In Brief

Russia Strengthens Saudi Ties with Offer of a Kandinsky Exhibition, while Prominent Architects Bow Out of $500B Saudi Megacity

Saudi Arabia’s financial prominence in the arts has been under active evaluation in the weeks following journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance.

Wassily Kandinsky, “Innerer Bund” (1929) (image via Isabell Schulz’s Flickrstream)

The disappearance and suspected assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi has had a resounding aftereffect on the art world, with no discernable end in sight. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) has helped establish Saudi Arabia as a valuable facet of the arts through generous financial support, providing enormous donations and partnerships to international institutions. But now, as allegations of the Saudi government’s purported murder of the dissenting journalist arise, benefactors of this cultural campaign have been faced with the ominous underbelly of their relationship to the nation.

In recent weeks, arts institutions have been forced to make decisions regarding their financial ties to Saudi Arabia as they grapple with the Saudi government’s alleged hand in Khashoggi’s killing. Recently, the Brooklyn Museum and Metropolitan Museum of Art chose to deny funds from the Misk Institue (an arts organization founded and backed by MBS), and Columbia University announced a public conversation with Ahmed Mater, Misk’s director, would not take place.

Sotheby’s Chief Executive Officer Tad Smith was intended to speak on a cultural 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 disappearance. Many other business leaders have pulled out of the event, the Future Investment Initiative, in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia.

On October 19, Russia announced its plan to continue its support of Saudi Arabia, confirming its decision to participate in the Initiative. The Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) has organized a delegation of over 30 Russian business, culture, and government giants to “contribute to talks and consultations on their specialist fields, and meet with the leadership of the Kingdom and key Saudi partners.” In a statement, it also announced its intention to bring a 20th-century Russian art exhibition of works by Wassily Kandinsky and Pavel Filonov, from the State Russian Museum to Saudi Arabia.

According to Russian government-owned publication Sputnik News, Vladimir Putin pronounced, “We don’t know what really happened there. So why [does Russia] need to take some steps towards the deterioration of our relations if we don’t understand what is happening?”

Despite Russia doubling down on its Saudi relations, Saudi Arabia has encountered a major hiccup in its development of a $500 billion megacity. NEOM, set to be a 10,000-square-mile metropolis on the coast of the Red Sea, was announced at a 2017 conference in Riyadh by Bin Salman.

On October 9 of 2018, just seven days after Khashoggi’s reported assassination, the 19 members of NEOM’s advisory board were announced, including notable figures in the field of architecture and design. Quickly, the name of Jonathan Ive (Apple’s chief design officer) was removed, and only 18 remained.

The Architect’s Newspaper reports that soon after, Dan Doctoroff (founder and CEO of Sidewalk Labs) announced that his inclusion on the list was a mistake. Tim Brown (CEO and president of IDEO) also withdrew his participation. Norman Robert Foster (founder and CEO of Foster + Partners) told the publication earlier this week he, “wrote to the head of the NEOM Advisory Board stating that whilst the situation remains unclear he has suspended his activities in respect of the Board.”

It seems the only architectural participant remaining is Carlo Ratti (of MIT’s Senseable Cities Lab), who told the Architect’s Newspaper, “Both Carlo and our team are gravely concerned about the Khashoggi case. We are monitoring the situation closely as it develops hour by hour. We are waiting for the results of the U.S. investigation to evaluate the best course of action.”

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