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Three Desert X Board Members Resign in Protest of Saudi Collaboration

Ed Ruscha, Yael Lipschutz, and Tristan Milanovich say the Saudi government’s violations of human rights and the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi prompted their resignations.

Qasr al-Farid at the UNESCO World Heritage Site Hegra in Saudi Arabia (all images courtesy of the Royal Commission for AlUla)

Desert X, the contemporary art biennial that launched in the Coachella Valley in Southern California in 2017, announced last week that it will branch out to Saudi Arabia in its first international collaboration. Yesterday, October 7, the Los Angeles Times reported that three members of the organization’s board of directors have stepped down from their positions, citing Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses and the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi as causes for their resignation. The resigned directors are artist Ed Ruscha, art historian and curator Yael Lipschutz, and philanthropist and former fashion stylist Tristan Milanovich.

Desert X AlUla is organized in collaboration with the Saudi Royal Commission for AlUla, a governmental agency overseen by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The exhibition will be held in the AlUla deserts in northwest Saudi Arabia from January 31 to March 7 of 2020.

“I resigned because I felt like Desert X no longer reflected my values, my humanitarian values,” Lipschutz wrote Hyperallergic in an email. The organization’s collaboration with the Saudi government, she said, is “completely unethical.”

Lyn Winter, a spokesperson with Desert X, told Hyperallergic in an email that “an overwhelming majority of [the board of directors] supports the decision to move forward with this cultural program, which they see as an important cultural dialogue and exchange, and a way to engage with Saudi citizens.” She continued: “Desert X’s mission is to connect desert cultures and communities around the world through art, and Desert X AlUla provides an opportunity to invite diverse, international artists — from Saudi, the region and from around the world — to respond together to the extraordinary historic sites and conditions of the AlUla desert.”

Sharaan, AlUla

Desert X AlUla, is co-curated by Desert X artistic director Neville Wakefield and Saudi curators and contemporary art specialists Raneem Farsi and Aya Alireza. The project is part of Mohammed bin Salman’s economic, cultural and social reform plan, called Vision 2030, which includes increasing tourism in the kingdom. Desert X AlUla is scheduled to coincide with the third edition of AlUla’s annual Winter at Tantora music festival, which launched in December of 2018.

The AlUla region is home to the country’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, the ancient city of Hegra (Mada’in Saleh). The archaeological site, famous for its 131 monumental rock-cut tombs, dates back thousands of years to the Lihyan and Nabataean kingdoms.

The Royal Commission for AlUla has not immediately responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.

Speaking to the Los Angeles Times Desert X founder and board President Susan Davis defended the project as an opportunity to generate “a new dialogue, one that reaches across boundaries and borders.”

“Our mission has always been to create a platform for conversations around art and to welcome a multiplicity of voices,” Davis said. “Ultimately, it’s a way to have direct communication — artists to artists, artists to individuals, artists to the bigger audiences. Ultimately, we see our involvement as a way to engage with individuals, not to isolate them.”

“This isn’t about dialogue among artists,” Lipschutz responded to Davis in a statement she shared with Hyperallergic, “it’s about striking a deal with a national government that has committed a horrific genocide in Yemen, that is completely undemocratic and that has an appalling record of discrimination against the LGBTQ community.”

Update 10/17/19 4:12pm: Earlier this month, three Desert X board members — Ed Ruscha, Yael Lipschutz, and Tristan Milanovich — resigned from their positions after the biennial announced a collaboration with the Saudi Royal Commission for AlUla, called Desert X AlUla. They say the Saudi government’s violations of human rights and the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi prompted their resignations.

Yesterday, October 16, the Los Angeles Times reported that the MaddocksBrown Foundation, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that was one of Desert X’s early donors, announced that it will withdraw funding from the organization.

The foundation told the Times it had donated about $13,000 to Desert X since 2017. Board Chairwoman Linda Brown said in a statement provided to the newspaper that she was “disappointed that Desert X has chosen this path.”

A spokesperson with Desert X confirmed to Hyperallergic that the nonprofit has pulled $5,000 of support for Desert X’s next Coachella Valley exhibition in 2021.

“As an organization, Desert X feels strongly that art and culture are enlightening and unifying forces. We are surprised to hear about Maddocks Brown Foundation’s decision to discontinue their support of Desert X in the Coachella Valley, as they have not been in touch with us about this, and we are sorry to lose their support,” Desert X founder and board president Susan Davis wrote Hyperallergic in an email. “Our decision to collaborate on the presentation of Desert X AlUla is rooted in our belief that it is better to engage than to isolate, and that we have an opportunity to connect with the people of Saudi Arabia through the arts and, in turn, connect them with the rest of the world.”

The MaddocksBrown Foundation has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.

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