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Doug Aitken, Mirage, 2017, mirrors, dimensions variable. Installation view, Desert X. Photo: Alexis Hyde.

Three Board Members Resign from Desert X over Collaboration with Saudi Arabia

Southern California’s contemporary art biennial Desert X announced on Monday that it is hosting an exhibition in northwestern Saudi Arabia in early 2020. The project, which will be funded by the government’s Royal Commission for AlUla, has prompted three of the fourteen original members of Desert X’s board of directors—including artist Ed Ruscha, art historian and curator Yael Lipschutz, and philanthropist Tristan Milanovich—to resign in protest. Accused of various human-rights abuses, Saudi Arabia also faced international outrage after Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi was assassinated in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018.

While Desert X founder and board president Susan Davis told the Los Angeles Times that the collaboration is a chance to create “a new dialogue, one that reaches across boundaries and borders,” Lipschutz called it “completely unethical.” She added: “To pretend it’s about some sort of dialogue when you’re receiving money from the Saudi royal family—this isn’t about dialogue among artists, it’s about striking a deal with a national government that has committed a horrific genocide in Yemen, that is completely undemocratic and that has an appalling record of discrimination against the LGBTQ community.”

Desert X presented several large-scale installations across Coachella Valley in 2017 and 2019. Desert X AlUla is planning to install works by around fifteen artists, half from the United States and Europe and half from the Middle East, in the Saudi Arabian desert. Curated by Desert X artistic director Neville Wakefield and two Saudi women, Raneem Farsi and Aya Alireza, the event will run from January 31 to March 7, 2020. Participating artists will be announced in the coming weeks.