As it’s becoming unfashionable for the state to play a benevolent role vis-a-vis a country’s artists and cultural production, arts funding and development organizations have begun to crop up in this region. At times they have taken an institutional form, others harken back to an older model of philanthropy.
The most recent of these to emerge is the Boghossian Foundation Prize for young Lebanese artists, which is being launched this year. The aim of the award is to reward three young Lebanese artists active in the visual arts (painting, sculpture, photography and video), jewelry, design and fashion design. The 2012 edition of the prize will be limited to painting, sculpture and jewelry.
“Next year probably photography and maybe video and then music and other disciplines, design, for example, will be added,” said Jean Boghossian, “whatever we could call art because for us, art is the language.”
Along with his brother Alfred, Boghossian is one of the founding members of the prize and the foundation that has established, and will bankroll, it.
A jury of 12 arts professionals will decide which works receive the prize. Chaired by Albert Boghossian, the jury will include curators, museum directors, arts educators and critics from Belgium and Lebanon.
“We try not to go with the gallerists and artists themselves,” Boghossian said, “because we want to separate the prize from personal interests.”
The selection process will be professionally adjudicated but not blind: the jury will know the names of the submitting artists.
“I think they won’t do it without names,” Boghossian continued, “because ... you need to know, you need to enter into the thought of the artist to see what he has behind his mind, how serious is the artist, and so forth.”
The three winning artists will each receive $10,000, complete with a spell in Brussels and an invitation to show their work there, with complementary travel and accommodation at the foundation’s opulent Brussels headquarters.
“During their time in Brussels, the laureates will be in association with some academy there, depending on what their needs,” he continued, “and how they want to do it also.”
Candidates must be 17-35 years of age and be of Lebanese nationality or else have been resident there for five years. They must be active in the genres favored by this year’s prize and present professional documentation of their work to the jury. The application deadline is May 15, with the prize-winners announced in the summer.
In setting up this prize, the Boghossian Foundation has collaborated with Solidere, ALBA (the Lebanese Academy of Fine Arts) and APEAL (the Association for the promotion and exhibition of the arts in Lebanon).
Created in 1992, the Boghossian Foundation has been active as a philanthropic organization supporting various educational, urban development, artistic and cultural projects in Armenia, Syria and Lebanon.
Not all successful families turn their wealth to philanthropy and Boghossian says his family’s efforts were formed by their history.
“We grew up in an environment where charity was [present]. From my grandfather’s time where they distributed bags of rice for Christmas ... Anyway we had this in us and later on we made money.
“I started in the jewelry and the precious stone business and in 1970 I was going to the far east and South America buying emeralds, rubies and sapphires. It started at the right time because the price of oil went up.”
Boghossian says his family moved to Brussels when Lebanon’s Civil War broke out.
“It was easy to leave because our business is very easy to carry. ... So I went directly to Antwerp, the center of the diamond world, and opened my office there.
“Why philanthropy? Because the earthquake happened in Armenia in 1988-89 and we had made some money and we consider ourselves hardworking people but that there was also some blessing,” he paused, “... from ... upstairs, that we were lucky to meet the right people at the right time, and that we had to share also what we had made with, first of all, the people we come from.
“To advance in this work, we decided we cannot do it on our own. We can do more if we have partners and associates,” he adds.
Boghossian says one of the models his family emulated was that of the Lisbon-based Gulbenkian Foundation (whose wealth derives from Middle East oil), with whom the Boghossians partnered in the establishment of a school in Burj Hammoud.
“Looking at Gulbenkian’s amazing grounds in Lisbon I said, ‘Well we’re not Gulbenkian but our action is going to die with us. If we need to leave a message to the future generations to take over, to crystalize our action into a building.’”
The center of the Boghossians’ activities is Brussels’ Villa Empain. Acquired in 2006 and restored (at a cost of $18 million) this art deco palace was opened to the public in 2010 and has become the foundation’s headquarters and a self-conscious space of East-West cultural exchange, hosting a range of cultural and artistic events.
“The purpose wasn’t very clear in the beginning,” Boghossian said, “because we were doing humanitarian actions, giving money, restoring a building ... We had to find the right concept for the villa. I thought, we’re coming from a genocide. We have lived three Israeli-Arab wars. We have lived the Civil War, whose first gunshots made me leave.
“We thought there was a need for a change in mentalities. We’ve lived in these countries where people keep talking about politics and nothing advances. We’ve lived in these countries where people talk religion and still they fight. The things we think are going to improve things end up pitting people against each other.
“We need another language, the language of tolerance, so that even if you disagree you don’t have to hit on each other. You sit, you discuss, you build bridges and maybe you understand each other later on.
“So let’s find this language, which is art. Create better bridges. But the purpose is to better understand East and East, through the West.”
At the end of March Villa Empain will host “Art is the Answer,” an exhibition of 20 Lebanese artists and designers including such well-known names as Fouad Elkoury, Ziad Abillama Ziad Antar, Zena el Khalil and Ayman Baalbaki. The show is slotted to be remounted at the Beirut Exhibition Center in 2013.
“Our second exhibition was on Ottoman art,” Boghossian smiled. “Some members of the Armenian community came to me and said, ‘you are an Armenian, how could you have an exhibition of Ottoman art?’ I told them this is the message of our foundation.”
“Art is the Answer” commences March 29 at Brussels’ Villa Empain.