Between “Surpassing Disasters”: The MA Program in Art History and Curating

Between “Surpassing Disasters”: The MA Program in Art History and Curating

American University of Beirut

January 31, 2024
Octavian Esanu and Angela Harutyunyan
American University of Beirut
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The master of arts program in Art History and Curating at the American University of Beirut recently completed its sixth full year. Launched in 2017, the program commenced at a time when many universities in the Anglo-American academic world were cutting funding for the arts and humanities, shrinking graduate and postgraduate offerings, terminating positions, and even closing entire departments. Without strong public infrastructure and governmental funding for the arts and education in Lebanon, many art institutions and public universities have become accustomed to fending for themselves. The American University of Beirut (AUB) is somewhat of an exception, due to its funding sources and historical mission in the region, where the liberal arts have long been associated with Western progress and democracy. AUB is an international institution that is formally integrated into the Lebanese educational system, yet chartered in New York. The university is funded by private capital, individuals, and foundations at national, regional, and international levels. Additionally, AUB receives aid from the US government. It is within such a context that constructing a critical space for scholarship and thinking remains feasible, even though signs of looming disaster lurk within every sphere of the country’s social and cultural life.

The MA program in Art History and Curating was one of the last graduate programs to be launched at AUB. At the time, the university administration had been supporting the development of new programs and degrees. But this soon ceased, once multiple calamities befell the country, including “one of the most severe [economic] crises since the nineteenth-century,” 1 according to the World Bank, which was preceded by the complete collapse of the Lebanese pound in 2019. Soon after, the pandemic struck, and in August of 2020, the massive explosion in the Port of Beirut devastated the city. Now, Lebanon faces the threat of a new war with Israel in the south. In hindsight, it appears that the MA program only became possible within the moment between the conclusion of the Lebanese Civil War, which officially ended in 1990 with a shaky political consensus, and this new series of catastrophes.

The short respite between “calamities”—or, to use a popular phrase among Lebanese post–Civil War contemporary artists, “surpassing disaster”2—enabled the American University of Beirut to grow into an internationally recognized research institution. During this brief period, the university opened several new MA and PhD programs, hired international faculty, and reinstated tenure, which had been revoked during the Civil War. The MA program in Art History and Curating was born from these initiatives and the concurrent cultural changes in the local art world. Art institutions started to proliferate across the country, private collections opened to the public, and the art scene became increasingly international. Many Lebanese artists and cultural workers returned from exile, or after graduating from Western schools, and artists and intellectuals from other Arab countries gravitated to Lebanon. Beirut was viewed as an ideal incubator of arts and culture. Major international foundations—such as the Ford Foundation, the Open Society Institute, and the Goethe Institute, among others—were galvanized by September 11 and the Arab Spring and wanted to fund local art and cultural initiatives. Their interest also stemmed from a conception of culture as a means of soft power; international NGOs harbored the belief that art and culture’s role was, chiefly, to foster the spirit of democracy in the region.

Octavian Esanu’s photograph of an unattributed 1903 portrait of Morris K. Jesup, AUB Board of Trustees president from 1896 to 1908, installed in the AUB Faculty of Arts and Sciences offices. Photograph and painting included in Art in Office: Artworks from around AUB Campus, AUB Byblos Bank Art Gallery, Beirut, 2014. 

Contemporary art, in particular, has been viewed as an effective antidote, if not a “solution,” to the problems of religious radicalism, terrorism, and anti-modernist violence. In addition, a lack of public funding for contemporary arts opened the door for the “NGO-ization” of artistic and cultural production. This is a common process in the global contemporary art scene. The inflow of human and financial capital into Lebanon’s cultural landscape brought with it new business and entrepreneurial art-lovers and enthusiasts, seeking to buy their way into the contemporary art scene’s lifestyle. But as 2020 neared there was a sneaking sense of impending disaster, shared by the critical intelligentsia and artists alike. It was an open secret that Lebanon’s post-2000s economy was grounded in nothing but the pegging of the local currency to the US dollar and a highly speculative banking system that operated like a Ponzi scheme.

During the mid-2010s, however, faculty members in AUB’s Department of Fine Arts and Art History recognized the need for a graduate program in art history and curating. We sought to lend academic rigor to an altogether different mission for the arts—one that would instruct, cultivate, and educate a critical public. The imperative to historicize Arab modern and contemporary art was becoming increasingly urgent, especially due to growing international interest in the region. At the time, there were no university programs in art history in the country, and only a handful throughout the Middle East and North Africa. An international faculty had to create from scratch a curriculum about how to write art history, as well as how to make exhibitions that could offer a critically reflexive perspective on national, regional, and global modern and contemporary art.

In 2012, the AUB founded its art galleries and collections, hiring a full-time professor-curator. This prepared the ground for a program that could combine the study of critical and historical traditions with the actual curation of exhibitions. From the outset, these exhibitions focused on Lebanon and the surrounding region, surveying local and regional cultural developments and their importance within global networks, alliances, discourses, and affiliations. Exhibitions at AUB are built upon foundations of rigorous research, and they possess a pedagogical thrust, involving the students and faculty together in curating and contributing to Lebanese and Arab art historiography. The decision to combine art history with curating in the newly developed MA program was not simply motivated by recent academic trends or marketability (although adding “Curating” to “Art History” certainly helped to convince the university administration and colleagues in the senate that the program would be fiscally viable). Neither was it created to simply provide a workforce for the proliferating art institutions in the country and region. First and foremost, the faculty was motivated by the desire to intervene critically in the work of art institutions by equipping students with historical and critical approaches to interpreting art. We aimed to create a program that would defy the dominant ethos of presentism, cultural populism, starship mania, and other reflections and refractions of the “economic base.”

View of Critical Machines, AUB Byblos Bank Art Gallery, Beirut, 2014. 

Since the inception of the MA program, the AUB Art Galleries have become a vital space for the intersection of research, teaching, and curating. In the program, curating focuses on the trajectory of art history’s critical and historical development, but also integrates interdisciplinary study. Students take courses on exhibitions and modes of display, learning the manifold histories and theories of each. They curate their own exhibitions as part of practical coursework and, in many instances, for their theses. MA candidates are also given the option to submit art-historical or theoretical research theses, but those who choose to curate exhibitions must produce reflective research and scholarship for their exhibition in the form of an accompanying research paper. This process compels students to construct an art-historical context for their respective exhibitions, and to demonstrate awareness of the critical and historical methods they deploy. The curriculum also requires MA candidates to consider the aesthetics and politics of cultural engagement, and how to craft meaningful interaction with one’s audiences.

Current and past members of AUB’s art department faculty have seen the importance of having an academic program in the Middle East that not only historicizes regional art, but disseminates this work beyond the institution’s walls. Consequently, the program permits circulation and exchange with students at European or North American universities who study Middle Eastern or Islamic art. The program has established international exchanges with the California Institute of the Arts in Los Angeles;, Leuphana University in Lüneburg, Germany; University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, Erlangen, Germany;, and the Academy of Fine Arts in Leipzig (HGB), Germany. The program is also in the process of developing new collaborations with other international partners.

The absence of tradition and formal disciplinary education in the region has provided many opportunities to trial new methods and courses of study. Students and faculty participate in many ambitious and extracurricular projects, including mixed student-faculty reading groups that focus on, to give a few examples, Kant’s Critique of Judgement, materialist aesthetics and psychoanalysis, and Lacan’s selected seminars. Students often experiment with various exhibition formats as well. As one example, the 2016–17 exhibition Mashrua’ Proletkult (Project Proletkult) broke from traditional curatorship: launched under the slogan “no curators, no juries, no prizes, no fees,” and drawing inspiration from such historical precedents as the French Revolution’s abandonment of the salon juries, the 1863 Salon des Refusés, and the politics of the 1920s Soviet Proletkult, Mashrua’ Proletkult aimed for cultural democratization, inviting all artists regardless of their education or status in the art world to display one work at AUB Art Galleries.

View of Mashrou’ Proletkult, AUB Byblos Bank Art Gallery, Beirut, 2016. 

In contrast to programs that place emphasis on “cultural management,” the AUB program gives precedence to artistic and political critique. According to its founders, programs solely emphasizing “cultural management” encourage students to transform their interests into reified habits of thought and behavior, aiming to become “managers” of the system rather than its critics—a role traditionally held by artists and intellectuals. Our program seeks instead to emphasize the dialectical nature of curating, eternally torn between the critical and the pragmatic. The imperative to collect, manage, or participate in social construction should always share the room with the drive to comprehend and deconstruct an institution’s social roles and obligations.

From the beginning, we have focused on critical theory as the key post-aesthetic category in progressive contemporary art, and the lens through which students are encouraged to approach their curatorial projects. We have created an academic program that is founded on a common interest in discourses of postcolonialism and post-socialism, and our course of study reinforces them both with Kantian aesthetic formalism, Hegelian historicism and dialectics, Marxist-inspired materialist art history, Benjaminian materialism, and psychoanalysis. All these elements set the intellectual boundaries of the program. Unique to our curriculum are readings of the theoretical and art- historiographical canon that are conducted from within the historical present of Lebanon, considering its complex and contradictory entanglements with modernity and tradition.

With this goal in mind, we designed a curriculum that combines art historiography and critical theory, the study of exhibition-making with Western and Islamic collections, and an applied curatorial practicum. The core courses are “Seminar in Practices of Art History,” “Seminar in Critical Art History,” “Issues in Contemporary Art and Theory,” and “Issues in Curating: Practicum.” Apart from these, students can choose two electives from within the department, and two from other programs at the university. Students who have no prior experience in art are encouraged to do an internship with the AUB galleries or outside art institutions in Lebanon. To this end, the program has collaborated with the Saradar Foundation, the Aref El-Rayess Foundation, the Sursock Museum, the Beirut Art Center, and other local and international cultural initiatives.

Since its inception, the program has steadily updated and consolidated the school’s material base of knowledge by subscribing to new journals and expanding the university library collection and archives. Many students who have chosen the “archive” as their research topic have curated small exhibitions that stage provocative interventions within the library. Students also actively participate in on-campus events, serving as moderators, co-organizers, or participants in workshops, symposia, and international conferences. Thanks to the AUB Philippe Jabre Exhibition Fund and the Philippe Jabre Lecture Series, we have managed to invite major art theorists and art critics to lecture in Beirut; several of our students have established collegial and long-lasting professional relations with these visitors. Prior to the current crises, the Jabre Fund also allowed us to host a visiting professor in Art History and Curating. For several semesters, we have welcomed Beatrice von Bismarck from HGB in Leipzig and Juli Carson from the University of California at Irvine, who, apart from teaching, have produced exhibitions with students.

Many historical personalities contributed to the opening of a fine arts program at AUB. Fully aware of the historical lineage at the university, the faculty found inspiration in the actions of local and international artists from the past, such as Khalil Saleeby (1870–1928) and Moustafa Farroukh (1901–57), both considered pillars of Lebanese modern art, and among the first painters to exhibit on campus in the early twentieth century. These pioneers were trained in Western art academies during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and became the region’s first autonomous artists as Lebanon established its political independence and the university removed its religious affiliation, changing its name from Syrian Protestant College to the American University of Beirut in 1920.

View of Khalil Saleeby (1870-1928)—A Founder of Modern Art in Lebanon, AUB Byblos Bank Art Gallery, Beirut, 2012.

We were also inspired by post-1945 international figures associated with the Euro-American Bauhaus tradition of modernism, as exemplified by Maryette Charlton (1924–2013), who is credited with launching the art department at AUB in the wake of World War II. During the Lebanese Civil War, the art department abruptly shuttered, leaving little trace of these pioneers’ impact. Only one faculty member—the artist David Kurani—was kept on to teach art and theater as part of the general humanities curriculum. The department’s relaunch in 2008 introduced the challenge of constructing an institution from scratch, while coming to terms with the legacy of the past. The establishment of the MA program corresponded with a series of events aimed at understanding this historical heritage. Over the past decade, AUB Art Galleries and the Art History program have produced exhibitions, publications, discussions, and lectures to familiarize students, faculty, and audiences with artists currently and previously affiliated with AUB. These include events devoted to artists such as Khalil Saleeby, Daoud Corm, George D. Corm, Moustapha Farroukh, Saliba Douaihy, John Carswell, Maryette Charlton, and David Kurani. Their work is often featured in exhibitions that showcase AUB’s collection, and the program often incorporates works from the collection into its studies. The 2018 exhibition The Permanent Collection honored the program’s tradition of “educating through art” and foregrounding Middle Eastern artists; it opened shortly before the onset of this current chain of disasters.

Over the past six years, numerous events, workshops, exhibitions, and conferences have been realized, planned, modified, or canceled by the pandemic, by economic collapse, and by the war in Gaza. Despite the most recent challenges posed by the economic and political situation in Lebanon and the region, coupled with the ongoing “brain drain” caused by the departure of intellectuals and artists, the program perseveres into its seventh year. During a short but dynamic interval it managed to graduate several cohorts who have pursued successful art-historical and curatorial careers. While several of our graduates have enrolled in PhD programs in the US and UK, others have entered the professional world, working for major international, local, and regional cultural institutions. Many students return to their home countries to teach in art academies or work in museums and research institutions. In its current iteration, the program pursues its goals by involving students in the production of exhibitions and events, and engaging faculty and students alike in international collaborations with similar programs. One noteworthy exchange is a partnership with the Cultures of the Curatorial program at the Leipzig Art Academy (HGB). The multi-year project, funded by DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service), is the fruit of a previous dialogue and series of exchanges that the program has carried out earlier in the process of establishment.

Today, the program has resumed the process of rebuilding. The department has announced several new faculty positions, following the mass departure of professors after the most recent crises. The program remains committed to supporting the student body and seeing their theses, exhibitions, and publications to fruition. Despite the tense atmosphere in the region, in addition to ongoing economic deterioration and political crises in the country, the MA program in Art History and Curating at the American University of Beirut strives to persist, persevere, and continue its tradition in short bursts of breath between “surpassing disasters.”


World Bank, “Lebanon Sinking into One of the Most Severe Global Crises Episodes, amidst Deliberate Inaction,” press release, June 1, 2021 .


A reference to Jalal Toufic’s book The Withdrawal of Tradition Past a Surpassing Disaster (Forthcoming Books, 2009) .

Art History, Curating, Lebanon, Covid-19, Accidents & Disasters, Middle East

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