Tony and Elham Salamé’s art-filled Beirut penthouse
There’s a Daniel Buren on the wall. Actually, there’s a single Daniel Buren occupying two facing walls and another in the swimming pool, but we’ll get to that. Remarkably, though, what is most noticeable as you walk into Tony and Elham Salamé’s 30th-floor penthouse is the view. Tightly packed Beirut tends towards claustrophobia, but here the sweep of city, sea and mountains is stunning.
The centrepiece of the apartment is a formal living room with a triple-height hallway, a space to entertain. The real family home, intimate and domestic, occupies the floors above. Tying both parts together is the couple’s art, a collection of some of the heaviest-hitters in contemporary art. There’s a tennis court-sized Richard Prince above the sofa, a striking black-andwhite Christopher Wool behind the dining table, Arte Povera by Piero Manzoni in the TV room, and vintage furniture, including pieces by Jean Royère and his colleague Nadim Majdalani, a Lebanese architect.
The art spills into every area of the house, including the children’s rooms, taking in Günther Förg, Urs Fischer and Laura Owens, a Joe Bradley installation, a Tracey Emin neon, an illuminated Jorge Pardo sculpture, and a risqué Rob Pruitt sofa. ‘The kids chose what they wanted,’ Elham says, pointing at a piece from Richard Prince’s 2014 New Portraits show that hangs in her eldest’s bedroom. ‘My son sent the woman in that piece a message on Instagram. She was a bit shocked when he told her she was hanging on his wall.’ The woman in question was Kendall Jenner.
The penthouse contains a fraction of the 2,500 works (by over 150 artists) that the couple own.
When not on loan, the remainder sits in two massive warehouses, or is displayed at their private foundation. Opened in 2015 in Jal el Dib, north of Beirut, the Aïshti Foundation occupies part of the 35,000 sq m David Adjaye-designed seafront complex that also houses a branch of the regional luxury retail chain that made the Salamés’ fortune.
This is where Buren resurfaces. Once the third part of the work is installed at the Aïshti, the three parts will effectively form a single installation, spread over 7km. And as only those with penthouse access will be able to see them simultaneously (the brass telescope in the living room can be trained on the Buren across the bay), it’s something of an exclusive experience.
The Salamés’ rise to megacollector status happened swiftly, their collection essentially taking shape during a decade or so of what they call a spree of ‘impulsive’ buying. Urged by their friend Dino Facchini, founder of the Byblos fashion label, to focus on ‘serious’ contemporary art, they sought out the advice of Massimiliano Gioni, currently artistic director of New York’s New Museum, and art dealer and curator Jeffrey Deitch. Together, Gioni and Deitch helped turn the couples’ impulses into more cohesive collecting, shifting their focus onto new art.
Their spirited urgency remained, though. The Salamés became known for buying entire shows,
lock, stock, and after several spectacular rounds of buying – one Art Basel preview netted 22 major works by the likes of Kathryn Andrews, Tauba Auerbach and John Armleder – their status as collectors solidified.
‘Business was good,’ Tony says, referring to his retail empire. ‘Maybe I was rash, but if we’d bought more slowly, we’d never have met the kind of artists we did. I acted fast. I usually do. I’m known for trying to do these big, crazy projects.’ Like the massive Zaha Hadid-designed retail and lifestyle complex rising in Beirut’s souks. Or supporting exhibitions at the New Museum, MOMA and the Whitney. Or the Foundation. ‘Sometimes, these things wake me up at night.’
Everything that Tony and Elham do is driven by their conviction that Beirut should be the region’s cultural hub. Though with less financial muscle than the neighbouring Gulf petromonarchies currently pouring their all into art, Lebanon has genuine freedom of artistic expression, making exhibitions here more conversation than monologue.
Since the couple first began exhibiting through the Metropolitan Art Society, a now-defunct precursor to the Aïshti Foundation, Beirut has transformed. The city’s preeminent pre-war art museum, the Sursock, has been revived, while new arrivals such as the Beirut Art Center and the opening of dozens of new galleries, as well as events such as the Beirut Art Fair and Ashkal Alwan’s Home Works art forum, have added cultural pulling power.
While the Foundation’s collection does take in contemporary Lebanese art – notably Walid Raad, Mona Hatoum, Ziad Antar, Rayyane Tabet and Fouad Elkoury – its focus on (mostly) 21st-century Western art sets it apart. And raises eyebrows. For Tony Salamé, the critics miss the point. ‘We wanted a dialogue, to bring what was happening in New York and Paris here. Not everyone can afford to get on a plane and see for themselves. The Foundation is a cultural window, so everyone can get a taste.’∂ aishtifoundation.com
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above, lawrence weiner’s UNDER THE TOP, 2012, and a two-part daniel buren Piece, 2016, In the Salamés’ living room. there’s another buren Piece In the Swimming Pool
above, artworks in the living room include urs Fischer’s Mashed, 2012 (behind armchairs), richard prince’s Untitled, 2007 (behind sofa), and sol lewitt’s Pyramid#7, 1985 (Far right). design pieces include a paul evans ‘cityscape’ coffee table and a memphis rug
left, Joe bradley’s
and Foot (ichthus), 2010, hangs above a ‘Z-chair’ by Zaha hadid
clockwise from top, Gary Hume’s Fragment of a rainbow, 2011, on a staircase to the upper floors; roe ethridge’s gisele on the phone, 2013; and preview, 1988, by allen ruppersberg, both in the living quarters of the salamés’ daughter tasha