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Cash-strapped Sursock Museum is looking for donors


Three and a half years after it reopened in 2015, the modern art museum in Beirut is closing its doors for an extra day each week due to financial problems connected to Lebanon’s struggling economy.

With more than 70,000 visitors per year, the Sursock Museum is one of the most important museums in Lebanon. Its permanent collection includes paintings by Lebanon’s most famous artists and constitutes part of the country’s cultural heritage. The museum also hosts temporary exhibitions and programs including free movie screenings, conferences and workshops. “The museum will always be free of charge. It is a form of respect to the will of Nicolas Sursock. We could follow in the United States footsteps where entrance to permanent exhibitions is free of charge and that of temporary ones is paid. However, having a totally free of charge, public and cultural place accessible for everyone is important. If we charge people for visiting the museum, we would make access to culture more difficult for certain stratum of society,” Zeina Arida, the museum’s director, explains.

But the Sursock is suffering from a budget crisis. To cut costs, it will now be closed on Mondays in addition to Tuesdays, which were already a day off. “It is a temporary decision until finding a sponsor who would accept to invest $100,000 per year for a museum. This would be the cost of sponsoring Mondays in order to reopen it on these days of the week,” Arida says.

The museum is taking other steps to reduce its operating costs as well by scaling back its programming. In 2018, it hosted 14 exhibitions. This year there will be only 10.

Ministry of Culture to the rescue?

The Sursock Museum, whose president is former minister Tarek Mitri, is both publicly and privately funded. A 1964 law set aside 5 percent of tax revenue from construction permits issued by the Beirut municipality to fund the museum’s operations. But Lebanon’s recent economic downturn has led to a significant decrease in the amount of money the museum is receiving. In response, the Sursock is looking to lean on private individuals to make up for its budget deficit. “Since the reopening of the museum in 2015, we call upon visitors and art enthusiasts to give spontaneous donations because they are vital for the museum continuance,” Arida says.

The museum is planning to establish a ‘friends of the museum’ committee to help with fundraising and developing partnerships. “As is the case of all the museums in the world, individuals would contribute annually to promote it,” Arida explains.

The Sursock Museum’s restaurant and shop, which will remain open on Mondays, are also an important source of income. “Moreover, we have financial partners such as Banque Libano-Française or donors related to exhibitions. For instance, Tinol Paints provides us with paint, Château Marsyas offers us wine for all our events since the reopening… Pikasso promotes us as well,” Arida continues.

But despite these various revenue streams, the museum does not have a budget to buy new works. Arida explains that 270 items it has added to its collection since reopening were all given as donations. “We have not given up on the idea of being financed by the Ministry of Culture, despite its ‘tight’ budget. We are waiting for the budgets of the new ministry to be approved in order to, eventually, submit a demand,” she adds.

But receiving money from the Ministry of Culture seems like a long shot at the moment. In the meantime, it will be up to individual Lebanese to fund the preservation of the country’s culture heritage.

Public mission, private management

When Nicolas Ibrahim Sursock, a wealthy Lebanese art collector born in 1875, died in 1952, he donated his mansion and private art collection to the citizens of Lebanon. In his will, Sursock set up an independent non-profit foundation to manage the donation. “He was planning to make an art museum that would be open to all Lebanese people,” Arida explains. “To ensure the continuity and the public profile of his donation, he asked in his will that the museum remains under the governance of the Municipality of Beirut council representative, called the mutawali.”

It took nine years for Sursock’s will to be implemented, and the museum was founded in 1961. During the nine years before it opened, then-president Camille Chamoun used the building as a guest palace to host important political figures such as the Shah of Iran, who stayed in the building for one week. “When the palace first opened as a museum in 1961, the mutawali was Amine Beyhum. He established a committee and Lady Yvonne Sursock chaired it. However, the president of the museum committee was the one in charge of managing the museum, not the mutawali, who was only supervising without intervening much,” Arida says.

At the time, Beyhum and Yvonne Sursock faced challenges finding money to finance the museum. That’s why Beyhum suggested the 1964 law. “This law has allowed the museum to survive until today,” Arida says.

The museum is not considered to be subsidized by the government because the law only applies to the Beirut municipality, and, despite the funding, the museum is not a fully public institution. It has a public mission and receives public financing, but is managed by a private foundation. This hybrid structure is probably what has allowed the museum to be sustainable, according to Arida.

Between 2008 and 2015, while Ghassan Tueni was a moutawali, the Sursock Museum was renovated and expanded with money from Beirut’s post-war reconstruction fund. The funding from the Beirut Municipality is dependent on the state of Lebanon’s economy. When the economy is doing well and construction is booming in Beirut, the museum does well. But when the economy slumps and construction slows, as has been the case since 2015, the museum receives less money and suffers from the economic crisis.

(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 16th of February)

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If they publish the yearly Balance sheet of the Museum to public, then maybe the public will find a way to support it.

Marie Claude

GO TO SURSOCK families in Achrafieh!! they are all rich and can help filling the gap a bit.

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