BEIRUT: The Goethe Institute is the latest non-state actor to intervene on behalf of Lebanon’s arts sector. The association’s recently unveiled Emergency Relief Fund will dedicate a budget in excess of 75,000 euros to cultural institutions and artists impacted by the Beirut Port blast and the economic and public health disasters of the past year.
Headquartered in Gemmayzeh, Germany’s international non-profit cultural association was itself affected by the 4 Aug explosion.
“Building a network of solidarity within and around the Lebanese cultural sector was the only direct response we could consider within the program department of the Goethe Institute,” said GI Lebanon director Konrad Siller in a press release.
The GI fund is structured as two separate schemes -- not unlike the Lebanon Solidarity Fund created by the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture and Al-Mawred al-Thaqafi (Cultural Resource), which seeks to shore-up institutions while targeting the needs of precarious artists and cultural workers.
The “Goethe-Institut and Partner” will assist independent cultural practitioners and artists materially affected by the explosion. The list of eligible recipients, their needs, and the best way to support them was drawn up after discussions with GI’s partner institutions.
GI’s institutional support fund, “Goethe-Institut for Partners,” has already announced funding for specific projects being undertaken by ten Beirut-area arts organisations.
Among the beneficiaries is Maqamat Dance Theater, whose “Free Dance Spaces” program aims to give free dance classes -- six classes a week for six months -- to the public in Beirut and The Shouf, 12-15-year-olds and 16 years and above. GI will cover the teachers’ fees.
“We are concerned that the disruption of the cultural life will have long term effects on the sector and will directly affect its growth,” Maqamat co-founder Omar Rajeh told the paper. “Many dancers that came out of our training projects have excelled and managed to establish themselves individually, but if we don’t continue with intensive training and education programs, we might not see a younger generation taking over.
“It is a very critical moment we are passing through and our efforts are focused on securing our achievements and opening possibilities for a new generation to voice their concerns, ambitions, and aspirations through dance.”
GI is also working with Seenaryo, an arts and education organisation working with refugees and host communities, nowadays conducting theatre micro-projects for youth and children. When GI proposed funding arts projects with blast survivors, Seenaryo responded with five projects working with 15 participants each -- in all 75 beneficiaries in various parts of Beirut.
“So far they’ve been all over Beirut,” Seenarya co-founder Victoria Lupton told the paper, “from Khandaq al-Ghamiq and Furn al-Shubbak, Hamra, Ashrafiyya -- with a lot of partners -- new and existing ones.
“We feel that the wellbeing of people across Lebanon has really plummeted, especially in Beirut, because of waves of crises in 2020. After months of isolation, with children and youth not going to school, people really need the outlet, some room to breathe, to use their imaginations.
“People need space to come together, to hope, to imagine a different future, to feel good together, to have fun, and also to build life and professional skills, vocational skills that will help them in their professional lives.”
Seenaryo’s focus on microprojects reflects the current state of the country.
“We’ve been doing these intensive projects in order to reach as many beneficiaries as possible,” Lupton said. “We were really burnt by the lockdown back in March, so we want to make sure we’re doing lots of projects with really intensive time frames.
“The feedback has been amazing,” she said. “The team’s never been more convinced of the transformational impact of our work.”
Lupton is also aware of the theatre community’s needs.
“We have a roster of about 30 facilitators and trainers – artists that we work with, who deliver our projects. The economic crises plus COVID makes theatre very difficult at the moment. Artists have been disproportionately affected by the blast and are looking for work. So we’re trying to make sure that we’re hiring as many of our freelancers as possible. This fund helps us to do that. Ten of our facilitators will lead these five projects.”
Irtijal, Lebanon’s international festival of experimental music, is marking its 20th anniversary in 2020. The economic and financial crisis and the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic not only forced festival co-founder Sharif Sehnaoui to reschedule the event, it seemed to sound the death knell of the city’s music scene.
“Irtijal had to postpone three times,” Sehnaoui said. “The last time was just after the port explosion: We’d planned for mid-September. We were in a state of despair after that.
“For many musicians who were undecided about leaving the country, the blast convinced them to go. For others just starting, they just changed their career plans. I saw the entire music scene being erased or scattered around the globe.
“Something will remains, but ... it’s not just the explosion. The blast came on top of the pandemic and in the middle of an unprecedented economic and political crisis. That legitimised the most pessimistic thoughts.
“Goethe, among other partners and organisations we’ve never worked with before, have come forward and offered to help on many fronts. The Goethe funding will pay for some equipment that we lost ... It gave us a lifeline.”
After a couple of decades cutting corners in a reliably neglected sector, Sehnaoui said, the arrival of unexpected support in these dark times was a pleasant surprise.
“It’s ironic, but not bad of course ... This funding will allow us to have a strong programme in the future and the workers – the musicians, the technicians, the staff, the administrators, the venues – we’ll be able to pay them.
“We’ll be able to redistribute money into the sector and we’ve already devised several plans to do so – from online festivals to physical festivals (when the restrictions allow it), to commissions, to conferences and workshops. We’re planning things on these other levels in the upcoming three or four months.
“Musicians and studios have been asking themselves ‘What am I going to do? This funding allows us to approach them and say, ‘I have a job for you. Please make music. You have to deliver and you will be paid.’
“This sounds like a normal process, but in the current situation it takes on a whole different level of meaning.”
Other institutional programmes receiving support from Goethe-Institut for Partners: Sursock Museum’s Dusting Campaign; Beirut Art Residency’s Small Grants for Fine Art Students; Beirut Art Center’s Online Directory; Hammana Artist House (HAH)’s Restoring Connections; ASSABIL’s Technical Equipment and Books for the Libraries; Arab Center for Architecture (ACA)’s Archiving Operation of Modern Heritage Buildings; Ashkal Alwan’s Technical Equipment for the Space.