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Major Art Institutions Navigate Ties to Saudi Arabia After Disappearance of Journalist [UPDATED]

The Smithsonian, Sotheby’s, and landmark institutions across NYC are under pressure to address their financial connections to the Saudi Arabian government in the wake of the suspected murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

Athier, “Clasp and Come Apart” (2018), in Arab Street Artists’ Majlis at ArtX (Courtesy of the artist)

This week, several major New York art institutions will participate in the Arab Art and Education Initiative to showcase art from the Middle East through events and exhibitions. On the eve of its inaugural event, October 12, new information detailing the source of the program’s funding came to light. It was soon discovered the initiative came to fruition with partial funding from the Misk Art Institute, financed by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s (MBS).

MBS’s regime has been under intense scrutiny for human rights violations and abuses, leading deadly strikes in Yemen, and recently, the speculated murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The revelation proved controversial, requiring many of the participating organizations to publicly affirm their decision to remain part of the initiative — most, including the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Brooklyn Museum, have chosen to remain apart, with others like the Metropolitan Museum of Art choosing to continue with independent funding.

MBS’s cultural scope sears far deeper than the upcoming initiative, with the Smithsonian, UK Museum of Natural Historyand Sotheby’s also facing their next steps given existing program backed by the Saudi Arabian government. The financial reach of Saudi Arabia has deeply permeated the art world, with many institutions embedded in years-long cultural and fiscal relationships.

“It’s long been clear to those who follow Saudi politics that MBS’ recent overtures to the West with art projects and magazine covers have been little more than window dressing,” civil rights advocate Lyndal Rowlands told the Middle East Eye. She says MBS’s active cultural advocacy is a means of shielding his moral failings from the public eye while establishing Saudi Arabia as an international hub of arts and academia. She added, “This was obvious when the Saudi kingdom locked up the very women who campaigned for the driving ban to be lifted and has become crystal clear in recent months as more and more activists and journalists face death for speaking out.”

Sotheby’s Chief Executive Officer Tad Smith was intended to talk on a culture panel in Saudi Arabia with Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, but canceled his appearance following the news about Jamal Khashoggi’s purported killing.

Khashoggi had been living and writing in a self-exile in the United States before his disappearance, critical of Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s rule and Saudi-backed violence in Yemen. Khashoggi was last seen in Istanbul, entering the Saudi consulate, to retrieve documents regarding his impending marriage to Hatice Cengiz, who is Turkish. Cengiz says she waited outside for her fiancé, but he never returned. The Turkish government asserts that Khashoggi was murdered and dismembered inside the building by Saudi officials, but MBS has maintained his innocence.

Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, “Liberty Enlightening the World”, a torch of Freedom, from the Suez Canal, Egypt to New York Harbor; from Poets of Little Syria – Guided Tours at the Washington Street Historical Society (courtesy of the Arab Art and Education Initiative)

The Arab Art and Education Initiative says it “aims to build greater understanding between the United States and the Arab world,” strengthening cultural bonds between the Gulf and New York City with institutions like the MoMA, ArtX, and Columbia University. The initiative is partially funded by MSB’s Misk Art Institute, which he founded and finances to promote Arab art internationally. Its programming examines the scope of Middle Eastern history, the refugee crisis, and modern notions of religion, feminism, and sexuality in the region.

The public launch of the yearlong initiative was planned October 13 through 24 across New York City, starting with Syria, Then and Now: Stories from Refugees a Century Apart at the Brooklyn Museum, which runs until January 13.

The exhibition curator, Aysin Yoltar-Yildirim, told the Middle East Eye that despite Misk’s full funding of the exhibition, it was not involved in any curatorial decisions. Bin Salman “doesn’t dictate what is our end product. He has to live with the exhibition that we present at the end of the day,” Yoltar-Yildirim said, though she conceded that an exhibition on the Saudi-backed war in Yemen would not have been possible.

When asked about Khashoggi’s disappearance, the curator said, “We can’t control what our leaders do.”

The Misk Institute is responsible for funding the Brooklyn Museum exhibition Syria Then and Now: Stories from Refugees a Century Apart. Initially, the Institute was set to fund “Collecting and Exhibiting The Middle East,” a seminar at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but in light of recent updates, the Met has opted to self-fund the event, which a representative says cost under $20,000 in total.

Dan Weiss, the president and chief executive officer of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, said in a statement sent to Hyperallergic:

It is our pleasure to host this small invitation-only scholarly seminar on how encyclopedic museums collect and exhibit modern art from the Middle East. This in an important conversation and core to our work as a global institution at The Met, as it is for each of the participants. While this conversation and a subsequent public colloquium were to be supported by external funds, in light of recent developments we have decided that the Museum will itself fund this event.

A live performance of A State of Play by Balqis Al Rashed, from the Young Arab Artists Exhibition at ArtX (Photograph by Nidal Morra)

Ahmed Mater, the Misk Institute’s director, was intended to speak at Columbia University on October 22. However, Professor Avinoam Shalem, Riggio Professor of the History of the Arts of Islam at Columbia, announced, “The lecture ‘Ahmed Mater: An Artist’s Lens on Mecca’ … as part of the series, Disrupting Unity and Discerning Ruptures, will not take place.  We will seek to find another time in the near future that is more conducive to the academic dialogue on campus that is the purpose of the lecture.”

However, the Middle East Institute (MEI), one of the two organizations involved in coordinating the initiative, has chosen to withdraw its partnership.

“In light of recent developments, the Middle East Institute has decided that it will not participate in next week’s program in New York,” Scott Zuke, a representative of the MEI told the New York Times.  The MEI declined to make an additional comment to Hyperallergic, instead suggesting to redirect the query to Edge of Arabia, a second partner who chose to maintain its leadership in the Arab Art and Education Initiative.

In a statement sent to Hyperallergic, Stephen Stapleton, Founding Director of Edge of Arabia and the chief coordinator of the Arab Art & Education Initiative, said:

We are grateful that all partner venues in New York have remained committed to the Arab Art & Education Initiative and that we all stand firm and enthusiastic about launching the first pan-Arab cultural program across New York City. We believe it is now more important than ever to present these kinds of open and free cross-cultural platforms in the US, allowing artists to present work and explore complex and often challenging subject matter with communities across the city, whilst also building upon New York’s rich history of cultural diversity and exchange.

A representative of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum explained the museum’s current decision, telling Hyperallergic, “This is a serious and troubling story that continues to unfold in a complex global context. Our participation in the Edge of Arabia initiative is consistent with our mission to provide a platform for artists and opportunities for much needed cross-cultural dialogue.  We do not disengage with artists based on the actions or policies of their respective governments.”

A representative of the Museum of Modern Art, Amanda Hicks, told Hyperallergic, “Our program is completely and independently overseen and funded by the Museum; we have received no funds from Saudi government agencies or members of the royal family to participate in the Arab Art and Education Initiative.”

In the wake of Khashoggi’s highly-publicized disappearance, institutions across the country are under pressure to assert or renounce their financial and cultural ties to Saudi Arabia. Since 2013, the Smithsonian has received $2.8 million from Saudi Aramco (the nation’s state-owned oil company), but yesterday, confirmed their decision to move forward with their Arab Culture Weekend. The two-day event funded by Saudi Aramco will open at the Smithsonian on October 20 and 21.

“Global cultural organizations, like the Smithsonian, must foster dialogues and meaningful relationships with countries around the world, even when we disagree with their governments’ actions and policies,” Smithsonian Secretary David J. Skorton said in a statement. “These collaborations provide critical insights and accelerate our collective efforts to create a global community and expand scientific understanding.”

He continued, “The recent developments in Turkey and Saudi Arabia highlight the challenges that exist even in cultural exchanges. We will continue to assess our current and future collaborations.”

According to the Washington Post, the museum does not have intentions to refund Saudi donations but has paused its request for funds to continue its existing conservation biology program with the Saudi Wildlife Authority.

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