Built in 1961 by Lebanese businessman Najib Salha, the iconic Phoenicia Hotel in Beirut is home to art masterpieces by renowned Arab and international artists from Therese Oulton, Jason Martin and Sam Francis to Ian McKeever, Howard Hodgkin and Richard Long. Long brought with him mud sourced from the Avon River in the UK which was used to create the Phoenicia Mud Circle which faces the historic hotel’s sweeping staircase.
The collection of contemporary art was unveiled when the hotel celebrated its 50th anniversary and today the featured works are displayed throughout the entire hotel. The purpose of the collection, as owner Salha says, is to bring “Pleasure, joy and culture. Ultimately it has also been a good investment in many different ways for the Phoenicia and these pieces will remain part of the heritage and soul of the Phoenicia.”
Two sculpture art works by Bristol-born artist Stephen Cox adorn the hotel’s Mosaic restaurant. Entitled Temple of Venus and Temple of Bacchus, the works marry the ancient histories of Lebanon with the rest of the world. “It’s very important to create an enriching and inspiring space and atmosphere for all who pass through our doors,” says Salha. “It is also a form of collaboration with artists; the space is promoting the art and the art is promoting the space. Hotel spaces can be fascinating spaces that allow the art to flourish as well as feed those who observe it.”
A work by Catherine Yass at Phoenicia Hotel Beirut
The most recent acquisitions include a bronze sculpture at the Phoenicia Spa called Marina by Ronald Cameron and modern art by Lebanese artist Selim Attieh which is featured in a recently refurbished restaurant at the hotel. Also of note is a sculpture by Lebanese artist Jean Boghossian. “This piece actually has a lovely story behind it,” shares Salha. “To commemorate the Phoenicia’s 50th anniversary back in 2010, we decided to celebrate local art and artists, and exhibited many local artists’ works during a few days of festivities. Jean Boghossian displayed some of his signature work created with fire. We later also published a book of the 50 years in which Boghossian’s art was featured. Using fire as his creative medium, Jean created one of his book sculptures called Phoenix which is now proudly exhibited in our lobby.”
The hotel has also recently collaborated with President of Italy-based Video Insight Foundation, Rebecca Russo, to showcase video art from her impressive collection in the lobby and to have it featured on a dedicated TV channel in all the rooms.
Another creative way the hotel is nurturing art is through the Phoenicia Hotel Art Photo programme which invites one photographer monthly to produce an art photo during a one-night stay. Every spring an annual exhibition is held which showcases all 12 photographs and announces the winning work.
The formation of Phoenicia Hotel’s art collection was inspired by the hotel’s original architecture from the late sixties, which was designed by American architect Edward Durell Stone, who has also designed New York’s Museum of Modern Art. “We spent a great deal of time during the full refurbishment and reopening in 2000 to ensure we curated art works that would add to the beauty of our spaces,” says Salha.
When the restoration project began, the Lebanese civil war had just ended and art in the country was not easily available. “We had strong links and access to the British contemporary art scene which was thriving and probably leading globally as a whole,” explains Salha. “Beirut is a cosmopolitan destination and the Phoenicia is an international hotel. Apart from global travellers, locally, the Lebanese are a creative and aspiring nation with many who have travelled and experienced cultural hubs worldwide.”
Having lived in the UK for quite some time, the owner found himself drawn to British art. Salha and his wife, who studied contemporary art in the UK, spent years researching, commissioning and acquiring the collection of artworks which are housed within the hotel today.
“The Phoenicia and Beirut are intertwined,” expresses Salha. “They celebrate each other through the art, culture and history. Many have touched the Phoenicia. Some have stayed a night or more; some have visited for a few minutes or hours; some have worked at, in or with the Phoenicia; all have made the Phoenicia the hotel it is today within Beirut.” phoeniciabeirut.com
Images courtesy of Phoenicia Hotel Beirut
From Harper's Bazaar Art's winter 2019 issue