The Permanent Collection: generations of art preserved

​​​​​​​​​​​Safa Jafari Safa​ <ss152@aub.edu.lb> Office Communications

The Permanent Collection exhibition, currently at display at AUB, displays artworks representative of various art historical styles, media, and aesthetic or artistic positions. The exhibition pays tribute to generations of artists, friends, and scholars who contributed to the establishment of an art collection at AUB, whether as tokens of friendship from alumni or guests, or as efforts to bring art to AUB with the purpose of establishing a permanent art collection, or even a museum of art, accessible to the AUB community as well as the public. 
 
Organized by Dr. Octavian Esanu, assistant professor of art history and curator of AUB Art Galleries and Collections, in the Byblos Bank Art Gallery at Ada Dodge Hall, the exhibition comprises works assembled at various stages of efforts to establish an AUB permanent collection. The first attempt at an initiative to establish the “Permanent Collection of Contemporary Art of the American University of Beirut” was the early 1970s, with key works including Farid Haddad’s Untitled (1971), Helen Khal’s Jacob’s Ladder (1969), and Jean Khalifeh’s The Singing American (1971). A central location was designated at the Mini Gallery on the third floor of College Hall. The aim, as stated in the 1971 exhibition brochure, was to make “the experience of art a living part of the educational process” through encouraging artists and collectors to donate or loan artworks to AUB. The project originated in the Department of Fine and Performing Arts, spearheaded by then-chair Peter Harrison Smith along with fellow faculty member Gordon Olsen, to increase the awareness of art in the Middle East.

After the Lebanese War, another attempt was made to establish a permanent art collection and encourage a more active study and preservation of art by AUB. 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. 

Several other artistic endeavors were made to increase focus on the study and preservation of art, as documented in the exhibition through archival material and artworks from College Hall. The Permanent Collection today exhibits works by Etel Adnan, John Carswell, Maryette Charlton, Saloua Raouda Choucair, Saliba Douaihy, Simone Fattal, Moustapha Farroukh, César Gemayel, Farid Haddad, Jean Kalifeh, Helen Khal, Hussein Madi, Omar Onsi, and Khalil Saleeby.

“The exhibition is not part of a special series, but we are always thinking about different ways of framing our permanent collection, and asking questions about how it relates to many different contexts," stated Dr. Rico Franses, d​irector of AUB Art Galleries and Collections, and Dr. Esanu. “In this show, we have put the emphasis on the history of the art collection itself, surveying the way in which it developed.  For example, we examine the 1971 attempt to start a permanent collection that was interrupted by the Civil War.  We also look at the ways in which individual pieces entered the collection, thus showing something of their past life: what was the original circumstance in which each work was created?  In what setting was it first displayed?"  

Among other artworks, “the exhibition presents 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),” explains the curatorial statement. “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).” 

The exhibition is an opportunity to sample some of Lebanon’s best art, offering a glimpse into the intellectual evolution of individual artists and the progression of art through the 20th century. More than anything, this collection underscores AUB’s long-standing commitment to preserving and supporting the fine arts in Lebanon and the region, and documents its determination over decades to preserve history and culture while expanding into the future.