'This year is a turning point': More than $1 million available for Lebanon’s struggling arts and culture organisations

Two regional art organisations have joined forces to launch their first emergency fund

2A3YD31 `The warriors sculptures by Antonio Signorini, in Samir Kassir garden or square, in background Waygand street, Downtown, Beirut, Lebanon
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Two regional art organisations, the Arab Fund For Arts and Culture (Afac) and Culture Resource (Al Mawred Al Thaqafy), have launched an emergency fund of more than $1 million (Dh3.67 million) to support Lebanon’s struggling arts sector.

The organisations, both headquartered in Beirut, made the announcement as the country sinks deeper into its worst-ever economic crisis, compounded by the coronavirus pandemic.

“We see this year as a turning point in the lives of [struggling arts] organisations,” said Rima Mismar, Afac’s executive director. “We want to give them a bit of support to avoid any immediate crash just because they do not have access to their [bank] accounts or cannot carry on with their activities.”

Helena Nassif, managing director of Culture Resource, added that the current economic crisis posed a threat to a number of organisations.

At the risk of sounding cheesy, every crisis has two sides to it

Lebanese banks restricted access to cash in American dollars after nationwide anti-government protests erupted last October, bringing the activities of many organisations, artistic or otherwise, to a halt as the value of the local currency plummeted.

“As a result, a lot of artists or cultural practitioners would either need to leave the sector or leave the country,” Nassif said.

To be eligible for a one-time grant via the solidarity fund, which is sponsored by the US Open Society Foundations and the Ford Foundation, organisations must be at least two years old and have a track record of proven social engagement with local communities.

Though they do not have to be headed by artists of Lebanese nationality, they must be based in the country. Depending on the jury’s assessment, up to 16 structures will receive between $20,000 and $80,000 each. The deadline for applications is Monday, June 15.

This is the first fund set up collaboratively by the two organisations, which have been co-ordinating closely since Culture Resource moved its headquarters from Cairo to Beirut in 2017.

“It felt natural. We want to extend our support and solidarity to the arts and culture sector as two regional organisations, as well as stand in solidarity with each other,” said Mismar.

The grants can be spent on whatever the winning organisations deem necessary, from staff salaries and rent to collaborations.

“We do not expect these organisations, at this point in time, to actually have a full strategy or vision on how they will adapt to the situation,” said Mismar. “We were more sensitive to the fact that they need time and some resources to be able to sit together, think and reflect on their mission and their engagement with their communities.”

Both Mismar and Nassif are optimistic, however, that disruptions caused by Covid-19 and the economic crisis represent a moment of opportunity for the arts sector.

“At the risk of sounding cheesy, every crisis has two sides to it. There are definitely challenges and negative impacts. At the same time, it does somehow open a moment to think of things differently. This is where aligning immediate needs with longer-term strategies needs to be balanced well,” said Mismar.

“The same kind of questions that were raised in Lebanon last October and November are now discussed elsewhere in the world …[about] the value system we carry and the role of the arts in contributing to creating and imagining a better or different kind of society,” said Nassif. “The moment of questioning we had in Lebanon is now global.”

Lebanon’s arts and culture scene also contributes significantly to the local economy, Nassif adds. “It’s important to think of this sector as productive. It’s not a bunch of artists in a bubble,” she said.

Lebanon's cultural sector represents 5 per cent of the country's GDP, or $1 billion and 6,000 companies, the director of the French Cultural Institute in Beirut, Veronique Aulagnon, told local newspaper L'Orient-Le Jour on Friday.

The moment of questioning we had in Lebanon is now global

Individual artists are excluded from the solidarity fund but both Afac and Culture Resource support them separately on a regional level.

On Tuesday, June 2, Afac will launch a scheme to sponsor up to 150 artists with $3,000 each while they stay at home.

In mid-May, Culture Resource added a specific Covid-19 component to a pre-existing programme, Stand For Art, that gives grants to artists at risk. The initiative, which targets artists experiencing hardships as a consequence of Covid-19, will be re-assessed later in 2020 based on how the pandemic develops.

For more information about the solidarity fund, visit arabculturefund.org