BEIRUT: Though they’ve just been honored as patrons of contemporary art, Philippe and Zaza Jabre say their philanthropic work has been rooted in more basic concerns.
Jabre told The Daily Star his first donations were devoted to supporting education and health projects in Lebanon. In 2001 he established an association to funnel aid to educational and socio-medical projects and schools, including university scholarships.
“It began 30 years ago, with people coming to ask for financial help for education,” Zaza Jabre recalls. “Then Philippe created his foundation, to make it a bit more selective, because it was always difficult to help one not the other.
“The work was mainly based on education. Then, you know, the needs in Lebanon are greater than education alone and more essential sometimes. So [the donations] became more social, and medical.”
Earlier this month, the Hamburg-based Montblanc Art Foundation celebrated the Jabres’ philanthropic work, presenting them with its annual Arts Patronage award at Ashkal Alwan.
The couple thus joined a group that includes such distinguished figures as American musician, composer and record producer Quincy Jones, Japanese artist, performer and activist Yoko Ono, Italian architect Renzo Piano, American novelist and television writer Maria Arena Bell, Charles Prince of Wales and Queen Sofia of Spain. The Geneva-based Jabres are Lebanon’s first Montblanc laureates and the second to come from the Middle East.
Philippe Jabre left Lebanon in 1978, three years into the civil war, and later rose to become a managing director of U.K.-based hedge fund GLG Partners. Migrating to Switzerland in 2007, he went on to found the Swiss-based hedge fund Jabre Capital Partners S.A.
When presenting its patronage award, Montblanc highlighted the work of The Philippe Jabre Association for youth assistance, the couple’s support of “Beirut Home,” the recent group show of Lebanese contemporary art at Rome’s MAXXI museum, their role in providing a space for Ashkal Alwan, the Lebanese Association for Plastic Arts and their contribution to the development of the country as a whole.
The Jabres have been instrumental in finding a home for Ashkal Alwan’s neighbor, the Beirut Art Center, and for bankrolling the American University of Beirut’s chair in art history and curatorial practice. They also provided assistance to the Lebanese pavilion of the Venice Art Biennial, helping stage Akram Zaatari’s work in 2013, as well as that of Zad Moultaka in 2017.
Grounded in essential matters, the Jabres’ art patronage stems from a preoccupation with collecting. The Montblanc prize applauds contemporary art patrons but Philippe Jabre’s original and chief interest as a collector is 19th-century orientalist art, especially work that emerged from – or depicts – the region now known as Lebanon.
“I started collecting in my late 20s,” he recalls. “I collected old paintings, pictures, sculptures, objects.”
The couple’s interest in contemporary art developed perhaps 10 years later, while living in London.
“It was more an education,” he says. “We didn’t know much, so we wanted to study first, to look into the subject and to be guided by professionals about what was available. It came gradually.”
“We were very lucky to be living in London at the time,” Zaza Jabre smiles. “We saw the young British artist movement coming and we became very interested. Phillip remains focused on the orientalists. I started collecting contemporary art.
“Of course we collect pieces by some Lebanese and Middle Eastern artists, but the main collection is [comprised of] American and European artists – a lot of American abstract expressionists, a lot of Italian minimalism and a lot work from the young British artists.”
“We had collected a lot of contemporary art in London when we realised we could help the new generation” of Lebanese artists and art spaces, Jabre says, “Through the scholarship program we sent a lot of students to study abroad or complete degrees in photography, painting, sculpture.”
“Then cultural institutions arrived on the scene,” Zaza Jabre says. “Lamia [Joreige] came with her project for Beirut Art Center. Christine [Tohme] came with her project for the Ashkal Alwan space. I still remember seeing these girls coming, dreaming. They were so passionate about their projects, we couldn’t not help them, though it was a bit of a hectic time then, around 2005-6.
“You know we’re very proud of helping these two projects which have really been essential to Beirut’s cultural scene.”
The Jabres express different, if complementary, views on why they collect. Zaza Jabre acknowledges the emotional proximity of collecting and philanthropy.
“I think you can guess that we left here with the war,” she says.
“We lived abroad and [orientalist art] is a way to remain attached to our roots.
“I’m always very passionate about visiting museums, fairs, galleries. It’s always very exciting. Collecting is a bit compulsive. On the other hand when people come with a project here I really feel the need to listen to them, to encourage, because the scene here is so creative, there’s so much talent, so much passion. Yes I think I’m just as happy to help a project as to buy a piece.
“These are different approaches to happiness, but yes.”
Phillip Jabre says his own reasons for collecting are varied and evolving. “Maybe for the orientalist [works] it’s interesting to get some of our memories back,” he muses. “For the contemporary work we had to project ourselves into the future.
“It’s a very human thing to collect. When you collect you’re helping people too. You are working in the field. You guide them. You commission. You become the center of a lot of ideas. You’re projecting ideas. It’s a whole project.
“For the contemporary art, we love a piece and we love it to be with other pieces that we love. With other pieces, it’s the story. I think collecting is a story, a lifetime story, different kinds of stories.”