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Centre Pompidou signs with Saudi Arabia

AlUla, Al Madinah, Saudi Arabia, Middle East. PHOTO GETTY IMAGES.

Tessa Solomon, Centre Pompidou Signs Deal with Saudi Arabia to Develop New Museum in AlUla, ART News, March 2023

AlUla, the sprawl of sandstone valleys and mountains cradling Saudi Arabia’s cultural ambitions, will soon welcome another high-profile project to its landscape.

On Sunday, Laurent Le Bon, the president of the Centre Pompidou in Paris, signed an agreement with the Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU) to develop a large-scale museum for regional and international contemporary art in the country’s northwestern desert. Its opening is set for 2028–29.

According to Iwona Blazwick, advisor to RCU on contemporary arts programming, the agreement includes technical training for museum professionals in Saudi Arabia, as well as opportunities for loans of artworks between the two institution’s respective collections.

“We are delighted to work with them as one of a number of institutional partners,” Blazwick told ARTnews in an email. “All our relationships will be reciprocal, sharing knowledge and experience—for example, we also hope to offer colleagues at the Pompidou and other museums, placements in AlUla to learn from our art commissioning programmes and residencies, and to engage with our local communities.”

The forthcoming museum has reportedly been in the works since 2021, when French president Emmanuel Macron visited the Saudi capital of Riyadh. Its collection will center art from Southwest Asia, North Africa, and South Asia, and span mediums, with focuses on land art and emergent digital forms. The RCU will also commission immersive installations and public artworks from Arab artists and those farther afield.

The partnership with the RCU is a logical move for the Paris museum, which houses the national collection for modern art. In recent years, the Pompidou has aggressively extended its brand overseas, to varying successes. The Centre Pompidou Malaga, in Spain, has failed to reach attendance goals since opening in 2015, while synergy around a Shanghai outpost faltered during the Covid-19 lockdown.

According to a report in Le Monde, the Pompidou is pursuing a deal with the Hanwha Foundation, the philanthropic arm of a South Korean business conglomerate, that entails the use of the “Centre Pompidou” name for the price of 20 million euros over four years. If finalized, the money would be a significant cash influx ahead of the museum’s extensive renovations, which will begin at the end of this year and last for three years, during which time the museum will be closed.

For Saudi Arabia, the agreement is the latest in a long list of cultural projects for AlUla, which has already launched initiatives with the Louvre, Riyadh’s Misk Art Institute, the German Archaeological Institute, and Desert X, the California-based outdoor biennial. The Saudi monarchy’s vast ambition is to open more than 200 cultural attractions by 2030, in a bid to reinvent the Kingdom’s economic and global images. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been spending lavishly on this plan, with tens of millions of dollars alone being invested in commissioning artworks for Wadi Al-Fann, an AlUla site once inaccessible to tourists but now dubbed “the world’s largest living museum.”

Saudi government officials estimate that, by 2035, the region will welcome 2 million visitors annually, with around 40 percent being international tourists.

Devorah Lauter contributed reporting.