Warhol is going to Saudi Arabia… for an undisclosed fee

Pittsburgh’s Andy Warhol Museum will curate “Fame” next year in Al-’Ula, despite homosexuality being illegal and punishable by death in Saudi Arabia.

Originally published by the Pittsburgh Independent.

Pittsburgh’s pop art prince is off to Al-’Ula.

The Royal Commission for Al-‘Ula and Arts AlUla this week announced Pittsburgh’s Andy Warhol Museum will bring “Fame: Andy Warhol in AlUla” to the Maraya art gallery for a three-month exhibition, beginning February 17, 2023.

“This is part of our mission, to engage and inspire through Warhol’s life,” says Warhol director and exhibition curator, Patrick Moore. “We’ve done exhibitions all around the world. This is in keeping with what we’ve done in the past, but I think it also could have an outsized impact.”

The wealthy Gulf monarchy is investing heavily to transform the sparsely populated archaeological and historical site in the country’s northwest into an arts and cultural destination.

“All of our compensation and fees and financial information are confidential,” said Moore. “But I can tell you this: there’s not a shortage of places in the world that want to do Warhol exhibitions. So I had other places where I could do an exhibition and I chose to do this exhibition. But we do receive a loan fee.”

Betsy Momich, Senior Director of Communications at Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, the nonprofit organization that includes the Warhol Museum and three other Carnegie Museums, confirmed Moore’s statement that any fees or compensation paid to the museum are not disclosed.

“Fame” will include 10 iconic Warhol portraits, including those of Muhammed Ali, one of Andy himself, and another of Prince, among others, as well as Warhol’s Silver Clouds and “rarely-seen archival photographs.”

“I was thinking about the prevalence of social media there,” said Moore. “You know, celebrities have social media, so that’s why I really focused on the idea of ‘fame,’ especially fame from Warhol, as somebody who came from Pittsburgh and was not born into that world but really made his own.”

Large investments in the arts are part of a larger, concerted PR strategy by Saudi Arabia to boost its economy and image by investing in and associating with cinemasports, art, and celebrity. Many have welcomed the Saudi money, but not without notable boycotts from stars who objected to the regime’s oppression and murder.

Today, the Biden administration, which had previously called the Saudi regime a “pariah,” moved to shield Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman from a lawsuit over his role in the murder and dismemberment of Washington Post journalist, Jamal Khoshaggi. The Royal Commission for Al-‘Ula’s website lists the crown prince as chairman of their board of directors.

“Saudi Arabia has a history of using celebrities and major international events to deflect scrutiny from its pervasive abuses,” said Human Rights Watch, in response to last year’s F1 Grand Prix in Jeddah.

Critics call it “sportswashing.” Or in this case, “artwashing.” 

As ArtNews noted, three members of Desert X’s board of directors resigned over the outdoor sculpture biennial’s decision to locate in Al’ula, with art critic Christopher Knight calling the move “morally bankrupt.”

“I think that that’s a fair criticism,” said Moore, when asked about claims of artwashing, “but I don’t think that it’s a fair thing to deprive an entire nation of cultural opportunities and cultural exchange.”

“I would hate to think that other countries would not make cultural exchanges with [the United States] because of things that they disagree with. So I see that exposure to culture as always a positive in a society, and especially a society that is as young as [Saudi Arabia’s].”

Moore says he has always been an out, gay man. He was promoted to Warhol Museum director in 2017; before that, he worked for Yahoo, and was founding director of The Estate Project for Artists with AIDS.

Moore visited Saudi Arabia in December 2021, on a trip paid for by ArtsAlUla. He spent time in the capital, Riyadh, and Al-’Ula, “with a desert rave in between.” He did not visit with his husband, but the two hosted ArtsAlUla representatives at their home in Pittsburgh for dinner

“I was pretty astonished by what I found. You know, I found a society that was evolving much more quickly than I had anticipated.”

According to Human Dignity Trust: “Sentences for same-sex relationships [in Saudi Arabia] include a maximum penalty of death. There is evidence of the law being enforced in recent years, and LGBT people are regularly subjected to discrimination and violence.”

In 2020, a Yemeni blogger in Riyadh was sentenced to 10 months in prison for “promoting homosexuality online.” In 2022, Saudi state TV channel al-Ekhbariya reported a crackdown on rainbow-themed toys and objects.

The Warhol Museum’s LGBTQ webpage says Warhol “openly expressed his queer identity in life and art, even when homosexuality was criminalized and suppressed in the United States.”

Asked if the tolerance he experienced may have been due to his status as an invited Western guest, Moore said he is aware that he inhabits a position of privilege both at home and when he travels for business, and reiterated his belief that the Saudis’ choice to exhibit Andy Warhol is a “positive step” for the kingdom.

“I felt entirely comfortable in my interactions there,” Moore said. “And I hope that their choice, which was intentional, to select wanting to work with perhaps the most famous openly gay artist, is a hopeful sign.”

This article was originally published by our partners at the Pittsburgh Independent on November 18, 2022.

Brian Conway is an independent journalist based in Pittsburgh and founder of the Pittsburgh Independent. Published in Vice, the Daily Dot, and elsewhere, his investigative reporting into lead in Pittsburgh’s drinking water earned 2018 first prize in environmental reporting from the Keystone Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, and prompted the water authority to strengthen its safe water drinking guidelines.