Nightfall nears on day one of year two of Saudi Arabia’s Alula Arts Festival, located in the ancient desert oasis town of the same name, some 1,000 kilometers northwest of Riyadh.

The sandstone cliffs of Ashar Valley reflect off Maraya Concert Hall, the largest mirrored building in the world. Completed in 2018, Maraya is one of the most striking symbols of the Gulf monarchy’s recent reinvestment in the arts, part of a broader cultural and economic transformation known as Vision 2030.

After sunset, and a canapé reception, New York rockstars Dean & Britta croon songs for silent Warhol screen tests in front of a 50-foot-tall Edie Sedgwick, while the modern-day jet set superstars and a contingent from the Carnegie Museums toast the long-gone, silver-wigged guest of honor.

Fame: Andy Warhol In Alula,” which closed May 16, was the latest feather in the cap of a starstruck, oil-rich Saudi monarchy eager to diversify its economy and rebrand its public image.

“It's all part of a larger plan to change perceptions of Saudi Arabia in the West,” said Ben Freeman, a research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. “What visitors see on these red carpet trips isn’t the reality for most people who are living in Saudi Arabia.”

Instead of equating the kingdom with journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s death by bonesaw and its famine-inducing war in Yemen, the thinking goes, “Saudi Arabia” might instead conjure thoughts of Alicia Keys, who would perform at Maraya eight nights later, or perhaps Cristiano Ronaldo, who signed with Saudi soccer side Al Nassr for more than $200 million per year. 

Patrick Moore, director of The Warhol Museum and curator of “Fame,” vigorously defended his and the board’s decision to partner with the Saudis in an essay for ArtNet, writing, “Cultural exchange is a longstanding interest within the museum community, and it is more relevant than ever in a world filled with conflict and distrust.”

What about the art? Moore said the subject “Fame” would resonate with an increasingly young Saudi population, obsessed, like so many young people everywhere, with glamor and celebrity. The art on display: a choice few portraits of Muhammed Ali, Dolly Parton, and Judy Garland, alongside silent films, photos, and floating Silver Clouds.

Others balked: “Watered-down Warhol,” exclaimed French art magazine Beaux Arts. The critic, Joséphine Bindé, noted the absence of Warhol’s politically-charged works, such as “Electric Chairs” and “Race Riots,” that elevate the artist “beyond his fascination with the superficial,” she argues.

Moreover, she wrote that aspects of Warhol’s identity that he was a person who was gay, for example – were nowhere to be found.

Moore told ArtNet News, “Andy was a lot of things; he was an artist, he was a businessman, he was an entrepreneur, he was a media mogul, and he was also a gay man, but that’s not all he was … so not every exhibition should or needs to focus on that aspect of Warhol’s life because Warhol was an artist, not a gay artist.”

One of the most prominent criticisms of the “Fame” exhibition came from Pittsburgh-based art historian David Carrier. Writing for Hyperallergic, He said he “couldn’t in good conscience accept an invitation to an exhibition hosted and sponsored by a brutal regime,” even if it meant passing up the lavish meals and helicopter tour included with the all-inclusive trip.

Asked the amount of the loan fee for “Fame” for a November 2022 article with Pittsburgh Independent, Moore declined to say, explaining that there is no shortage of attractive suitors for Warhol exhibitions, and the Saudis were among the most alluring.

Although Carrier objected to the Al’ula exhibition, he understands why Moore and Carnegie Museum leadership decided to exhibit there: “If our Pittsburgh museums feel the need for financial reasons to rent the collections,” he wrote, “that’s because these institutions lack sufficient local funding.”

“Is oil money better than no money?” he wondered aloud in an interview with Pittsburgh Independent after his opinion piece ran.

“Every year we start with a deficit,” said Dan Law, associate director of the Warhol Museum. The former business director of startup accelerator Ascender, Law leads the Pop District – a 10-year, $60 million economic development and placemaking project targeting a six-block area surrounding the museum, situated between riverfront developments Downtown and nearby PNC Park.

The Carnegie Institute's most recent publicly available tax filings show that the Warhol Museum has about $8.66 million in expenses and $4.17 million in revenue. Within Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh’s endowment are funds to support operations of all museums; funds for individual museums; and funds that donors restrict for a specific project/purpose – such as $25 million earmarked for the Pop District by RK Mellon Foundation ($15 million) and the Henry L. Hillman Foundation ($10 million).

Other than receiving loan fees for lending out artwork, most institutions rely on capital campaigns and private fundraising efforts to keep the lights on. There are earned income opportunities such as museum cafe and gift shop upgrades, but aside from public funding, such as the $3.3 million Carnegie Museums received from the Allegheny Regional Asset District last year, options are limited.

Enter The Pop District. Announced last year, the museum initiative, Law said, will generate revenue and “allow arts and culture to drive economic development” by expanding the Warhol footprint into a neighboring arts district while providing youth-focused creative economy workforce development programs.

In 2021, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Carnegie Institute, designated specifically for purchasing property adjacent to the Warhol, dropped a cool million on the parking lot caddy-corner from the museum. In April, the museum submitted renderings to city planning for a proposed four-story events space and 800- to 1,000-person concert venue there, which will allow the museum to host more revenue-generating weddings and concerts.

In addition to outdoor concert series and professional networking events, the museum has already begun to offer training services, with a focus on serving underrepresented communities. Last month, it received its Pennsylvania private school license, which will allow it to issue certificates in fields such as digital marketing and documentary production that carry Warhol’s name and cachet.

“If you think of museums as simply a place to hang art, then it can quickly become, essentially, a mausoleum,” said Law, echoing the Carnegie Museums recent charge to turn the museums “inside-out.” “If we're not thinking about sustainability and the way we're relevant to the community over the next 25, 50 years, that's what we'll become.”

For most museums, the idea that a long-gone artist can drive development of a new, modern creative economy would seem like a stretch. But for Warhol, whose forward-looking factories embraced new modes of creation, it might actually fit. Provided, of course, that the dollars, or riyals, or yen – whatever currency his legacy generates – is reinvested in the regular people as much as the fabulous ones in the city that molded his unique artistic trajectory, even if he was never all that especially fond of the place.

Publisher's Note: The print edition of this article mistakenly referred to Warhol director Patrick Moore as "Andrew" Moore. The Independent regrets the error.