A Different Kind of Space Age

Muriel Asmar, independent curator, tells Artscoops about her desire to give local talent a helping hand and why she believes pop-ups are revolutionising the art scene.

What was it that ignited your passion for the visual arts and prompted you to make it an integral part of your professional life?

I’ve always loved all forms of art since I was a young girl, from theatre and music to architecture. However, a visit to the Louvre in Paris, aged 16, changed everything. Looking at the paintings there, I began to realise just how much I could learn about humanity from the visual arts – it felt like the entire history of mankind was unfolding in front of me, there to be discovered. That was a very special moment! Back in Beirut, I decided to study Graphic Design and then, keen to do something different afterwards, I did a Master’s in Marketing and Communications, working in the events field for several years. I was then delighted to be hired by the Paris-based Opera Gallery to plan its opening in Lebanon, which provided a fantastic opportunity to dive back into the world of art. The six years I spent there were incredible – I learned a huge amount, working in a wonderful environment, preparing exhibitions every three months for a large number of internationally renowned artists, some of whom I got to know personally. I’ll always look back on this time with fond memories.

You decided to set up your own business late last year. How did you know it was the right time to take such a major step?

I absolutely loved my time with Opera, but began to feel that I’d reached my potential there. I’ve also always been keen to continue learning, so I’d taken an ESA certificate course in Arts Management, where I’d met several collectors, artists, gallery managers and owners, which got me thinking that maybe it was time to spread my wings. One key driver was a desire to sharpen my focus on the local art scene. Opera does an excellent job promoting international artists, but I had a growing wish to highlight the wealth of Lebanese talent and the diaspora, especially the artists who were struggling to build their reputation and take part in exhibitions. I knew that setting up on my own would enable me to do this. 

How did you prepare for your first project and what challenges did you face?

I knew that finding the right artists and bringing them together at an ideal location would be key in making my first event successful, which was a collective held last December at Rebirth Beirut. The exhibition featured the work of three artists - two painters and a sculptor - Carole Ingea, Fantine Samaha and Nicolas Baklini, and was titled ‘Les fleurs du Mal’ (Flowers of Evil). Working out the best way to present the combination of different media most effectively was a challenge, but the positive feedback I received made it all worthwhile, with the highlight being that we were asked to extend the show for 10 more days. I think the combination of artists and variety of exhibits worked in our favour, since Carole’s sculptures are already well known on the art scene, while it was Fantine’s first exhibition, for example. Perhaps curiosity also helped to bring in the crowds, with some people keen to find out what I was up to!

You’ve chosen to focus on pop-up exhibitions. Do you see them as the way forward for the industry, post-Covid?

I think the major benefit of pop-ups is the flexibility they offer. I always say that galleries have the same walls, but if you’re fortunate enough to be able to choose your location, you can align it with a theme and make sure the two complement each other. For example, the show I curated which has just come to an end featured a truly emotive selection of artworks by the renowned designer Gilbert Halaby. Titled ‘Domus Berytus’, the show explored the importance of homeland, with the works relaying the artist’s yearning for his birthplace Lebanon, which he left 25 years ago. Subjects depicted in the paintings included solitary houses, cliff tops, mountainous landscapes and majestic pine trees, relayed in both bright Mediterranean colours and sepia-style wistful shadows, evoking boyhood memories, all reinforced in poignant poems he wrote that we featured in the catalogue. Knowing Gilbert’s chosen subjects and how deeply meaningful they were to him, we opted to hold the show at Beit Beirut Museum and Urban Cultural Centre, which perfectly complemented the theme, since ‘beit’ means home in Arabic and the building is both steeped in history and provided the ambience we wanted perfectly.

What projects are you currently working on and what’s in the pipeline?

I plan to take Gilbert Halaby’s exhibition abroad, possibly to the UAE, and build on its success in Lebanon – the project truly deserves to travel! In parallel, I’m also seeking out and selecting key emerging artists with the idea of setting up a project for summer. Right now, I’m working on a venue – watch this space! I’m sometimes asked how I choose artists and the answer is that although I’m of course looking for quality of work, I also need to feel something – there has to be a message in the piece that I immediately understand and it must strike a chord in my heart. An artist also has to have a specific style that I can recognise as soon as I see their work. 

What tips would you give to entrepreneurs considering a career in your profession?

The world of art is a difficult one to navigate and it’s easy to lose your way. My advice is to always remain ethical, transparent and true to yourself. It’s essential to do so to gain the trust of collectors and clients, paving the way for you to build a successful consultancy.

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