exclusively – many of whose works are much in demand. Modern and contemporary artists from this country occupy a prominent place in the art market, so the reflections of active gallerists like Barakat are a good way to assess the health of that market, albeit impressionistically.

Its boosters have depicted the global art market as bulletproof. When questionable financial practices unleashed the catastrophe of 2008, art market sales rocketed, apparently unhindered.

The incongruity is more pronounced for the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) art market where, since 2011, popular revolution and counterrevolution have set economic analysts to frowning.

Verifiable figures are few, especially for the primary market (galleries and art fairs), but numbers offered by Christie’s Dubai suggest a general sense of the region’s secondary market. In 2010 the auctioneer held two events. The April sale reported receipts of $15,172,125. October’s auction reportedly pulled in $14,050,500.

This past year Christie’s held two auctions in March – timed to correspond to Art Dubai, the region’s pre-eminent art fair. The firm reported the first of these, entitled “Dubai: Modern and Contemporary Art Now and Ten,” brought in $7,533,500. The second made $4,416,250.

The 2016 numbers are substantially lower than those of 2010 – though they say nothing about Arab artists’ gallery and art fair sales, or the secondary market beyond Christie’s Dubai. In any case, the mechanism still appears to be making money.

When the paper inquired about the past year’s sales, Beirut gallerists responded with some caution.

“I don’t understand who is the target of this article and the purpose of your questions,” one proprietor replied via email. “In my opinion this article does not serve the interest of the country in the current situation and is relatively negative.”

August is, admittedly, a very slow time for visual art. This may explain why the spokespersons of several prominent Beirut galleries didn’t respond to these inquiries – and so are absent from this story.

Roger al-Khoury manages Ayyam Gallery’s Beirut franchise. A Damascus concern that in the past several years has opened branches in Dubai, Jeddah, London and Beirut, the gallery represents artists from around the Arab world and participates in one regional fair, Art Dubai.

“It is fine,” Khoury said of the year’s sales. “The first quarter was great, but ... in general, the year was ... yes ... to be honest, it was slow, but fine. We still have clients who are interested in some pieces.”

The most successful show so far this year featured the works of Lebanese artist Nadim Karam, he said, and went on to observe that most, 70 percent, of his clients are expat Lebanese.

“The market is small in Beirut,” he said. “If you compare to Dubai, millions of people are going in and out. Many [tourists came] to Dubai last year and this year. ... You can’t compare the market.

“But, if you want to talk about the market, the population and art community in Beirut, and you want to compare them to what we sell, and how the market goes, it’s fine.”

Nadine Bekdache, founder of Galerie Janine Rubeiz, is another stalwart figure on the regional market.

“We are trying to do the best with the situation,” the gallerist said in a preliminary telephone interview, later expanding that over the years the gallery has held exactly the same number of exhibitions, notwithstanding the political situation.

“This year has been a good year with regular sales,” Bekdache remarked in a subsequent email. “I would prefer not to share numbers.”

Asked if any of her artists were particularly in demand, Bekdache replied, “We represent around 25 Lebanese artists for which we give the same effort and promote equally. They all have their own clients.”

Most of the gallery’s client base remains longtime local buyers, she said, though it also sells to Gulf and European clients. Some 70 percent of sales are made in the gallery in Raouche, with the balance coming from overseas fairs and auctions.

“One of our top artists,” Bekdache wrote, “Zad Moultaka, was nominated to represent Lebanon in the Lebanese Pavilion in Venice Biennale in 2017.”

Opera Gallery is a successful art market instrument whose clients include museums and private collectors. One of 12 galleries scattered around Europe, Asia and the U.S., Opera Gallery Beirut opened in June 2015. The gallery represents a range of international artists.

“Our clientele is exposed to a big variety of modern and contemporary art works and artists,” wrote Opera’s Muriel Asmar via email. “Being our biggest asset, this variety enables us to target locals and foreigners too.”

Under the circumstances, Asmar said, sales are fine.

“Considering global economic and financial conditions, the art market in Beirut is demonstrating a maturity as a genuine alternative investment channel,” she wrote. “Despite a turbulent political, economic and financial backdrop, Opera Gallery Beirut has grown 30 percent from the first semester of 2015 through the second semester of 2016.”

Asmar was unable to share numbers, and said it was impossible to compare the market conditions among the 12 sister galleries.

“Every country has a different potential and market size,” she wrote. “However, the art market is still very strong. We have a good synergy between all the galleries. The management account globally show[s] an increase of our turnover of [5 percent] at the end of June. And particularly last year was an excellent year for the group.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 31, 2016, on page 16.




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