The Wick - Maria Sukkar The Wick - Maria Sukkar
Monday Muse

Interview Collector Maria Sukkar

Maria Sukkar
18 July 2022
Maria Sukkar
18 July 2022
It’s perhaps not surprising that after collecting art for nearly two decades, Maria Sukkar and her husband, Malek, have earned a reputation as two of the most important collectors in the contemporary art world. A labour of love, their ISelf Collection explores themes of birth, love and sexuality, and has been displayed at the Whitechapel Gallery.

Maria is also a legendary patron of the arts and champion of Lebanese artists thanks to her work with the Beirut Art Centre, British Museum and Tate, where she sits on its Middle Eastern and North African Acquisitions Committee and its Photography Acquisitions Committee.

Here she shares how she juggles so many key roles with her family life…

THE WICK:   Talk us through your typical Monday.

Maria Sukkar:   My Monday is what I call my quiet day. I take this day off as my weekends are always full on with various children and family commitments. I use this day to unwind, decompress and recharge. It’s mostly free of any social engagements. I also take a break from social media on that day. Apart from resting and putting my house in order, I get organised for the week ahead.

TW:   You and your husband had been collecting art for many years before starting a “formal” collection. What finally inspired you to do that, and how do you agree on what works to collect?

MS:   The ISelf Collection is a collection I started with my husband in 2009. Our starting point was an Anthony Gormley sculpture entitled “Extract”. It’s the artist’s own body curled up in a foetal position and cast in small steel blocks. It was this piece that gave the collection the coup d’envoi because of its connection to the human body. We named the collection ISelf because it has the self at its core, with particular reference to the human condition. It explores the central themes of birth, death, sexuality, love, pain, joy, displacement and separation.

We enlisted the help of art consultant extraordinaires Prue O’Day and Anatol Orient, who later became close friends. I learned a lot from their insight and their vast knowledge. Not only did they help us shape the collection and forge great relationships with galleries and artists, they also taught us how to experience art as opposed to simply look at it. The whole journey was (and still is) enlightening and so much fun.

At present, my favourite work in the collection is a work entitled “The End of Love” by Lebanese artist Akram Zaatari. It’s a series of 48 black and white pictures, mainly of brides and grooms, and the work comes from the archives of Hashem El-Madani in Saida.

I love this work because it is mainly about a moment of encounter between two people, a moment of love and hope.

TW:   You’ve been such a huge supporter of Lebanese artists, facilitating the first international retrospective of Saloua Raouda Choucair in 2013. Who are the Lebanese artists to collect now?

MS:   I am currently watching Lebanese artist Stephanie Saadé. Her work is very poetic and quite metaphorical at the same time. I am also a huge fan of Ali Cherri’s work. Ali has just shown at the National Portrait Gallery in London as part of its artist in residence programme.

TW:   ISelf’s exhibition at Whitechapel Gallery in 2017 and 2018 was so well-received with over 350,000 visitors. How did it feel to have your collection on display in a public space as opposed to your home?

MS:   The Whitechapel exhibition of ISelf was a very humbling experience as a whole. It was the first major public display of our collection in the UK. To put it all into context, this was in continuing with the Whitechapel Gallery’s programme of opening up rarely seen collections from around the world. It was organised in four exhibitions or chapters and each chapter was titled after an artwork in each display. This programme was the original brainchild of the amazing Iwona Blazwick who was the gallery director at the time.

I was quite anxious prior to opening night as we had no say in what and how artworks would be exhibited. I didn’t know how the wider public would react to pieces we have been collecting for more than 10 years and only shared privately with close friends. But we trusted the brilliant Whitechapel curators Emily Butler and Lydia Lee and loved how they displayed the works they chose. It all looked quite different in the gallery’s larger space, and the works had the chance to be part of a larger conversation. We had great press reviews overall and this show was a seminal moment for the collection.

“I didn’t know how the wider public would react to pieces we have been collecting for more than 10 years.”

TW:   How would you describe the work you do with the Hayward Gallery, the British Museum and the Tate Modern?

MS:   Working with acquisition committees is an integral part of my involvement with museums in the UK and abroad. For instance, at the Hayward Gallery and as part of their commissioning committee (headed by Ralph Rugoff), we research, present and commission artists to create outdoor installations, creating a cultural playground on the Southbank Centre site where visitors can engage with free and accessible public art.

At the British Museum I sit on CaMMEA, an acquisition group set up by Venetia Porter to support the purchase of contemporary and modern Middle Eastern art works on paper.

As for Tate, I sit on its Photography Acquisitions Committee (PAC) and I also co-chair its Middle Eastern and North Africa Acquisitions Committee (MENAAC). We are a dynamic group of art collectors and academics from over 22 countries whose mission is to support Tate in building its Middle Eastern art collection. Through our international network, we create connections with artists and organisations in the Middle East to facilitate communication, information exchange and the acquisition process.

TW:   What are your thoughts on virtual museums as a way to share your collection?

MS:   I think virtual museums are a great way for people to access private and public collections remotely. Nevertheless, I still believe that virtual spaces cannot replace real-life experiences.

TW:   More and more artists, designers, auction houses and luxury brands have been entering the NFT art market. What are your thoughts on collecting NFT art?

MS:   I am afraid I haven’t done enough research in that field yet and I do not have enough knowledge on the subject. It all feels quite unregulated to me, so I am giving myself some time before I dip a toe in the water.

TW:   Between your family life, managing ISelf and juggling numerous important roles in the art world in London and New York, what have you found to be the biggest challenges, and how do you keep yourself focused?

MS:   It’s interesting how this question always comes up in various conversations. I would say that my family has always been my number one priority and everything else kind of finds its place.

As for keeping myself mentally focused, I try to schedule regular “Maria” time to rest and recharge. I also take regular breaks between various meetings and calls throughout the day.

Also, never underestimate the power of chocolate. You know that famous saying, “As long as there’s chocolate, there will be happiness!”.

TW:   What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

MS:   Lead your life with love, not in a soft and fluffy way but in a brave way, speaking your truth, showing up with vulnerability while staying curious and holding yourself and others accountable. It’s the best mantra to live by.

TW:   What’s your favourite culturally curious spot in London?

MS:   My culturally curious spot in London is Golborne Road. It’s a recent discovery, and it’s located at the busiest end of Portobello Road. There is plenty to explore on the street with a variety of shops, cafés, and restaurants. On Fridays and Saturdays, there is a market that sells everything from food, to antiques, bric-à-brac to furniture. It’s a great area to visit with a local authentic atmosphere and plenty of priceless finds.

Who would be your ultimate Monday Muse?:   Simone de Beauvoir, the French existentialist philosopher, writer, social theorist, and feminist activist.

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