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Artwashing At The Louvre: When Saudis And Big Oil Sponsor Fine Art

The Louvre's Winged Victory of Samothrace
The Louvre's Winged Victory of Samothrace
Michel Guerrin

PARIS — Suspected of hacking a dissident into pieces in its consulate in Istanbul, the Saudi regime has become the target of public outrage — until the story dies down, at least. Which raises an important question: should French museums, opera houses and festivals accept funding from the kingdom? It's a sensitive issue, as Saudi Arabia often plays the role of artistic patron.

It's also an embarrassing one for everyone who believed that when crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) took the helm over a year ago, he would steer his country in the right direction. He hosted Saudi Arabia's first jazz festival in February, held its premier opera, and opened a movie theater following a 35-year ban. Riyadh even announced that 5,000 festivals and concerts would be held in 2018, twice as many as the year before.

At the time, commentators spoke enthusiastically of openness, of dialogue between civilizations. But the gory assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi has served as a reminder of the repressive, conservative, sexist, and ultra-religious nature of the Saudi regime.

All the same, France won't be returning what the kingdom has given, gifts such as the 17 million euros for the Louvre museum's Islamic Art Department in 2005, or last year's 5 million euros to renovate the building of the Arab World Institute.

It remains to be seen what will happen to the ambitious cultural partnership established between France and Saudi Arabia during the MBS visit to Paris last April. It supports the Al-Ula archeological site, film, archives, and the creation of an opera house and orchestra. France's cultural community has been silent on the issue, as the ball is in the court of President Emmanuel Macron.

It's natural that few are speaking up against Saudi Arabia. The kingdom is a bipolar state, showing generosity abroad and cruelty at home. More surprising are the museums and opera houses that stay silent about the money they receive from corporations accused of harming the planet. Such as the oil and gas giants – for whom Saudi Arabia is a playing field – that pump millions into our cultural institutions.

For ecologists, it's dirty money that should be turned down. Climate activists, who wish to "free the Louvre" museum from the sponsorship of French oil and gas company Total, have held protests in front of emblematic pieces like The Raft of the Medusa and Winged Victory of Samothrace. But it's not exactly enough to leave anybody quaking in their boots.

A fiercer battle is taking place in the UK, where activists have long argued that oil companies "have no place" in museums. In 2016, their efforts led the Tate to put an end to 26 years of support from British Petroleum (BP), which was responsible for the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill. The issue likely influenced Shell's decision to end its 12-year partnership with the National Gallery in October.

Foundations have dynamized art, but they are creating tension.

Corporate sponsorship often raises ethical concerns. Are a company's activities in line with the values of the recipient museum? Is the money given in a transparent way? Does it come with strings attached? "France is behind when it comes to these crucial matters," says former banker François Debiesse, now president of Admical, an association that supports philanthropy.

British activists accuse oil companies of "artwashing," using art to polish their image at a cut rate. When it came to France, Debiesse remained diplomatic: "The money received should be clean," he said. "We can ask questions when it comes to Total, but be careful …"

If a museum turns down sponsorship from polluting companies, it stands to reason that it should also turn motorists away at the ticket booth. And it should be noted that when the state slashed funding for large cultural institutions, it asked them to turn to the private sector to make up the difference. Demand that corporate sponsorship be 100% kosher, and finding funding becomes difficult indeed. According to Louvre president Jean-Luc Martinez, "the financial support from Total was key."

British activists also accuse oil companies of sponsoring exhibitions featuring the countries where they have interests, such as the British Museum's 2016 Siberia exhibition, sponsored by BP. French museums are adamant that their sponsors are never involved in artistic choices. But that argument is hard to swallow when one remembers the Ahae scandal, uncovered in 2013 by Bernard Hasquenoph of the Louvre pour tous (Louvre for all) website. Ahae was the pseudonym of a South Korean fraudster and cult leader whose ferry sank with 300 teenagers on board. In exchange for large donations to the Louvre and the Palace of Versailles, he was rewarded with exhibitions of his unimpressive photography.

The final piece of the puzzle is one that's on many mouths in France these days: the role of art foundations, which have been flourishing recently. To Debiesse, they're a matter of concern. "They've dynamized art, but they are creating tension," he said.

Bernard Arnault's Fondation Louis Vuitton, which Debiesse recognizes is not totally disinterested, has attracted particular criticism due to the funding of its museum and cultural center on the outskirts of Paris. According to the magazine Marianne, 480 million of its 800 million euros cost was tax-free. It has led some to deduce that the 2003 Aillagon Act, which was intended to encourage philanthropy, has turned donating into a cash grab for certain actors.

The issue is heating up. France's Finance Ministry plans to fight tax loopholes. One hundred members of the National Assembly are pushing for a 10-million-euro cap on foundation tax breaks. The National Assembly's finance commission has ordered a report from the Court of Audit.

The fact that financier Edouard Carmignac, who opened an art foundation on Porquerolles Island off the Côte d'Azur in June, is under suspicion of financial fraud does little to quell the controversy. Franck Riester, the new Minister of Culture, told a group of philanthropists gathered at the Louvre on November 6 that both he and President Macron were committed to the Aillagon Act. Beggars can't be choosers.

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