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Saudi & Art. An emerging market for the sector.

Two stories coming out of Saudi last week indicate that the Kingdom is pressing ahead with its long-term plans for developing Culture and the Arts across the country.

On Monday, it was announced that the historic region of AlUla will open its doors to all visitors from October as the site had previously only been accessible to visitors attending specific events. As a first step to establishing the area as an arts and culture destination, the inaugural DesertX AlUla in February was the first "site-responsive" exhibition of its kind in Saudi Arabia. An exploration of desert culture, the exhibition featured artists from Saudi Arabia and its surrounding region alongside artists from previous iterations of Desert X in California, taking its cues from the landscape and historical significance of AlUla. In March, reported that the site would be turned into a permanent arts and cultural venue with DesertX being one of a number of features that will include galleries, museums and exhibition spaces around the ancient city of Maiden Al Saleh. Increased accessibility should help drive awareness of these initiatives and grow visitor numbers to these year-round events.

On Tuesday, the Saudi Minister of Culture, Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Farhan announced a major new arts event in Riyadh starting in 2021. The Ad Diriyah Biennale Foundation for Contemporary Art will operate with interchangeable themes and the inaugural event will be focused on contemporary art, whilst Islamic art will be the dominant theme in 2022 and will be overseen by the Thunaiyat Ad Diriyah Biennale Foundation. The overarching objective of the foundation will be to use the Biennale and other events to develop Saudi's contemporary arts scene and position Ad Diriyah as a major hub for culture.  

The King Abdulaziz Centre for World Culture, known as "Ithra", in the Eastern Province is also at the forefront of bringing art and cultural events to local and visiting audiences. Built by Saudi Aramco, Ithra has been developed to be an environment for transformative experiences arts, science, literature, and innovation. Already the venue for several exhibitions since its opening in 2018, the unique facility has ambitious plans to host several events per year and is already the patron of a major annual art prize.

The government's commitment to arts and culture was reinforced by a spokesman for the Ministry of Culture last week, “We are continuing to serve the people of Saudi Arabia by delivering the cultural transformation agenda in line with Vision 2030’s objectives", he said.

So with this new emerging market opening up fast and with serious backing from the highest levels, where do the opportunities lie for businesses in the art sector?

Art Logistics & Storage

As demand increases to show valuable pieces at various events and venues around the country, specialist shipping, handling and storage businesses have an opportunity to build new partnerships and revenue streams. Import/Export and customs processing are notoriously challenging aspects of doing business in the GCC especially Saudi. Companies with experience of these areas and in particular temporary importation (that can become permanent if a piece is acquired) will have an advantage. Appropriate shipping, secure and temperature controlled storage will also require specialist providers because as one curator put it "when objects move, that's when they are most at risk". With the temperature and humidity extremes that Saudi experiences also being a major factor, we see opportunities for these niche players over the medium term. Moving and placing artworks into remote and sometimes outdoor locations will also demand operators with specific equipment and experience that is currently in its infancy in KSA.

Exhibition design, build & installation

Whilst DesertX AlUla uses the natural environment as the backdrop for its installations, other venues will be displaying their collections in more conventional settings. Nonetheless these exhibitions will still require world-class spaces and structures for the pieces to be presented at their best. Overall event design, stands and display furniture, lighting specialists and interactive-screen technology businesses will all see an increase in biddable projects and will benefit from establishing their credentials with key organizations as early as possible.

Event Management & Marketing/Communications

As the number of annual and one-off events grows, rights holders will be looking for support from dedicated event management businesses and marketing agencies. Exhibitor management, accreditation, security, hosting personnel, F&B and all the other elements that an event demands will require experienced teams to bring them all together successfully. Agencies with event branding, communications and social media experience in the art and culture space should be proactively seeking to get themselves established on RFP lists across the relevant projects and government departments.

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