A devastating blast ripped through the Lebanese capital of Beirut yesterday, August 4, killing at least 135 people and injuring approximately 5,000 according to the latest reports. The massive explosion, thought to be caused by a fire that broke out at a storage facility containing explosive materials at the port of Beirut, has decimated large parts of the city, including many of the Beirut’s galleries, museums, and art centers. Gallery director Gaia Foudolian and prominent architect Jean-Marc Bonfils both died in the blast.
The explosion flattened much of the port district and sent shockwaves that shattered windows and ceilings of buildings across the city. Beirut’s city governor Marwan Abboud said that up to 300,000 people have lost their homes because of the devastation.
Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun said that a fire detonated 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, a chemical component used in fertilizers and bombs. The chemical had been stored at the port unsafely since 2014, according to officials. The explosion is now under investigation.
This calamity comes after months of political unrest in Lebanon and a crippling economic crisis exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.
Sfeir Semler Gallery, a gallery in the Karantina district north of the port, was also damaged. The gallery, a staple in Beirut’s art scene, represents world-renowned Lebanese artists like Etel Adnan, Walid Raad, and Akram Zaatari.
Gaia Foudolian, the director of Letitia Gallery in the Hamra district, died in the explosion, her colleagues confirmed to Hyperallergic.
Architect Jean-Marc Bonfils, who designed the East Village building which houses Galerie Tanit in the Mar Mikhael neighborhood, also died from the blast. A gallery employee was seriously wounded, according to her colleagues.
The blast also hit major art institutions in the city like the Sursock Museum, Ashkal Alwan, the Arab Image Foundation, and the Beirut Art Center, among others.
Zeina Arida, the director of the Sursock Museum, was at her office when the explosion shook the building shortly after 6pm on Tuesday.
“Luckily, the museum closed 15 minutes before the blast,” Arida told Hyperallergic in a phone conversation from Beirut, adding that no visitors or staff were hurt. The blast, she said, was “incomparable to anything we have ever witnessed.”
The explosion shattered the museum’s doors, windows, skylights, and collapsed the ceilings of some of its rooms. It also damaged a large number of artworks in its permanent collection, including a valuable 1930 portrait of the museum’s founder Nicolas Sursock by Dutch painter Kees van Dongen. Two ceramics by the Lebanese-American artist Simone Fattal were completely destroyed, among many other items in the collection.
“At first, we feared it was bombing, and that there would be more to follow, so we stayed in the building,” Arida described the moments after the explosion. “We quickly realized how great the damage is.”
In the face of this massive destruction, art institutions in Beirut are helping each other to protect their collections. The Arab Image Foundation, which suffered significant damage, relocated its servers to safe storage at the Sursock Museum, by Arida’s invitation.
“Our storage rooms are still sound and they are open to any organization that needs to store its collection,” Arida said.
Arida, who estimates the damage to the museum to be in the millions of dollars, expects restoration efforts to be hampered by the country’s economic crisis.
“The banks have confiscated our funds,” she said. “I don’t how we’re going to do it. It will take years to restore the museum.”
The Association of Art Museum Directors announced a shift in its longstanding policy, which restricted the use of funds from sales of art to new acquisitions only.
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