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Dr. Tony Karam is not only a physician, but also a pianist, curator, and art collector. For several years, he has actively participated in promoting Lebanese art internationally, as well as fostering its vitality within the capital. He discusses his relationship with art, particularly his latest extensive project with the Lebanese American University (LAU).

Music, a Story of Intuition
Dr. Tony Karam’s artistic journey originates in his early childhood, when his parents gifted him a small beginner’s keyboard. They initially noticed he had intuitively placed it with his clothes, setting a discerning boundary from the rest of his toys. Within days, the two-year-old was already playing melodies that his mother recognized and thought were the radio. She tested him, “he could play anything”; it was absolute pitch. After a visit to the doctor prompted by this astonishing discovery, Tony’s parents invested in a piano, but the task of finding him a teacher was not easy, given that he could not even read yet. Six months later, he was already on stage for small concerts, and his fourth birthday coincided with his parents’ move to Abu Dhabi. From then on, young Tony was spotted participating in a TV show during Christmas. It was winter 1975, a date etched in the memory of the Lebanese; the child played Silent Night live and already conveyed immense emotion.

Medicine, a Story of Passion
Some years later, the return to Lebanon during the civil war brought significant challenges. Tony had to cross the line dividing Beirut in two for every piano lesson. Numerous scholarships were offered to him following many concerts in Lebanon and internationally, notably in France and Russia, but these did not include his family; the pianist consequently turned them all down.
As he grew up, the conviction that he wanted to be a doctor prompted Dr. Karam to breathe life into this dream rather than professionalizing in music, as his environment was encouraging. The student pianist managed to maintain a balance between his two interests until the fourth year of medicine when the rhythm became unsustainable. Thanks to very satisfactory results, a scholarship propelled him to George Washington University in 1989, where he concentrated on his studies despite many round trips. He was eager to become famous for his journey as a doctor, his true career; therefore, he paused his piano playing for a while to devote – and dedicate his image – solely to medicine. He fully exited the artistic stage, at least in Lebanon, even if he continued to perform “outside”.

Painting, a Story of Commitment
In parallel, Dr. Tony Karam has always had a passion for painting, which he could not “financially afford” for a long time. Gradually, with his medical income, he began a collection, “and one day I woke up with 400 canvases.” During the Covid-19 pandemic, acknowledging the general depression among his patients and artists, the doctor decided to post one of his collection’s pieces on Instagram to bring a smile to people in this gloominess. As he posted more, short descriptions started to accompany the canvases, and connections were established through this page among artists, galleries, and collectors. Dr. Tony Karam, who had become accustomed to connecting people, noticed a disheartening reality when reflecting on the state of the Lebanese cultural scene.
The lack of quality public museums has resulted in galleries playing a central role in the cultural space in Lebanon, which is not inherently negative. However, in reality, there ultimately does not exist an exhibition space that escapes commercial logic. A dream was born: to create such a space. However, initially, this dream was challenging to embody due to the need to graft onto an existing structure to limit costs.

The Fruition of Collective Projects
In 2021, the prestigious Scottish Rite Theatre in Illinois proposed he perform a concert in December. He accepted, but with one condition: to organize an exhibition of Lebanese art at the nearby Peoria Riverfront Museum simultaneously. Following the Beirut Port explosion, Dr. Tony Karam believed that any event of this kind would be futile if it did not contribute to relief efforts. The concert idea quickly morphed into a solidarity demonstration by the residents of Peoria towards Lebanon and blossomed to include over 20 artists who, in memory of the August 4 explosion, displayed more than 100 works of art in support of disadvantaged patients of the LAU medical centers and students of our Gilbert and Rose-Marie Chagoury School of Medicine.
His collaboration with LAU was the means to realize his vision of creating an “exhibition space”, with the university making the Sheikh Zayed Gallery available to him. The project started with a small group of artist friends, and now the venue hosts over a dozen exhibitions. Dr. Tony Karam had to retrieve the artwork from private collectors, gain their trust, and in some way, act on their behalf. Over the years, he has built good relationships with these different actors, whether on the artists’ side or the collectors’, as a doctor, an art collector, and a trusted individual.
Exhibitions have been held at LAU since October 2022. The doctor and his team’s focus is currently on an artist residency program. Indeed, as part of this year’s exhibition cycle organized at LAU’s Sheikh Zayed Gallery by the dean, Dr. Cathia Jenainati, Dr. Tony Karam, the project’s curator, wanted to crown this effort by implementing this international artistic residence, currently buzzing. The aim is to foster contacts and exchanges between Lebanese and foreign artists, from an interactionist perspective, encouraging binational co-creation and the expression of “what it feels like to be in Lebanon.” This initiative also aims to restore artistic links abroad and highlight the resilience of art in Lebanon.
The residency took place in Byblos during ten days of work and exchange, from July 1st to 9th at the Ahiram Hotel. From these works – two canvases per artist – a joint exhibition of artists will emerge in the LAU fine arts building, on the Beirut campus, on July 10, from 4 pm to 8 pm. Thus, the event marking the end of the ten days of this program will conclude with a classical music concert given by Dr. Tony Karam at 6 pm, in the Gulbenkian Amphitheatre of the Safadi building.

This day is a celebration of the entire creative and event cycle. In the longer term, other projects are already underway to continue this beautiful cultural and artistic initiative. “We have created a movement that has never been done here, the concept is different, it’s not commercial, it’s come and enjoy”. With the regularity of the exhibitions, a micro-community has begun to emerge, happy to exchange, participate in this cultural rendezvous, and most importantly, wait for the next one.
As with all his concerts, Dr. Tony Karam donates all the profits to raise funds that would be given to the LAU Medical Center and the LAU School of Medicine. He never wanted money to be a driving force, a motivation for playing the piano; the same goes for his curatorial activity.

For Dr. Tony Karam, we return to the essence, the primary purpose of the exhibition, detaching from the financial aspect, notions of profit, and showcase. He feels he is making an impact, making a difference, and this gives him inner joy, topped off by the joy he reads on the faces of those who are close to or remotely involved in his projects. “For me, art is part of life, it’s kind of a mission.”

By Léa Samara.

This article was originally published in French on Agenda Culturel website :

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