Gallery owner Saleh Barakat talks to Ahmad Minkara

A Window on the Region


Gallery owner Saleh Barakat talks to Ahmad Minkara about moving on, moving up and moving into a new white space.



Having just marked 25 years in the art business with the opening of a new gallery bearing his name, Saleh Barakat is no stranger to milestones.


In fact, as the gallery owner and curator reflects, they have long marked out his career, forming part of what he says is a continuing learning curve.


“In the first five years, I focused on learning my trade and positioning the Agial as one of Beirut’s most important galleries,” he says. “After ten years, I felt ready to begin looking beyond Lebanon’s borders. Then, 15 years in, I made the move into curating.”


Having opted to study business at the American University of Beirut (AUB), it wasn’t long before Barakat began feeling the pull of art over a planned career in finance.


Inspiration, he notes, had been plentiful at home. “My father collected Arab art while I was growing up,” he explains. “Beirut was a platform for Arab art in the 1960s and early 70s, earning a reputation as a mecca for Arab art.”



Yet the Beirut that lay before Barakat at the end of the civil war, when he began planning his first gallery, was a very different proposition from the art scene of those earlier decades. None of the art galleries in Lebanon’s capital city survived, he explains, with the Alwan and Epreuve d’Artiste in Kaslik the nearest.


However, new opportunities were emerging and the Agial, which opened in 1991, would be instrumental in reviving Beirut’s art scene. Barakat was also keen on providing a platform for regional talent. “I wanted to bring the Arab art dimension back to Beirut,” he explains. “After 15 years of civil war, our art was limited to local work, so I decided to open up the Agial to Arab artists.”


Over the years, the Agial has established itself as a major hub for modern and contemporary art across the spectrum from Lebanon and further afield.


The gallery has helped to rekindle interest in a long list of artists, ranging from the late Fateh Moudarres, from Syria, and Iraqi-born Ismail Fattah Al Turk, also deceased, to the Egyptian sculptor, Adam Henein and Iraqi pioneer of modern Arab art, Dia Azzawi. Other artists who have been given a platform at the Agial include the Iraqi painter, sculptor and writer, Shakir Hassan Al Said and Egypt’s Adel Siwi.


Aside from Barakat’s self-documented landmarks, there have been many others along the way, such as the co-curation, together with Sandra Dagher, of the first Lebanese National Pavillion at the 2007 Venice Biennale.


However, noticing a wave of negativity surfacing in and around the gallery business, Barakat decided to move away from curating and focus on “being a proud gallerist”. Successful gallerists, such as Ambroise Vollard, Johanne Durand-Ruel and Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, are, he believes, “crucial to the history of art”.


Having chosen his niche, Barakat turned his attention to expansion, setting his sights on a new gallery. His mission came to fruition in May of this year, when the Saleh Barakat Gallery opened its doors. Located in an old cinema, the white cube space will complement, rather than compete against the Agial, he explains, serving a different purpose. Its launch show featured works by the New York-based Lebanese artist, Nabil Nahas, while future plans include an exhibition of art by Ayman Baalbaki and a major retrospective of work from 1960-1975, the golden age of Beirut art.



While he has stepped back from curating, Barakat continues to play several key roles on the Beirut art scene, holding positions on the steering committee of AUB’s Art Center and the advisory board of the Lebanese American University’s School of Art and Design. He helped the Académie Libanaise des Beaux-Arts to build their virtual museum and also assisted the Université Saint-Joseph in establishing its masters of curatorial studies and history of art.


One of Barakat’s current goals is to “nurture the culture of philanthropy and patronage in the world of Arab art”.


He defines patrons as people who are interested in developing certain aspects of art for societal purposes rather than solely for the satisfaction of collecting. “A good gallerist has a duty to build artists’ estates,” he notes.

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