project > The Permanent Collection

This exhibition displays artworks from the permanent collection of the American University of Beirut (AUB). The collection, stored for years in the basement of College Hall, consists of artifacts produced by different generations of artists, and are representative of various art historical styles, media, and aesthetic or artistic positions. While some of the works were accepted as tokens of friendship from alumni or honored guests, others are traces of more programmatic efforts made in the past for the purpose of bringing art to AUB, of establishing a permanent art collection, or even a museum of art. It is these historical efforts that this exhibition, entitled The Permanent Collection, wants to pay tribute to.

The first known attempts to establish a permanent art collection at AUB came in the early 1970s. Several key works, including Farid Hadad’s Untitled (c. 1970–71), Helen Khal’s Jacob's Ladder (c. 1970), and Jean Khalifeh’s The Singing American (c. 1970), came together in 1971 as part of an initiative to establish the “Permanent Collection of Contemporary Art of the American University of Beirut.” The mission of the project was to encourage artists and collectors to donate or loan artworks to AUB, in order to make “the experience of art a living part of the educational process.”[1] The idea was to show modern art across various spaces on campus. Originating in the Department of Fine and Performing Arts, the initiative was spearheaded by then-Chair Peter Harrison Smith along with fellow faculty member Gordon Olsen. Smith and Olsen approached artists, such as Haddad (b. 1945), Khal (1923–2009), Khalifeh (1925–1978), Stélio Scamanga (b. 1934), Adel Saghir (b. 1930), and others, asking them to donate works for the express purpose of “educating through art” and, more concretely, “to increase the awareness of art today in the Middle East.”[2] The designated central location for the project would be the Mini Gallery that opened on the third floor of College Hall (in the lobby in front of President Samuel Kirkwood’s office). Artist Farid Haddad recalls the enthusiasm with which the faculty, administration, and artists all embraced the idea of a permanent collection. But that quest for permanence was quickly challenged.

During the first half of the 1970s, AUB’s campus was destabilized by civic unrest, student sit-ins, and the occupation of College Hall by students protesting tuition increases (which also explains the black ink blotch on the surface of Haddad’s Untitled). The beginning of the Lebanese Civil War (1975–1990) followed. That combination of events put a stop to the 1971 permanent-collection initiative. As Haddad recalls, “The University was really serious in establishing this collection and expanding on it. I think if it were not for the students’ upheavals and strikes, and later the Civil War, AUB would have established a museum of art during the early seventies.”[3]

The second attempt to establish a permanent art collection, and encourage AUB to play a more active role in the study and preservation of art, came long after the war. In 2011, Dr. Samir Saleeby donated a number of paintings by early Lebanese artists, including Khalil Saleeby (1870–1928), Saliba Douaihy (1915–1994), Omar Onsi (1901–1969), Moustapha Farroukh (1901–1957), and César Gemayel (1898–1958). On this occasion, the University opened two art galleries (the current AUB Art Galleries), thus restating its commitment to support and study national, regional, and international art.

One cannot, however, highlight these two major initiatives without remembering many other artistic endeavors from the past, which also contributed to the University’s increased focus on the study and preservation of art. Through archival material and artworks from College Hall, The Permanent Collection underlines some of these complementary historical efforts. The exhibition presents, for instance, works from several early “pioneers” of Arab and Lebanese national art, and those who interacted in one form or another with AUB already during the early 20th century (e.g. Saleeby, Farroukh, Onsi). It commemorates those who established the Department of Fine Arts in the mid-20th century (e.g. American photographer, filmmaker, artist, performer, and arts advocate Maryette Charlton [1924–2013]). It remembers former art faculty members who played key roles in promoting radical modernist and postmodernist artistic styles and idioms during the 1960s (e.g. British scholar/artist John Carswell [b. 1931]). And it exhibits several surviving samples of pictorial abstraction produced in Beirut in the 1970s (e.g. Haddad, Khal, Khalifeh).

Additionally, The Permanent Collection poses questions of what it means to be an art collection in general, and a university art collection in the Middle East in particular. Not unlike a modern society constituted by a (seemingly) cohesive unit of individuals—but who, according to modern sociology, are alienated by the very process of individuation—an art collection is a totality that is at once complete (or aspires to such completion) and at the same time profoundly deficient. Collections are deficient, first, because every aspiration to completion and permanence is, or may be sometimes, historically futile—as the permanent collection of 1971, dispersed by civic unrest and the Civil War, was shown to be. They are deficient, second, because each artwork is internally divided or lacking, brought into the world as a gesture of great refusal—every modern work of art is in some sense a negation not only of so-called empirical reality and its dominant ideologies, but also of other works, media, and artists, if not of entire art historical and aesthetic traditions.

The Permanent Collection seeks to demonstrate, and to embody, this act of simultaneous totalization and atomization through its mode of presentation. Thus, and in more concrete terms, the modernists on display (Douaihy, Khal, Haddad, Choucair), for instance, can be seen as critically responding to traditional referential art of portraiture, nudes, or landscapes produced by the earlier generations of painters (Farroukh, Saleeby, Onsi, Gemayel). And samples of minimalist and primary structures (Carswell), as well as archival material documenting ephemeral artistic gestures from the 1960s (Carswell’s Tyed), ultimately posit questions about whether art can renounce its traditional mediums and materialities to become pure products of mental processes. The exhibition, then, reshuffles these works in accordance with different syntaxes and modes of museum display—modes usually dictated by orthodox art historical conventions of movements and periods—not only to evoke meta-questions regarding the essence or nature of “permanent” collections, but also to revisit concrete historical instances of the University’s efforts to promote and preserve art.

Finally, The Permanent Collection aims to explore both broad, speculative art critical questions as well as more localized concerns. On the broadly theoretical side: What constitutes an authentic “permanent collection?” What exactly is “permanence”? On the local side: What should the role, scope, and purpose of AUB’s permanent collection be? How can it best reflect its several generations of artists and faculty? Is the collection to be studied, or preserved, or increased, or conserved and expanded (beyond its current limited reach)? Should it be displayed on a more permanent basis—one day—in a museum setting perhaps, or kept stored away from the public until an art historian or curator comes down to the basement to interrogate it? These questions and more we hope to pose not only to the academic community and students at AUB, but also to the wider networks of cultural workers, curators, and artists in Lebanon, the region, and beyond.

 

Octavian Esanu


[1] Permanent Collection of Contemporary Art of the American University of Beirut, AUB Exhibition brochure, Beirut 1971. From the personal archives of Farid Haddad (Concord, New Hampshire, USA).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Email interview with Farid Haddad, September 20, 2018.