Encounter with Andrée Sfeir-Semler - Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut
Encounter with Andrée Sfeir-Semler – Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut
You come from a filmmaking background. What led you to work in the contemporary art field? How is this background influence your practice as a gallery owner?
What mostly influenced my practice are my studies under the mentorship of Pierre Bourdieu, which provided insight into the intersection of history, art, and society. However, film played a huge part in enabling me to look at art in a contemporary way.
Why did you choose to run a gallery rather than a foundation or an art center?
The gallery gives me the opportunity to work directly with the artist and the development of the artwork. I enjoy seeing the concept evolve into a physical reality.
What prepared you to the commercial part of the job?
My studies in 19th century collecting practices in France provided me with the background to the commercial world of the gallery. And the learning process never ends. I have had a gallery for 30 years and there are always new collectors with unique perspectives.
Could you tell us about the Beirut art scene? How would you describe it? What would be its main characteristics?
When I first opened the gallery in Beirut, the local contemporary art scene was very small, with most of the collectors living abroad due to the war. However, it has grown rapidly. People are opening their eyes to the truly remarkable work coming out of the country and the region. Great institutions and galleries have opened to the public in the recent years that provide those much needed spaces and resources to show these talents and educate the public. However, there is a resistance to move from a conservative perspective on the art world. It is still very difficult to create or show new work, which isn’t necessarily provocative, but only unfamiliar.
Could you elaborate on your selection as a gallery owner? Is there something in common between the artists that you support? How would you describe your gallery?
Most of the artists in our program work in a very minimal straightforward manner. However, there is a real richness to the concepts behind the works. Each piece tells a story, whether it is a story of an individual or a country.
Your gallery has been the first white cube to open in the Mena region. What was your agenda and how did it impact locally?
The gallery’s ambition is to build a cross-cultural link between Western and Middle Eastern contemporary art practices. Since its opening, Sfeir-Semler has been one of the key forces in introducing and nurturing the artistic practices emerging in the Middle East, and presenting them in major museums, institutions, and art fairs around the world. We hope that locally, we have provided an open space for the public to see artists from the region and abroad.
You will be celebrating soon Sfeir-Semler’s 10th year anniversary. How did the local audience and the art production evolve in Beirut within the last 10 years?
When we opened in 2005, the country had just suffered from the assassination of Rafic Hariri. Needless to say, we are still at the throws of political instability. However, like they usually say about the Lebanese, we try to be resilient. It has been difficult to bring art in from abroad. It has been difficult to produce works locally with the standards we hope for. However, in the past ten years, we have seen the gallery grow. We have seen institutions like Ashkal Alwan expand, the Beirut Art Center open and local contemporary galleries showing works from emerging artists. After many years of difficult work, the contemporary art world is growing and the public is noticing.
What are your plans and challenges for the next years?
I think I share the same dream as many to see a national modern and contemporary art museum open in Lebanon. We plan to work closely with the foundations, institutions, and artists to make this a reality. We hope that in the coming years, we can also overcome the lack of legislation that protects the artist and the artwork.
Who are the purchasers of your gallery? Public institutions, private collectors? Collectors from the region or mainly foreigners?
We have collectors from all over the world. Our artists have been the collections of the Tate, MoMA, Centre Pompidou, the Guggenheim, and many other major institutions and collections. There is an expanding number of local collectors, and most importantly we have recently seen a rise in local art foundations that hope to show their collections publicly in the near future.
Are you a collector yourself? If you are what was your first purchase? What kind of works do you own?
My first purchase as a collector was Matisse’s Masque au Petit Nez, which I still have hanging in my bedroom. I collect work that has a concept or story that reflects on a wider history, society, or tradition.
Would you have any advice to potential collectors?
It is never too early to start collecting.
Would you advise people to invest in art?
I do not look at art like a commodity to be traded. Buying in art is more than a monetary investment. You are investing in a culture, a tradition, a concept that can affect a society as a whole.