There's a new museum in New York. Actually, new being a relative term, it's really about five years old now. It houses some two thousand works of art so it would have to be considered a major player in the New York Museum world. It's located right in the heart of mid-town Manhattan at 601 Fifth Avenue at 48th Street. And the chances are you've never heard of it. It's called the Dahesh Museum of Art. And except for a minor little civil war in Lebanon, it might now be in Beirut rather than New York City. The core of the museum's collection is made up of the art amassed by the writer and philosopher, Salim Moussa Achi, who took the name Dr. Dahesh. And the reason you might never have heard of the Dahesh Museum, aside from the fact it opened its doors as recently as 1995, is that it has as its stated goal, the preservation and promotion of 18th and 19th century Academic art...in New York, yet...not exactly a hotbed of Academicism.
The self-proclaimed Dr. Dahesh is something of the proverbial "mystery wrapped in an enigma." Born in 1909, during the 1930s he began the establishment of a mystical cult today known as Daheshism. The Dahesh Museum takes pains to distance themselves from this group, though they appear to be funded by the same Saudi Arabian family, the Zahids. The museum's treasurer is Amira Zahid. Dr. Dahesh began collecting Academic Art from the Zahid mansion in Beirut during the late 1950s up through the mid-1970s. European Academic art at the time was being sold in the Middle East for what amounted to garage sale prices. He bought everything he could lay his hands on including a surprising amount of Orientalism (European art inspired by Oriental art). The collection grew to over two thousand pieces, ranging from near trash to near priceless. How he funded his purchases, even at rock-bottom prices, is something of a mystery too, though it's assumed he used monies contributed by his religious followers. Then came the Lebanese Civil War. With the help of the Zahids, he managed to move the art, the furniture, and all his half-million book library, bag and baggage to New York (he'd made quite a number of political enemies in Beirut).
In New York, he continued collecting, though by this time, he was not alone in his appreciation of things Academic. Names such as Andrew Lloyd Webber and Malcolm Forbes were starting similar collections. Dr. Dahesh died in 1984. The Zahibs first sought a home for his collection in Rockefeller center but were turned down. The museum is instead housed in an office building next door to a business called "The Fine Art of Hair Replacement." The Guggenheim it's not. But its influence has brought to the Guggenheim a show called "1900: Art at the Crossroads," which explores much the same territory the Dahesh has during the past five years in displaying the work of early twentieth century art pariahs such as Cabanel, Adolphe-William Bouguereau, Jean-Leon Gérôme, and Rosa Bonheur.
The presence of the Dahesh Museum amid the New York art scene may also have sparked renewed interest in Academic art amongst a new breed of collectors, celebrities such as Michael Jackson, Jack Nicholson, Madonna, and Sylvester Stallone. Sotheby's recently sold a large Bouguereau belonging to Stallone for $2.6 million, a record price for the artist. Meanwhile, the Guggenheim show raised eyebrows in lumping Academic work as well as Impressionist paintings into the single classification, "Nineteenth Century Pictures," pointing out that the separatism proclaimed over the last hundred years may well have been more a marketing ploy rather than a scholarly reading of the era. Its Crossroads show displays these in a seminal context out of which grew work by Picasso, Matisse, Miro, and others also featured in the show. You won't find any Picassos at the Dahesh, nor Mirós either; but what you will find is a second look, a glance backward to a time and a type of art long vilified as stultified, beneath contempt, and practically valueless. The Dashesh shows us it is none of these.