New museum in Saudi Arabia bolsters collection after inking partnership deal with Centre Pompidou

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A new contemporary museum planned for the vast AlUla heritage region of Saudi Arabia has signed a partnership deal with The Centre Pompidou that will see the French institution loan works to the Middle Eastern kingdom.

The museum is also quickly acquiring a permanent collection of works that so far includes pieces by artists such as Yayoi Kusama, Carmen Herrera, Manal AlDowayan, Etel Adnan and Ibrahim El Salahi, according to the UK curator Iwona Blazwick.

Blazwick, the former director of the Whitechapel Gallery in London and now an employee of the governing Saudi kingdom, also hopes to host a show of works at the new AlUla venue which are drawn from the Centre Pompidou’s collection and selected by Saudi artists. “We are negotiating an agreement that the Pompidou can borrow from our collection and that we can borrow from theirs,” she said in an interview with The Art Newspaper.

“It’s all about reciprocity. We want our collection to be active in lending works, particularly for artists who are planning survey shows; our ethos is artist led.”

The Centre Pompidou, which is due to close from 2025 to 2030 for major refurbishments, will be one of numerous partners involved in the Arabian kingdom’s latest contemporary art museum project. “I’m keen to develop a network that really focuses on what’s happening in the Global South,” says Blazwick, whose official title is Curatorial Lead, Contemporary Art Museum, AlUla. Blazwick also hopes to collaborate with organisations like Art Jameel in Dubai and the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in Delhi, she said. A completion date for the new museum is not confirmed.

The Pompidou arrangement also provides training opportunities for Saudi curators. “We hope that the Pompidou will host and mentor colleagues from Saudi in either Paris or at one of their many satellites,” Blazwick says.

The financial terms of the deal between the Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU)—the Saudi government cultural body, led by the country’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman—and the Centre Pompidou remain confidential, although the French newspaper Le Monde reported that the partnership would be worth around €2m annually to the institution. A source close to the Centre Pompidou, however, says: “This quote was apparently only mentioned in preliminary discussions as an estimate regarding the expertise Pompidou could bring before the opening of a gallery there”. The Centre Pompidou declined a request to comment.

The contemporary art space, announced in May along with another new institution, a museum dedicated to the Incense Road, will be designed by the Paris-based architect Lina Ghotmeh, who has overseen the Serpentine Pavilion in London this year; the Incense Road Museum will be designed by the prominent London-based architect Asif Khan.

Khaled Azzam, the architect of AlUla’s Journey Through Time arts masterplan, says the two museums are the first of “15 cultural assets” in development as part of a 15-year initiative designed to turn the 2,000-year-old site into a tourist destination. All 15 “assets” were disclosed to The Art Newspaper. They include the Dadan Interpretive Centre, the Hegra Museum and the Kingdoms Institute.

According to Blazwick, the contemporary art museum will house four collections. The first, “Three Seas: the Red Sea, the Arabian Sea and the eastern Mediterranean”, is an echo of the ancient civilisations in AlUla during the Nabataean period, from around 400BC to AD100. The second collection, “Continents”, comprises a series of immersive environments by artists from six continents. The “Desert Collection” will feature artists who are creating permanent works for the ancient valley of Wadi AlFann while the “Botanics Collection” comprises permanent gardens by ten artists from around the world.

The Pompidou partnership is the latest France-driven arts initiative to be launched in Saudi Arabia. The initial agreement between the gallery and the RCU was finalised on 12 March. It reflects how embedded the French government is within the country; the French government even has an agency, known as Afalula, which is specifically tasked with developing ties with AlUla. The agency is the result of an intergovernmental agreement signed by France and Saudi Arabia in 2018.

The day after Turkish officials announced that the US-residing Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi had been murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018, France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, issued a decree officially confirming the cultural development of AlUla province. The budget for the joint project is believed to be at least $20bn.

Human rights concern

Ever since, Afalula has quietly launched a range of artist-led programmes in AlUla. The Afalula initiative underpins the drive by the Saudi government to rebrand the conservative state that has a concerning human rights record. Between 2015 and 2022, an average of 129 executions were carried out each year in the kingdom.

A French critic, who chose to remain anonymous, told us earlier this year: “The French/Saudi partnership is part of a drive to promote the cultural credentials of Saudi Arabia, helping to diversify and deliver a more ‘open’ image of the country.”

The suite of museum assets come off the back of a launch initiative which was also developed in collaboration with the RCU—the Desert X AlUla biennial exhibition, launched in 2020. An offshoot of Desert X in Coachella, US, the Saudi edition features site-specific works dotted around the AlUla region.

Charges of “artwashing”—using art to gloss over thorny issues such as human rights abuses—are misplaced, says the journalist Rebecca Proctor, author of the forthcoming publication Art in Saudi Arabia: A New Creative Economy? (Lund Humphries/Sotheby’s Institute of Art), which was written with support from Alia Al-Senussi.

“Saudi artists, curators, gallerists and supporters reject the term,” Proctor says. “Saudi artists will tell you that the Saudi art scene is not a place for propaganda. While the massive cultural transformation in Saudi Arabia is taking place via a top-down approach from the government, Saudi artists will affirm that, for no exhibition or event sponsored by the government, are they told what to create or what message their work should convey.”

But the Saudi state is directly and heavily involved in the promotion and expansion of each creative field. As such, it is becoming more and more challenging to find independently run spaces between the state and the artists, Proctor adds, saying: “Those working in government cultural sectors attest that their goal is to encourage the growth of the private creative sector.”

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