Prior to the October 17 protests in 2019 and the outbreak of COVID-19, Lebanon was already facing political unrest and an economic crisis.
Protests led to the resignation of the government and a total spiralling of the Lebanese economy. Lebanon’s poor pandemic response worsened the situation, and the August 4 explosion last year sent the country into further shock and despair. More than 200 people were killed, thousands were displaced, and many businesses and institutions became permanently closed. The arts and culture sector in Lebanon still hasn’t recovered from this series of unfortunate events, which have severely impacted local institutions and their activities. Many collaborations and programs are still on hold as strategies are revisited to keep the industry accessible and productive in the scene.
Exhibitions and public programs have been challenging to plan due to hyperinflation and the unstable political situation in Lebanon. Institutions such as Dar El-Nimer for Arts and Culture had to rethink new approaches to keep the foundation open with a limited budget. Exhibitions were extended for longer periods of time with stretched public programming. High inflation rates meant high production costs which forced institutions to change how they present exhibitions while maintaining the same high standards in delivery. The format of exhibitions, print material, public programs and marketing was also changed in order to decrease production costs without compromising quality.
Support for arts and culture has always been secondary in Lebanon, with no effective cultural policies for institutions by the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Tourism. Both ministries do not lend support to local institutions, which leads organisations to apply for international funding instead. With the fall of the government and the fluctuating currency, the state budgets have run dry.
During the protest period and the pandemic, all art institutions had to close their doors for an extended period of time. Unfortunately, no furlough scheme was implemented to sustain the art sector employees throughout the closure period. During the first days of the protests, art and cultural institutions in Lebanon joined together to form an official syndicate composed of art practitioners and art experts, considering the large active cultural scene in Lebanon. Meetings were set up to come up with a contingency plan to fortify the position of art institutions in Lebanon and ensure fair representation. Unfortunately, two years on, no syndicate was set up and institutions are left to fend for themselves and innovate new strategies to self-sustain.
Collaborations have always been an important focus point between local and international institutions. Following the collapse of the Lebanese currency and the Beirut Port Blast, many plans were cancelled and partnerships were dissolved due to lack of funding or partner organisations closing their doors permanently.
Today, partnerships are more crucial than ever. Sharing programming, splitting costs, and increasing visibility is essential. One of the biggest challenges institutions face is preserving their mission and vision during a time of extreme uncertainty. Their main focus is to stay afloat and continue providing a platform for cultural exchange, while providing an outlet for people during the most difficult of times.
When people are trying to make it from day to day under distressing conditions, art and culture becomes a luxury for many. The Lebanese people are exhausted and frustrated, with little room for engagement with the art and culture scene. Nevertheless, institutions are trying to find ways to draw people back into activities that could provide a collective outlet for their suffering.
The chain of financial collapse, political strife, global pandemic and one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions in history, resulted in suspending activities across all institutions and forcing a change in their mode of operation. Despite all these challenges, Dar El-Nimer has witnessed an unexpected high volume of visitors once the institution reopened its doors in January 2021. The film program was re-implemented in the spring of 2021 on the roof terrace taking into consideration COVID-19 precautions.
Moving forward, it is important for institutions to remain active in the Lebanese art and culture scene, for now is the time to show up for the local community. Investing time in rethinking operations and strategy in light of these challenges is crucial. Institutions can implement reforms and maximize available resources to come up with new initiatives and material sensitive to the situation, without abandoning their core mission and vision. Reimagining and adapting cultural institutions can provide necessary relief for people experiencing setbacks daily in Lebanon.