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Saudi Arabia invests in art to create ‘the Arab Damien Hirst’

Middle East art
Painted diptych by Iraqi Hayv Kahraman is for sales at the forthcoming Christie’s Modern and Contemporary Middle Eastern Art auction
  • National Strategy for Culture to develop Saudi contribution to arts
  • Royal Commission for AlUla launches exhibition for 25 Saudi artists
  • Riyadh Art Project to feature more than 1,000 artworks
  • Christie’s auctioning art from the region online from October 12

Saudi Arabia is using some of its huge oil profits to invest in local artists, in a bid to create an internationally renowned Arab art superstar on a par with the likes of Damien Hirst, according to a senior executive at leading art auction houses Christie’s.

“What is happening in Saudi Arabia right now is the phenomenon that we never saw [before],” Dr Ridha Moumni, Christie’s deputy chairman for the Middle East, told AGBI.

Moumni said Saudi Arabia has moved from being a buyer of trophy pieces like Leonardo da Vinci’s $450 million Salvator Mundi, to actively investing in local artists. 

He described this investment as “a very important push, not only to Saudi contemporary artists whose art they are promoting a lot, [and] supporting by national and regional commissions, but also for Middle Eastern art”.

“They’re still buying,” he added, but said he had never seen a state invest in local art at such a large scale.

“Suddenly we see a lot of art commissions because now they are openly collecting as a nation,” he said.

“That reinforces Saudi’s investment in local and regional art. And this is part also of a bigger awareness and importance of the art of the region.”

Christie's Middle East art
Ridha Moumni, deputy chairman for the Middle East at Christie’s

Saudi’s art investment comes at a time when the kingdom is enjoying record economic strength, brought about mainly due to the high oil price.

The kingdom’s real gross domestic product growth is expected to reach eight percent in 2022, the Saudi finance ministry said in a pre-budget statement in late September.

The world’s largest oil exporter also recorded a budget surplus of SAR6.7 billion ($1.79bn) in the third quarter of this year and the surpluses are expected to continue into 2023, after years of deficits.

In its pre-budget statement for 2023, this emphasis on art and culture was outlined in the National Strategy for Culture, which was launched in 2019, and aims to “develop the Saudi contribution to arts and culture”.

Alongside NEOM, The Red Sea Project and Qiddiya, one of the other mega projects highlighted in the pre-budget statement was the Riyadh Art Project, which was announced in 2019.

“The project is a technical initiative aimed at transforming public places into art spaces that allow for artistic expression and stimulate creative participation by all segments of society,” the budget statement said, adding that the project aims to feature more than 1,000 artworks and create 24,000 new job opportunities.

Sphere, Boat, Transportation
Iran artist Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian’s Mirror Ball is on sale at Christie’s with an estimate of £60,000-80,000

Within the last few months, the kingdom has announced a number of art-related initiatives to support the local artistic community.

The Royal Commission for AlUla in October launched the Safar group art exhibition, which consists of artistic works inspired by the historic city, including sculpture, photography, textiles, and graphics. The exhibition includes 64 artworks, created by 25 Saudi artists.

The Misk Foundation, a non-profit organisation established in 2011 by Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, unveiled an exhibition in Riyadh entitled ‘Tales of Nostalgia’, showcasing the works of 12 Saudi and international artists.

The foundation stages the Misk Art Week every summer and has also launched the Masaha Residency programme, which hosts Saudi creatives — artists, curators, and writers — from different backgrounds and in what it described as “a safe space that encourages cross-cultural collaboration”.

Middle East art
The late Palestinian painter Kamal Boullata’s colourful geometric abstraction is another work under the hammer at Christie’s

Such initiatives and investments are designed to help nurture Saudi artists and give them the opportunity to gain success on the international art scene. But when will the Arab world see one of its artists listed among the top 10 highest paid living artists in the world?

“I hate this question. It’s very difficult to answer,” Moumni said.

“I think in the art world today, we are still missing tools in this artistic, and cultural landscape that can build and give visibility to the work of artists, contemporary, leading artists, but also modern artists.

“We have a lot of Arab, Iranian or Turkish artists living abroad who are creating absolutely amazing artworks and they need some support. Damien Hirst had access to national institutions that are sometimes missing in Arab countries,” he added.

Auction showcase

Christie’s will be showcasing artwork from the region as part of its forthcoming Modern and Contemporary Middle Eastern Art auctions, which will take place online from October 12 to November 3, as well as a live auction for Modern Middle Eastern Art on November 2 in London.

The auctions will include pieces from the Arab world and Iran, including masterpieces by Mohammed Melehi, Monir Farmanfarmaian and Etel Adnan. Contemporary pieces from emerging and established artists from the region, including Ali Cherri, Dana Awartani, Ahmed Mater and YZ Kami, will also be on sale.

Moumni said demand for Middle Eastern art has been growing rapidly.

“Over the last years I think there has been a bigger awareness globally of inclusive representations in collections,” he said. 

“I would say right now, because of the phenomenal globalisation, the Middle East is a growing market.

“More and more collectors are aware of the Middle East in America, Asia, Europe and North Africa.”

Christi's Middle East
Saudi artist Ahmed Mater’s Evolution of Man illuminates the Christie’s showroom, echoing the country’s rapid growth since the discovery of oil

In the latest UBS Global Family Office Report 2022, the Swiss global wealth manager surveyed 221 family offices – privately held companies that handle investment management and wealth management for families – around the world. These offices collectively oversee wealth of $493bn and manage an average of $2.2bn worth of assets.

The report said that family offices had reduced their strategic investment in art and antiques from three percent of their portfolio in 2019 to just one percent in 2021.

“I can tell you it’s not the case at all,” Moumni said of the UBS report.

“We had very strong numbers. We surpassed H1 and we’re surpassing 2021 by 18 percent,” he said of Christie’s recent performance.

“I think our numbers for 2022 are really strong in every single level. I think we can be extremely confident about what we are doing in 2022.

“When we see our numbers, we can be proud and optimistic for the future, including in the region.”

Damien Hirst
UK artist Damien Hirst is said to be the richest living artist. Picture: Creative Commons

The world’s wealthiest living artists

10 Cindy Sherman, American photographer

Estimated worth: $35 million

9 David Hockney, British painter

Estimated worth: $40 million

8 Gerhard Richter, German visual artist

Estimated worth: $40 million

7 Antony Gormley, British sculptor

Estimated worth: $50 million

6 Anish Kapoor, British-Indian sculptor

Estimated worth: $85 million

5 Takashi Murakami, Japanese superflat artist

Estimated worth: $100 million

4 David Choe, American muralist/graffiti artist of Korean descent

Estimated worth: $200 million

3 Jasper Johns, American painter

Estimated worth: $300 million

2 Jeff Koons, American sculptor

Estimated worth: $500 million

1 Damien Hirst, British painter/sculptor

Estimated worth: $1 billion

Source: Richestsculptors.com