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  • Oct 23, 2018

Ahmed Mater New York Talk Canceled As Major Art Institutions Step Away From Saudi-Backed Initiatives

Since the suspicious disappearance and death of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in early October, various global institutions have distanced themselves from Saudi-funded programs, including the New York Arab World Art and Education Initiative. Courtesy Edge of Arabia.

The disappearance and presumed murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, where he was last seen on October 2, has sparked an international outcry that is now sending ripples through the art world. Major global cultural institutions have come under public scrutiny for their financial ties to the Saudi government, with a few responding by severing engagements with Saudi-funded initiatives.

The New York Arab World Art and Education Initiative (AAEI)—a yearlong program launched on October 13 to “build greater understanding between the United States and the Arab world”—was one of the major cultural initiatives to become embroiled in the controversy. A number of US institutions have distanced themselves from the AAEI due to the financial support the initiative had received from the Misk Art Institute. Misk was founded by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whose alleged involvement in Khashoggi’s death has been publicized in various reports. Columbia University postponed a lecture on historic and contemporary depictions of Mecca by Misk Art Institute director and artist Ahmed Mater that had been slated to take place as part of the AAEI program at the university on October 22. The talk’s moderator, Avinoam Shalem, who is the Riggio Professor of the History of the Arts of Islam at Columbia, stated: “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 Brooklyn Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which will both still participate in the New York AAEI program, announced their decisions to self-fund the exhibition “Syria, Then and Now: Stories from Refugees a Century Apart” and the seminar “Collecting and Exhibiting The Middle East,” respectively. Originally, it had been agreed that the Misk Art Institute was to finance the programs. 

The Middle East Institute, a think-tank based in Washington, DC, chose to withdraw from the AAEI completely. It had planned to be a partner for the first phase of the initiative in New York, aiding the logistics and content development arm for the initiative’s upcoming programs.

Over the last few years, Saudi Arabia has won influence in the international arts and culture scene through the generous funding and partnerships initiated under the guidance of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. 

Since 2013, the Smithsonian has received a total of USD 2.8 million from Saudi Aramco—the nation’s state-owned oil company—including USD 1.5 million for a conservation biology program that began in 2016. The museum has requested for funds directed toward the project to be put on hold, in light of Khashoggi’s death. Nevertheless, on October 20 and 21, the Arab Culture Weekend, funded by Aramco, went ahead at the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler galleries.

Julee WJ Chung is the assistant editor of ArtAsiaPacific.

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