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Mon 24 Dec 2018 11:20 AM

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Sotheby's exploring desert arts hub with Saudi government

The Saudi cultural centre would be established in the Al-Ula region, home to the Mada'in Salih Unesco world heritage site

Sotheby's exploring desert arts hub with Saudi government
A Saudi man stands at the entrance of a tomb at Madain Saleh, a UNESCO World Heritage site near Saudi Arabia's northwestern town of Al Ula. (Photo credit Getty Images)

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman has set multiple ambitious agendas for his desert kingdom. Turning it into a major cultural destination may end up being one of the highest-profile.

For part of the plan, the Saudi government has turned to Sotheby’s, the biggest U.S. auction house, and Allan Schwartzman, the co-chairman of its fine art division. He rose to fame by creating an arts dreamland in the Brazilian jungle for a mining magnate who was later convicted of money laundering.

The Saudi cultural center would take root in Al-Ula, an archaeologically rich region in the northwest of the country. There, the Nabateans, a formerly nomadic tribe of  skilled craftsman and traders, carved elaborate buildings out of sandstone more than 2,000 years ago.

The region contains an ancient city, Mada’in Salih, which was Saudi Arabia’s first Unesco World Heritage Site.

Whether the project will proceed as planned is a mystery - perhaps as enigmatic as the fate of Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi, the $450 million masterpiece that hasn’t been seen in public since another Saudi prince bought it at auction last year.

Schwartzman’s connection is twofold: He serves on the advisory board of the Royal Commission for Al-Ula, an entity overseeing the region’s development, and he leads Art Agency Partners, Sotheby’s art advisory arm, which submitted a plan for a sprawling contemporary art initiative on the site.

The collaboration with Sotheby’s is in an “exploratory phase,” Rosie Marsh, a spokeswoman for the royal commission, said in an emailed statement.

It remains unclear how the fallout from the October murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi will affect the project. Earlier this month, the U.S. Senate voted to withdraw support for the kingdom’s war in Yemen and hold the crown prince responsible for Khashoggi’s death.

“Like many organizations and individuals, we are extremely concerned about recent events and unreservedly condemn acts of violence against all persons,” Sotheby’s said in a statement.

“An active dialogue is underway internally about this project, as there is about all potential initiatives and partnerships the company considers.”

Sotheby’s proposed to “unequivocally position Al-Ula as unique amongst other worldwide cultural destinations as a major patron of the arts,” according to documents obtained by Bloomberg.

The auction house invited more than a dozen artists to submit proposals. Beginning in late October, about five of them visited the site, according to people familiar with the program who asked not to be identified discussing nonpublic details.

Sotheby’s, Schwartzman, and the royal commission declined to comment on the art proposals, and Marsh said no works have yet been commissioned. If approved, submissions could form the backbone of a traveling exhibition that might help drum up interest in the project, according to Sotheby’s proposal.

The artists “will be asked to dream their biggest dream and envisage a project which may or may not be realized, but will represent the ultimate expression of them as an artist,” Sotheby’s said in the proposal.

The organization’s website states that a strategic plan is underway; a subsequent master plan will take from six to nine months, and then the actual infrastructure construction will take from three to five years.

“Infrastructure and facilities must be created for visitors to experience the world-class cultural experiences that Al-Ula deserves,” the project’s website states.

“Central to the vision for this future development is local, regional and international access to the remarkable human and natural heritage of Al- Ula,” said Marsh. “Interpretations through contemporary art is just one direction being explored."

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