BEIRUT: Even at the best of times, Lebanon has been a relatively hostile environment for its artists. The country’s political class prefers culture that makes money, so European-style state support for the sector (a national arts council with a solvent, disinterested funding apparatus, for instance) has never been a priority.
Like other neglected sectors of its public life, Lebanon’s arts organizations (and the artists they support) are nowadays caught in a perfect storm of domestic economic and financial crisis, compounded by the economic and financial consequences attending global pandemic.
Lebanon’s confluence of crises is unique but its state’s shortcomings vis-a-vis its artists aren’t exceptional. In the MENA region, only Tunis still has a dedicated arts council with the means to assist its arts sector. For most artists from Mauritania to Iraq, the only recourse lies in a handful of regional arts funding bodies. Two of the more prominent of these happen to be based in Beirut – Al-Mawred al-Thaqafy (Culture Resource), founded in 2003, and the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture (AFAC), launched in 2007.
Both bodies have a historic relationship, but they’d never collaborated in an initiative until this month, when they unveiled their Solidarity Fund for Arts and Culture Structures in Lebanon.
The fund will offer a one-off grant to 16 Lebanese arts and culture organizations representing “diverse practices, disciplines, and missions, and with clear links to community participation programs.” Up to $80,000 will be made available for each successful applicant.
The grants are designed to give the organisations some breathing space, supporting operations for one year. Each grant will provide bodies with the “means to retain their core teams in a way that allows them to think and reflect together on their mandates, operations, activities, and future; keep their spaces/venues; seek consultancies (legal, artistic, technical, etc); explore collaborative options with peer institutions; and relocate some of their activities and create regional partnerships that allow them to continue to do their work.”
In separate interviews, AFAC executive director Rima Mismar and Helena Nassif, managing director Al-Mawred al-Thaqafa, sat down with The Daily Star to discuss the new collaboration behind the solidarity fund, and their independent emergency initiatives for the wider MENA region.
Both directors placed the solidarity fund in the context of past programmes devised to respond to earlier crises. While Mawred has occasionally launched country-specific programs, Mismar said the solidarity fund is AFAC’s first response to a specific country in crisis.
“The moment the revolution started in Lebanon, we asked ourselves, is there something we should be doing that is specific to Lebanon,” she recalled, “and how we can think of this in terms of our other programmes.
“While working to coordinate efforts during the revolution, we had a lot of discussions with many players [and] we did feel this urge, among many organizations, to just stop for a moment and reconsider [their operations].
“So we felt that this programme should just stand in solidarity with arts and cultural organisations who are experiencing this extreme situation,” Mismar continued, “first the economic crisis, then the financial meltdown, now COVID-19, and give them a bit of unstructured time and the resources to stick together, reflect on their operations, their mandate, their missions, their vision and see if and how they can re-emerge a year from now.
“The scheme ... does follow the principals of transparency, of independence, of having an independent committee [evaluate the applications] but it also tries to ease the burden of submitting an application ... The artistic quality is part of it ... but it’s more about their ability to have a vision, to reflect on what’s happening, trying to counterbalance those challenges, taking even small steps to actually try and continue to work.
“Financial support alone is not enough,” Mismar said. “It has to be combined with an ability to be flexible, to adapt.”
“A lot has been achieved in Lebanon,” Nassif reflected. “It was important to make sure that all that not be lost ... When you lose people, you lose memory, you lose a lot of the learning [that] grows from how people work together.
“At the same time, the uprising and the economic crisis provoked a lot of questions among artists and cultural activists. We know the organizations themselves were asking themselves ‘How can we survive?’ For now, we have this fund. What happens after this fund is done?
“I don’t think it’s only us in the region asking these questions,” Nassif added. “A lot of colleagues around the world are asking them too. There will be shifts – economic shifts and shifts in funding ... I don’t think there are any answers yet because we’re still in the center of it, but I’m sure there’s enough creativity and determination to find ways forward.”
Even before the exuberance of Lebanon’s autumn uprising was subsumed beneath the sober consequences of economic and financial collapse, it was clear that cultural activists saw “partnership,” “collaboration” and “flexibility” to be the only way forward. For Nassif, this seemed the ideal time for Al-Mawred to collaborate with another funding body.
“There’s a level of maturity,” she said. “We felt we’d reached another stage, where we can no longer achieve the things we want to achieve alone.”
For Mismar too, the circumstances were right for a collaboration, noting that two of the solidarity fund’s principal sponsors – the Ford Foundation and the Open Society Foundation – are common donors of AFAC and Al-Mawred.
Mismar and Nassif describe how AFAC and Al-Mawred had been coordinating more closely in the past couple of years, especially while participating in small initiatives during Lebanon’s uprising.
“I spoke to Helena. ‘This is what we’re thinking. What do you think?’ They were thinking the same, so we said, okay let’s do it together,” Mismar recalled. “Then together we started a series of discussions and exchanges with some of the cultural organisations in Lebanon, just for us to see what would be meaningful.
“We’re starting from a point that we believe that organizations cannot just spontaneously and organically come up with strategies and vision without having the luxury of time, of internal reflections. This is what the program is seeking to support.”
Organizations in need of assistance have until midnight of 15 June to respond to the open call AFAC and Al-Mawred issued last Friday. Nassif reflected that Al-Mawred tends to support younger, emerging artists, while Mismar said AFAC would prefer the fund benefit “small and medium-sized organizations, and those who have less incoming resources. There’s a logic to supporting both – the established, and the more vulnerable.
“One of the disadvantages of not having public support of the arts and cultural scene, built on the shoulders of individual artists, and small organisations,” she continued, “is that even veterans are vulnerable. If you’ve been in operation for twenty years, it means you’re not more immune to crisis. They may have more access to opportunities, but it’s not automatic.
“It’s not what AFAC or Mawred will get out of this, though it does somehow [pour] directly into our legacies. At a time of crisis ... we don’t want to jeopardise all the work that’s been done over the past 15 or 20 years, by us or by others.”
One of the daily dramas of this financial crisis has been Lebanon’s residents – those who aren’t fabulously wealthy or well-connected – being squeezed between commercial banks’ variable capital-control measures (blocking direct access to long-standing foreign currency deposits) while Lebanon’s currency has lost over half its value since mid-October. Solidarity Fund grants will be denominated in US dollars.
“The question is more on the recipients’ end, how they are going to receive this support,” Mismar mused. “Obviously we’d love for them to receive this amount in dollars [but] it has to be on a case-by case basis, something we have to negotiate at the level of contracts later on.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has delivered a body blow to cultural production around the globe and its ramifications are still-unclear. Independently, both AFAC and Al-Mawred are launching further emergency initiatives for artists in the MENA region. Those programs, and the possible long-term impact of this crisis on the work AFAC and Al-Mawred themselves, will be discussed in another article.
The deadline for submissions to Solidarity Fund for Arts and Culture Structures in Lebanon is midnight Beirut time (GMT+3) 15 June, 2020. Interested applicants will find details on the websites of AFAC and Al-Mawred al-Thaqafy.