Common Good or Personal Fulfilment – A Personal Account

Shireen Atassi shares what it means to her to be the custodian of The Atassi Foundation and its collection – both in her role as the next generation to safeguard it, and also what she sees as the foundation’s mandate, and plans for the future.

For those who do not know me, my name is Shireen, and I am the lucky daughter of the art collectors and founders of Atassi Foundation, Mouna and Sadek Atassi. I had the privilege of growing up surrounded by artists and intellectuals, but I did not pursue a career in art and culture. I followed my own personal path for 20 years, until 2015, when we set up Atassi Foundation for Arts and Culture. Since then, I have been running the Foundation and, along the way, I managed to reclaim my true self. 

As the child of art collectors, I too have come to appreciate and love art. While I acquire pieces every now and then, more important to me than my modest acquisitions are my passion for art and eagerness to learn. Whilst my collection is small enough to be displayed at my house, the collection that my parents put together is not quite so humble. Regardless of its size, which is dwarfed by many other wonderful Middle Eastern art collections, the strength of my parents’ collection stems from its uniqueness: a strong representation of Syrian art. Over 95% of the collection is made up of works by Syrian artists, covering over a century of art production in Syria from 1908 right through to 2021. 

Contrary to popular belief, creating a successful art collection does not necessarily only need wealth, but it does require knowledge and foresight! An art collector curates the narratives of acquired works so they form a coherent story line. Over time, the collection comes to speak about its owners, and reflect their vision. A collection becomes a contemplation of the collector’s take on the world around them.

The Atassi Foundation’s collection speaks not only about its creators, the artists, it talks more about Syria itself, and its culture, society, and geography.  More, one could argue, than any other history book. As a whole, the collection paints a unifying shared identity for all Syrians, and it firmly stands in the face of all the divisions that have been inflicted on our social fabric. It celebrates our plurality, our varied terrain and our cultural identity. 

On a personal level, this art collection has shaped (and continues to shape) my personal identity as an individual, as a woman and as a Syrian, admittedly more so after 2011. It has helped me visualise my past and its influence on my future. Because of the collection, I am able to dig deep into my core to determine how I fit within the many facets of Syrian society and open myself to connections that transcend boundaries of religion, time and place. Art enables us to celebrate the creative potential of the human brain, and my life is enriched by the capacity of artistic projects and ideas to endlessly inspire me. 

However, the reality is that in the long run, most art collections fail to be viable and end up being broken up. This is not an option for us. For us, preserving this collection is an issue of existential importance; it is akin to maintaining Syria’s culture and keeping it alive. We do not see the collection as a financial asset, for it is far more valuable as a cultural one. This notion, though, is a heavy responsibility – a responsibility that I have become aware of more keenly of late. I am certain that this is related to the ever-present notion of our personal mortality, which in turn gives rise to the question of the transience or endurance of our identity and hence our collection. It is said that every strong collection has a beginning, and an end, and it is up to us to create the future of these artworks. 

The return of the collection to Homs, its real birthplace, was thought to be the natural resting place for it. Today, in the absence of the option of return to our motherland (at least in the foreseeable future), I find myself contemplating the situation deeply, as if my very existence were tightly connected to the future of the collection.  

Today, the Atassi Foundation is the custodian of the collection, taking it out of the private domain to create a more public dimension with social visibility. The collection sits at the core of the Foundation, with all its initiatives and programmes. Our mission is to give current and future generations free access to it; not only to view individual works, but to make sense of them as a whole. On a communal level we aspire to educate, empower and to endlessly inspire. I am fully aware my burning probe about the future of the collection remains unanswered but doing what I do at the Foundation gives me temporary peace of mind until the ultimate answer presents itself. Today, suffice to say that the Foundation sits at the intersection between collecting and cultural philanthropy, between what is private and what is public, between common good and personal fulfilment.