Banking on culture Lebanese banks contribute to the country's cultural scene

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Money can’t buy happiness, but it can sponsor cultural events that enrich life in a country that is brimming with troubles. While the primary purpose of a bank is monetary, its role in society goes beyond that of a financial institution. Today Lebanese banks regularly participate in serving generous spoonfuls of culture to the public. Through their patronage and partnerships, banks and other private sector institutions are offering a higher quality of life to the Lebanese, folding music, art, photography, theatre, literature and other rich ingredients into routines marked by power cuts and water shortages. Though it’s an indication of the nation’s unproportionate growth, at least there is growth in the arts – and we have (at least in part) the banking sector to thank for that.

Banks’ cultural patronage is nothing new. In fact the very birth of banking as we know it coincides with the Renaissance, and it was wealthy lenders in Florence who essentially funded Europe’s most recognized artistic revival. These early merchant bankers and aristocrats wanted to show their devotion to the church and demonstrate their wealth, power and refinement, and in so doing gave rise to some of the world’s most celebrated artists, commissioning the likes of Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo to create now-historic artworks. Without these funders, the art world would look very different today.

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Photo: Greg Demarque

As a few pioneers began to revive Lebanon’s dormant culture scene after a debilitating civil war, banks also became increasingly interested in investing in culture. That’s not to say that some banks didn’t already support culture. When Tania Rizk, current Director of Group Communications, Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and Customer Experience, first joined Banque Libano-Française (BLF), she came across an early 1970s poster of the Baalbeck Festival with BLF as a sponsor. In the same way Nada Tawil, head of communication at Byblos Bank, says they have always been giving back, just not in the structured way they do today.

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Photo: Greg Demarque

This kind of support for the community and culture was happening long before buzzwords like CSR became fashionable. Bank Audi’s Head of Marketing & Communications Jean Traboulsi says Bank Audi has always supported music festivals (including Baalbeck, Beiteddine, Byblos and Jounieh festivals and Beirut Chants) because “they depict the cultural power of the nation and those specific cities in terms of location and attraction. We want to be part of that because it’s part of our DNA, it’s who we are.” In fact many banks have supported Lebanon’s major musical festivals, which are today highlights of Lebanese summers, as well as other times of the year.

The goal is not immediate rewards. Rather, the consensus is that banks must give back to society in order to sustain themselves – and part of this is cultural. Tawil explains that banks do not give because it’s a nice thing to do but because “when you help people grow at the same rate as the bank, you’re sustaining your own business and helping yourself. It’s not philanthropy, it’s a win-win situation,” she says, adding, “[We as banks] have an active role to play to sustain and grow our business, and that role includes making sure the communities we work with are growing at the same pace [as we are]and flourishing.” Rizk agrees: “We have to contribute. We have always been involved with the community. We don’t pretend to be the number one bank or the most powerful, but we would like to spearhead the drive towards sustainable banking in Lebanon,” she says. Traboulsi says, “Culturally we are a Lebanese bank. We owe a lot to the community in becoming the number one bank in Lebanon.”

Screen Shot 2016-06-16 at 1.06.53 PM“Culture is not independent of the life of the city. With culture you can create a new dynamism, and it can become economically sustainable,” Rizk explains, giving the example of their initiatives with NGO Help Lebanon to repaint the formerly run-down buildings of Mar Mikhael, now a buzzing hipster hangout and nightlife destination. The splash of color, combined with other factors, made an impact on this community. “When we painted Mar Mikhael there wasn’t a single bar there. We were just thinking it will look nicer, but then the area evolved, bars popped up, real estate boomed, it turned into economic development,” Rizk says.

But banks aren’t haphazardly throwing money at NGOs and artists. They instill various levels of support, from highly-involved partnerships to basic financial donations, and support initiatives of all scales, from nationwide events to little neighborhood projects. “We also have a neighborhood approach,” says Traboulsi, “If you’re touched directly by this you’ll look at the bank differently.” Many banks are seeking out niches in Lebanon’s artistic space, though choosing the right direction isn’t always easy when some banks get thousands of requests annually. Traboulsi laments, “Unfortunately we can’t do everything. You need to focus on relevant platforms so you don’t spread yourself too thin.”

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But how does one choose the “right” initiatives to support? For Bank Audi that choice was natural. Its chairman Raymond Audi is one of the country’s most prominent art collectors, accumulating an estimated 1,000 pieces for Bank Audi over his lifetime so far. These pieces – paintings, sculptures, mosaics – by local and international talents line the walls and decorate the lobbies at the bank’s headquarters in Bab Idriss as well as other branches, impressing guests and soothing employees’ nerves. Meanwhile Bank Audi’s former headquarters in Ashrafieh have been converted into a museum, Villa Audi, which showcases a large portion of the art and is open to the public for free and on demand. “Somebody needs to [support arts]and for us it’s part of the fabric of Bank Audi. Other banks might invest in other things, but we have decided to take these platforms and we’re renowned for that,” explains Traboulsi, adding, “the bank, whether as an institution or [Mr. Audi] as an individual, has invested a lot to encourage rising artists.” He continues to say that “young artists that were supported by Bank Audi are well renowned artists today.” Celebrated Lebanese artists whose work is included in the Bank Audi collection include Jean Marc Nahas, Paul Wakim, Mohammad Rawas, Hussein Madi, Lamia Joreige and Shafic Abboud, to name but a few. “Art is a symbol of a nation, an expression of what people think and feel every day and we are part of that fabric. Artists depict this in the most powerful way and offer a different perspective of how people live,” says Traboulsi.

For other banks choosing an initiative means taking a chance. Take the Beirut Art Fair (BAF), which has been supported by Bankmed since it began in 2010. “At the time of its inception the bank’s partnership with BAF seemed pretty much to be a risk. However, to us it was a step in the right direction… We are proud to see that the bank’s name has become synonymous with such a great event,” says Diala Choucair, Bankmed’s head of marketing and communication division. Today the bank remains highly involved in the fair, which comes as no surprise as the bank has its own art collection, including the largest private collection of works by the Lebanese artist Paul Guiragossian.

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BLF has been supporting the Beirut Art Center since its establishment, and has partnered with the Arab Image Foundation to host exhibitions on their premises. More recently they launched an architecture competition for the bank’s new headquarters. “We could have simply called an architect and said please create a headquarters for us. But instead we chose to have this competition,” she says. By doing so, it has become a community project. Instead of just building another new commercial building, the bank is harnessing the knowledge of these architects and passing it on to the local community. “We wanted the community and Beirut to benefit from these major architects being present in town,” says Rizk. The top international and Lebanese architecture firms participating have already held a free conference at Sursock museum for anyone interested. In fact interest was so high that the crowds filled the auditorium and spilled over outside the museum, where they could have watched the proceedings on BLF TV. More events, including an exhibition of all the projects, are planned for the future. The BLF headquarters itself will be more than just a bank. “We don’t want offices only for us, we want a space for the community. We want the headquarters to host a public space,” says Rizk.

Screen Shot 2016-06-16 at 1.08.15 PMMusic is another major field that banks have funded heavily, especially the many cultural music festivals that have been growing over the years. Bank Audi’s support of music starts within its own corporate culture. They have two employee musical groups: Band Audi and its Arabic counterpart Audiyat, as well as MelAudi for employees’ children. They have also supported select musicians by granting access to Bank Audi’s in-house recording studio to record music. BLF has supported the Liban Jazz festival, helping reestablish the genre in Lebanon.

Several institutions have invested in the literary arts. BLF publishes a book almost every year, looking for non-fiction scripts with cultural content that contribute something new to the scene. In fiction, the Prix Phénix de la Littérature, hosted by Bank Audi, is given to two Lebanese talents writing in French annually. Meanwhile Bankmed supports the International Arab Book Fair as well as the Francophone Book Fair. Beyt el Kottab (the International Writer’s House in Beirut) aims to bring together the Lebanese public and international writers in a city famous as a multilingual crossroads, and is supported by Creditbank.

Screen Shot 2016-06-16 at 1.08.50 PMSome banks choose to support Lebanon’s natural beauty by getting involved with environmental initiatives. Byblos Bank’s reforestation efforts have led to the creation of a ‘corridor’ that will naturally increase the surface area of forests in the Chouf area, especially its cedar population. Similarly, Creditbank supports the Lebanon Mountain Trail Association, especially on their annual Thru-Walk hiking initiative that promotes socially responsible tourism as well as highlights cultural and historical heritage sites. Jammal Trust Bank has supported the American University of Beirut’s IBDAA (International Biodiversity Day at AUB), an annual environmental forum that tackles nature, conservation and its challenges, by granting awards for innovative ideas. On the other hand Bank Misr Liban (BML) has partnered with renowned athlete Silvio Chiha on a project called “Lebanon Through My Eyes”, which shows the country’s hidden beauty through video and a book.

Lebanon’s rich history is another area of focus. BLF has worked on various projects with the National Museum of Beirut, including producing documentaries for them. Jammal Trust Bank has supported The Tyre Foundation’s efforts to preserve the ancient city. Bank Audi’s Audi Foundation works to preserve heritage, famously with Sidon’s Soap Museum.

Traboulsi says the museum attracts 30,000 tourists a year, which is considerable for the city. Byblos Bank helped with the renovation of the old souks in its namesake town, Byblos, and was a supporter of a major archaeological dig with the British Museum in Sidon a few years back.

While Byblos Bank has always had a passion for heritage, it has more recently concentrated efforts on filling a gaping need in Lebanon’s art scene. Realizing that no one had yet called shotgun on photography, Byblos Bank took it upon itself to adopt the artform, launching the Byblos Bank Award for Photography at the Beirut Art Fair in 2012 and soon expanding to a wider photography program that now includes a collaboration with PhotoMed and an interactive Facebook page for photography lovers called Purple Lens by Byblos Bank. “Where other things – like religion, ethnicity – often divide people, I think culture brings people together, especially art. That’s why we chose art and photography specifically. It bonds people because it’s a form of art that is easy to understand, it says a lot without words and it’s participative. Now with smartphones people are empowered,” explains Tawil. Started almost five years ago, the award is an annual talent hunt for emerging local photographers. “There are so many photographers, so much talent,” exclaims Tawil, saying, “We want to honor creativity and help people see the value of artistic flare in photography.”

Value. While for the general population it’s entertaining and enriching to attend concerts by the sea and inspect a painter’s new exhibition, what Lebanon’s banks are after is value creation.

“We believe creativity is a resource and an untapped resource in Lebanon. You can pin value on creativity,” she explains. “There is a market for art in the world, people who collect art, look for creativity. We’re not doing much about it as a government, as a people, as civil society, to encourage this creativity and give it its value,” she quips. One of the most important elements in the Byblos Bank photography program is that selected winners receive mentorships from experts and learn how to make sure their photos retain value in the market. “We don’t make any money off this, but we are helping them make money,” says Tawil.

It’s important to support art, not just for its own sake, but also for the sake of making it an economically viable pursuit. By supporting creative initiatives, banks are also supporting local industries and people: artists, photographers, musicians, writers and other creatives, encouraging them to stay in their homeland and pursue their art here, rather than move to more lucrative pastures. Reversing Lebanon’s whirlpool of a brain-drain, especially when it comes to creatives, is vital in helping Lebanon retain its position as a cultural hub.

Banks are catalysts for culture, bringing culture into the lives of the Lebanese, helping expose, educate and enlighten the community. It’s only when banks bring their contributions to projects that these projects see light. Artists and organizations work hard to bring beautiful things to Lebanon but in the end, money talks, and at least it’s talking us in the right direction.

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