Starting today and running through Feb. 6, 2005, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. is showcasing an impressive collection of Islamic art from London's Victoria & Albert Museum from. The exhibit is noteworthy both for its artistic merit, said to be of the highest caliber, and for its unusual sponsorship.
Victoria & Albert's Islamic gallery might sound like something dating to Queen Victoria's times but it actually opened on Feb. 3, 2004. It was funded by the Abdul Latif Jameel Group, which happens to hold exclusive distribution rights for Toyota and Lexus cars in Saudi Arabia and other Arab Middle Eastern states. As for the exhibit at the National Gallery, a federal governmental institution, it is sponsored by the Abdul Latif Jameel companies and by none other than Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to Washington.
It would be one thing were the National Gallery a privately owned institution. But as a federal museum, Saudi sponsorship of an exhibit means that an entity of the U.S. government is facilitating the Saudi public relations campaign, and that is wrong. The National Gallery's overseers in Congress should not merely defer to art experts but make sure that sponsors do not use federal museums to peddle their problematic agenda. (July 18, 2004)
April 21, 2005 update: As usual, the Saudis are even more aggressive in the United Kingdom, where Prince Sultan, second deputy premier and minister of defense and aviation, has arranged for his government to donate about 13 million Saudi riyals to the Ashmolean Museum of Oxford University to fund a new Saudi and Islamic gallery as well as fund ten Saudi students to study at Oxford. As the Arab News, a Saudi publication, explained, officials said the gallery "will help to portray Islamic culture and civilization in right perspectives."