Lebanon's cultural organizations, which have long been regional models, struggle to keep their heads above water as economic and political crises deepen
BEIRUT — Since last October, prices of essential items in Lebanon have risen by nearly 50%, the minimum wage fell by 40%, unofficial capital controls have limited withdrawals and scores of businesses have closed.
For the arts and culture sector in Lebanon, this situation has been untenable, already entering the crisis with a precarious financial structure.
Art organizations in Lebanon largely receive money from foreign funds and embassies, philanthropy, community donations and local banks.
Amar Zahr, co-director of the Beirut Art Residency (BAR), an organization that teaches artists and hosts exhibitions, told Al-Monitor that a lot of funding “has dried up because of the circumstances.”
BAR was established by a group of young creatives during the 2015 trash crisis. “[We started our work] despite or maybe because of the crisis. … Things were picking up and funding was accessible,” Zahr said.
This funding mainly came from embassies that would fund their citizens to come to Beirut, foreign grants and local banks. However, by 2018, Zahr “could tell something was happening — things were getting shaky.”
With major banks currently looking to sell assets and the country in economic free fall, funding for the arts was one of the first expenditures to go.
Even when funding was available, the banking sector would often prioritize high-end and established events such as the Beiteddine Festival or Baalbeck International Festival. What money made it to newer organizations like BAR has quickly dried up over the past two years.
With foreign grants and embassies also limiting their funding, BAR, after 5 years and some 120 international and local artist residencies, is moving to a skeleton crew.
“In general a lot of the ways we used to fund our program are being questioned,” Zahr said. “We are looking to slow down and run on the bare minimum.”
While BAR is looking to reduce its size, while keeping the core projects running, other institutions have not been so lucky.
The Metropolis Art Cinema Association’s (MACA) theater in Beirut, Metropolis Empire Sofil, the only cinema in Lebanon dedicated to playing regional and arthouse films, closed in January.
While MACA will continue with other projects to revive and sustain Arab film, the closure marked the end of a storied institution, with the first theater events starting just before the 2006 Lebanon War.
“We kept the cinema open [during the war],” Hania Mroue, founder and director, told Al-Monitor. “[We did] not have huge audiences, but people every day. [During that time] refugees were living in the theater.”
“The theater was underground. Can you imagine kids being trapped there? We wanted to offer activities so we screened special programs for kids, and that was how our youth program was founded,” she said.
Opening a new theater on the other side of Beirut in 2008, Metropolis partnered with Empire, a commercial cinema chain.
“We were in charge of the programming and [they] managed it. In return, they got the box office [earnings],” Mroue explained. “They [Empire] have been complaining over the past few months that we are not bringing in enough through admissions. But they always said this. We found out they had to pay some money [for the building]. … They decided to shut down the cinema and leave instead. We were just told, ‘FYI, we are leaving.’”
While Mroue said that working with a commercial organization had its benefits, she noted, “We were exhausted. … It was this capitalistic system where your employer will never be happy. … At the same time, we knew they did not really care about what we were doing [artistically].”
Mroue said that funding from foreign grants has also decreased, adding, “If we had kept the box office [to fund our programs], we would be rich.”
The method of relying exclusively on the box office as the sole income is employed by Metro al-Madina, a cabaret and theater company located in Metropolis’ old location, in Beirut’s busy Hamra Street.
“[Our budget is] purely from ticket sales. From the day it opened to today we have not taken any funding,” Lara Nohra, head of communications at Metro al-Madina, told Al-Monitor.
Hosting musicals, dance performances and plays, Metro is also home to some of the country’s most scathing political satires.
“When you are independent [financially] you are also independent in what you can write, and in so many ways we wanted the space to be free [of economic restraints],” Nohra said.
However, this independence comes at a cost. “The past year and a half we noticed from ticket sales that things were not going well. … It’s not a priority [for people] and I understand that,” she said.
When protests broke out on Oct. 17, 2019, Metro closed for a month in solidarity. However, when they reopened they were faced with a dire balance sheet.
“[Closing] was an option. We didn’t have any income, no salaries nothing,” Nohra said. “But we all need Metro, everyone around us was against the idea of closing because it is a space that keeps us alive. There is life there.”
Instead, Metro moved to a pay-what-you-can system, working with their patrons to ensure their independence. “If we close, we close. We cannot fight the situation forever. But I can say we tried,” Nohra said.
While Metro prioritized its independence over everything else, other organizations have chosen a different route.
The Lebanese contemporary dance company Maqamat, while accepting funding from philanthropists and grants, is also one of the few art organizations to work with the Ministry of Culture.
“Our relationship with the ministry went through different stages,” Omar Rajeh, founder and artistic director, told Al-Monitor. “I wanted to bring the ministry into what we did.”
Rajeh said he only ever got a token amount of money for printing and transport from the ministry, despite the steady decline in other means of funding.
Creating Maqamat in 2002, Rajeh did not just want to bring contemporary dance to Lebanon, he wanted to build a strong and unified art and culture community. He believed that working with the ministry would achieve this.
While he spoke highly of former ministers as being committed to the arts, Rajeh said things have deteriorated. “[Recently] ministers were coming in with no knowledge on culture — it collapsed. I would go to meetings and I feel they are bored by what I am saying, or they look at me with pity,” Rajeh said, adding, “You need a culture ministry, you need a plan, real committees. … [Currently] it is just their friends coming in.”
The Ministry of Culture, which had a budget of 50 billion Lebanese pounds ($33 million) in 2019, has been combined with the Ministry of Agriculture under Abbas Mortada, a municipality politician and petrol station owner, in the new Lebanese government.
However, it was the closure in August 2019 of Maqamat’s performance space, the Citerne Beirut, after hosting the BIPOD dance festival that made Rajeh realize that the government was not going to assist the arts.
The Citerne needed a permit renewal from the Beirut governorate, which was abruptly denied without a clear reason. “We are [not] building a tower and selling each room for $3 million. It is a cultural space. … They are anti-culture — that is all I can say,” Rajeh said.
The short notice from the governorate saw the building close before an alternative could be found, losing the performance space.
This experience has colored Rajeh’s previous interactions with the government. “[They give out grants] but it’s a secret. It happens behind closed doors and they divide the money,” Rajeh said. “It is not much money, but we could have created a revolution in culture with it. But they don’t want that.”
Rajeh said he was leaving for France because he was not sure that he could bring about any change in Lebanon. “Of course, they won’t listen to me. They won’t think about culture. … They are destroying people’s lives and families and forcing thousands to leave the country humiliated and they don’t care. You think they care if a theater closes down?”
Despite this, Maqamat will continue. It is planning to hold BIPOD again in 2020, focusing on local artists and relying on the box office for funding, like other organizations turning inward to their community for support.
“I don’t think anyone has a clear solution how [the art sector] can operate in the future. But everyone is convinced we need to work together and we need to work differently. Once we get to the bottom, we will come back again. Maybe some institutions will not survive. … We know we have a few years ahead that will be very difficult,” Mroue concluded.