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LOS ANGELES — Desert X, the art biennial located in the Coachella Valley that began in 2017, has announced the artists for its 2021 edition. Curated by Cesar García-Alvarez and Neville Wakefield, this third edition in the United States will feature 13 artists from eight countries, including Zahrah Alghamdi, Ghada Amer, Felipe Baeza, Judy Chicago, Oscar Murillo, and Vivian Suter. Originally scheduled to open on February 6, the exhibition was delayed due to COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, and will now run from March 12 to May 16. The pandemic may not be the only challenge the festival faces, however, as evidenced by a recent kerfuffle at the Palm Springs City Council.
Ever since Desert X did an offshoot in Saudi Arabia in early 2020, the biennial has faced scrutiny, with Los Angeles Times critic Christopher Knight calling it “morally corrupt.” Critics point to Saudi Arabia’s history of repression, human rights abuses, and the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi embassy in Turkey. In light of this, a recent proposal to have Palm Springs fund the installation of one of this year’s Desert X works was ultimately scuttled, over concerns that the city’s sponsorship would be read as implicit approval of the partnership with Saudi Arabia.
At a Palm Springs Public Arts Commission meeting last December, Commission Chair Ann Sheffer proposed funding up to $30,000 for the installation of a project by New York-based artist Christopher Myers to be a part of Desert X. Featuring several equestrian statues, ”The Art of Taming Horses” tells the fictional story of two cowboys, one African American and one Mexican, highlighting the struggles of those who traveled South to escape slavery, and those who headed North in search of opportunity. According to Myers, the work’s fabrication relies on artists and craftspeople from around the world, including metal workers in Kenya, industrial fabric printers in Denmark, and AR designers in India. In exchange for covering the installation costs, the work would stay installed on the Tahquitz Canyon Way median in Palm Springs for five years after the closing of Desert X.
Because the amount was over $25,000, the Public Art Commission needed City Council approval, and at a January 28 meeting, council members and Mayor Christy Holstege voiced their support of Desert X but brought up serious criticisms of its recent partnership with Saudi Arabia.
“I love Desert X. It’s a huge draw, and really fun for residents,” Mayor Holstege commented at the meeting. “I think it’s really unfortunate that they went to Saudi Arabia, with their track record of human rights abuses … I would like to see Desert X continue in the city of Palm Springs, and that they can reform their ways and stop partnering with human rights abusers.” Mayor Holstege did not return Hyperallergic’s requests for comment.
Councilmember Geoff Kors was more pointed in his criticism. “I raised the issue that Desert X was funded by Saudi Arabia and announced their partnership six months after worldwide condemnation of their public beheadings of political opponents, gay men, and religious minorities in violation of International Human Rights Laws and their treatment of women and minorities,” he wrote in an email to Hyperallergic. “They also have not shared how much money Saudi Arabia paid them.”
The council voted 5-0 to approve the funding with the caveat that the artwork be associated solely with Palm Springs as a “parallel project” to the biennial and not a Desert X project. “The approval needs to be specific,” said Mayor Pro Tem Lisa Middleton at the meeting. “We will not provide any funding to Desert X.”
Technically, the city of Palm Springs has never funded Desert X. Instead, financial support comes from PS Resorts, an organization that manages Palm Springs resort fees to sponsor events like Desert X. In 2017, PS Resorts gave Desert X $50,000, and $62,500 in 2019. This year, they only agreed to provide $10,000, a change that Kors attributes to issues surrounding their partnership with Saudi Arabia.
“It needs to be clear we’re not a sponsor of this. We haven’t sponsored [Desert X] in prior years,” said Kors at the meeting, “This would be a bad year to start after Saudi Arabia. This is why we fund PS Resorts.”
Desert X, however, did not approve of these terms, and so the proposal was rejected. “Of course, they’re within their rights to not want to affiliate as a sponsor, but them wanting to completely erase Desert X from a project we produced is not within their scope,” Desert X co-curator César García-Alvarez told the Desert Sun.
Palm Springs has granted permits and permission for Myers’s work to be installed, but it will now be de-installed at the end of Desert X in May, instead of gracing the median in front of City Hall for five years.
Sheffer saw the Arts Commission’s proposal as a way to support the installation of the work without lending civic approval to Desert X, as the funds would be allocated for installation and would not go directly to the organization.
“I was taken off guard when they rejected any cooperation with Desert X, since I thought we had found a way, without being a sponsor, we could make possible what we think is one of their best installations this year,” she told Hyperallergic. “I respect the city council’s right to have a political judgement about being a sponsor of Desert X, but it should not preclude efforts by the Arts Commission to bring quality art to the city.”
For Myers, the decision seems like a missed opportunity, one that could benefit the city and surrounding communities long after this year’s Desert X packs up.
“I’m wary of limiting the places I would show my work in respect to my disagreements with the politics of a particular state,” he told Hyperallergic via email. “After all, as an African American artist, I show in this country, which has consistently shown little to no respect for my life or for the lives of my sisters and siblings. To be honest, the art world, and the world at large is full of lots of folks I disagree with politically, but I choose to think more about the communities that I care for in these places. To make a piece, especially in a public space like the one proposed to me by the team at Desert X, allows all sorts of folks to understand themselves as part of its audience, especially when I am the artist, I can direct my invitation to folks like me, who may have not been invited to the party before.”