With a fresh curatorial vision and vastly expanded premises, the Sursock Museum reopens after seven years
One rainy afternoon, I reached the gates of the refurbished premises of the Sursock Museum to see a brand new glass-and-steel extension to the left of the courtyard, a purpose-built addition set to house the museum’s gift shop and restaurant. Formerly a home for the museum’s permanent collection, with 1500 square meters of exhibition space, the renovated mansion now boasts 8,500 square meter premises including a host of new amenities, from a 160-seat auditorium, to a state-of-the-art research library and an 800-square meter underground exhibition space.[two_columns_one]
One of the few unchanged portions of the interior is Nicolas Sursock’s office, which still houses his chair and the beautiful wooden desk at which he used to work. I turn left and enter a traditional circular diwan seating space, Sursock’s salon arabe, ornamented with finely detailed marble pillars and decorative wood panels. Elsewhere, the museum’s interior has been transformed into a distinctly modern space, with powerful lighting and brilliant white walls.
The museum was once a fixture of Beirut’s art scene, but closed for renovation in 2008. After seven long years, it is finally set to reopen with its host of unparalleled new facilities on October 1. Beirut, a hub for the dissemination of modern and contemporary Arab art, will once again benefit from open access to the museum’s private collection, which includes around 700 pieces.
Modern and contemporary Lebanese
artists are mostly showcased through works on canvas and paper. The collection also includes sculptures, ceramics, graphic art, an Islamic art collection and Japanese etchings. Works by Shafic Abboud, Etel Adnan, Assadour, Simone Baltaxe, Daoud Corm, Paul Guiragossian, Jean Khalife, Hussein Madi, Jamil Molaeb, Juliana Seraphim and Aref el Rayess have been slumbering inside the museum since its closure. These will be displayed on the mansion’s first and second floors, which are destined to house the permanent collection.
The Sursock Museum’s re-launch will revive the vision of Nicolas Sursock, the Lebanese philanthropist and art collector, who bestowed his private mansion to the city of Beirut with instructions to open the mansion as a public museum upon his death. In 1961, nine years after Sursock’s death, the museum unlocked its doors with the Salon d’Automne, a show of works by contemporary Lebanese artists modeled on the annual Parisian exhibition.
Today the museum is returning to the cultural map with a new director, former director of the Arab Image Foundation Zeina Arida, and a young team hoping to propel the institution into a central role in the city’s art scene. The museum will reopen with an exhibition entitled Views on Beirut: 160 years of Images, showcasing over 300 paintings, etchings and photographs exploring the history of Beirut and the evolution of its identity from 1800 to 1960.[/two_columns_one]
This exhibition is just a start for the team’s ambitious plans. The museum’s aim is to become a central hub for the regional and local art scene with through temporary exhibitions and extensive public programming that will explore both historic and contemporary Beirut. “Part of our mission as a museum is to support and promote both local and international talent,” explains Arida, “but as a cultural institution in Lebanon, we also strive to nurture and maintain a museum culture in a country where art tends to be viewed as secondary.”
Sursock Museum is reopening not just with new premises, but with a new vision, which includes an effort to improve public knowledge on art practices in the region, to showcase work that critically reflects on the global contemporary moment and to present exhibitions and events that inform and challenge the public through contemporary practices.
A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, The Playtime Issue #31, on page 34