Christie's to partner on heritage museum in Jeddah

The institution will be sited in Al Balad, the old town that is undergoing a cultural renaissance

Al Balad is undergoing a cultural renaissance. Willy Lowry / The National
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Christie’s will partner on a new heritage museum to be built in Jeddah, in collaboration with the Saudi Ministry of Culture.

On June 26, Christie's is hosting a charity sale in Jeddah to raise funds for a projected museum in the area of Al Balad, and for a non-profit organisation benefiting children with special needs. The auction is led by Minister of Culture Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Farhan Al Saud. Donors to the sale include Saudi artists Maha Malluh, Abdulrahman Al Soliman, and Ahmad Angawi, and major collectors such as Basma Al Sulaiman.

The museum will tell the history of Al Balad, the  old town of the Red Sea city and a protected World Heritage site. The area is marked by its intricate carved wooden doors and moshrebeyas, overlooking narrow streets with fruit-sellers' wheeled carts, pedestrian traffic, and the small storefronts that are now run mainly by Pakistanis.

Some of the houses have been already converted into heritage sites, such as Bait Al Nassif, the house of a former wealthy merchant, with its Ottoman-era living arrangements and beautiful internal carvings. A wood-panelled restaurant atop another building reportedly hosted Prince Charles and Princess Diana on their trip to the city. But most of the old houses have been rented out or left abandoned. Their wealthy owners have long since decamped for more spacious and modern accommodation elsewhere in the city, and because of Saudi inheritance laws, many are jointly owned by family members numbering in the hundreds, making decisions around rehabilitation or new uses difficult.

Now, in tandem with the growth in the city’s art scene, and the country’s push towards tourism, the evocative area is rapidly being revitalised, with a spate of cultural activities setting up camp in the area. Rubat Al-Khunji, a small, one-storey house, is one of the exhibition venues for 21,39, the yearly Jeddah art week. In 2015, the Saudi philanthropic organisation Art Jameel opened the House of Traditional Crafts in a coral-stone building, where they teach skills such as Islamic illumination, wood-working, ornamentation, and gypsum carving. Many of the graduates of the Jameel programme are now involved in restoring other sites in the Old Town, says George Richards, head of heritage at Art Jameel.

Both Al Ula and Al Balad are likely to be key tourist sites when Saudi Arabia, as planned, opens its borders to tourism soon. But the extent of Sotheby's partnership with Saudi is not clear.

In February this year, Art Jameel also opened an Art Jameel Project Space near the House of Traditional Crafts, which functions as an exhibition venue and a site for collaborations among the city's diverse artists and designers. The space will remain permanently in the Old Town, even after Hayy — Art Jameel’s bespoke exhibition site and community site elsewhere in Jeddah — opens in 2020.

Two weeks ago, 21, 39 held its first-ever summer edition, which was based in Al Balad and accompanied the city’s annual heritage festival. And the Red Sea International Film Festival, which launches in 2020, has chosen Al Balad as its base.

Few details have been announced about the Christie’s partnership. Christie’s rival, Sotheby’s, was reported to be in talks with Saudi Arabia around a cultural centre in Al Ula, an extraordinary complex of tombs carved by the Nabateans into the soft sandstone rock of the desert, which lies about an hour by plane east from Jeddah. Both Al Ula and Al Balad are likely to be key tourist sites when Saudi Arabia, as planned, opens its borders to tourism soon. But the extent of Sotheby’s partnership with Saudi is not clear.

Further details from Christie's about the heritage museum, following on from its auction, are expected soon.