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Several Major New York Art Institutions Step Away from Saudi-Funded Initiatives

The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Brooklyn Museum have chosen to decline funding from the Saudi Misk Institue, and Columbia University has put its event with the Institute on pause.

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

After the disappearance and suspected assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, major institutions have been under a harsh spotlight to reveal and address their financial ties to the Saudi government. Saudi Arabia, under the governance of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), has established itself as a major player in the international arts and culture scene through enormous donations and generously-funded partnerships.

MBS founded the Misk Art Institute to promote Arab art worldwide, which was recently revealed as one of the donors of the Arab Art and Education Initiative, a yearlong program which “aims to build greater understanding between the United States and the Arab world.” This week, the initiative launched its first round of programming in New York City with exhibitions and events at museums like the Metropolitan Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Guggenheim Museum.

Since the Arab Art and Education Initiative kicked off, new information surrounding the Jamal Khashoggi’s peculiar disappearance has dominated the media — reports speculate that he was murdered and dismembered with a bone saw at the hands of Saudi officials, though MBS maintains his innocence.

Initially, all of the initiative’s participating institutions maintained their decision to move forward as partners. But in the wake of extensive news reports, some have retreated from their initial judgments, particularly those whose events were directly financed by the Misk Institute.

The program initiated on October 13 with Syria, Then and Now: Stories from Refugees a Century Apart at the Brooklyn Museum, an exhibition organized by their Islamic art curator Aysin Yoltar-Yildirim. Though the Misk Institute initially planned to fully finance the exhibition, after deliberation, the museum has announced its decision to self-fund the show.

Anne Pasternak, director of the Brooklyn Museum, said in a statement sent to Hyperallergic:

The Brooklyn Museum continues to believe strongly in the value of culture to create bridges and build a more connected, civic, and empathetic global community, and we are committed to our partnership of the Arab Art and Education Initiative. While we are proud of our collaboration to bring awareness to the historic and present-day struggles of refugees in Syria through the exhibition and educational activities around Syria, Then and Now: Stories from Refugees a Century Apart, in light of recent events and in harmony with the international community’s concerns, the Museum will not be accepting Saudi funding for this exhibition.

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 also 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.

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.”

The Middle East Institute (MEI), one of the two organizations involved in coordinating the initiative, chose to withdraw its partnership following the Misk revelation. The second partner, Edge of Arabia, chose to maintain its leadership. Stephen Stapleton, Founding Director of Edge of Arabia and the chief coordinator of the Arab Art & Education Initiative, said of today’s announcements:

We are fully understanding and supportive of our partner organizations in the Arab Art & Education Initiative when it comes to decisions around funding and are delighted there continues to be a commitment from our partners to present open and free cross-cultural programming, as part of the initiative, here in New York City.

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