Protest night at the museum: The Guggenheim is disrupted by demonstrators throwing fake money in the rotunda

For the third time since last month, protestors hit the institution over its intentions to build a branch in Abu Dhabi

Photograph: courtesy Gulf Labor

Were you planning to head to the Guggenheim on Saturday to enjoy its pay-what-you-wish hours, but didn’t quite make it? You were probably better off by not going.
For the second time since last month (and in its third demonstration against the museum), members of the Global Ultra Luxury Faction (GULF)—an offshoot of the group Gulf Labor—commandeered the Guggenheim rotunda, putting an early end to the museum’s free night, as cops rushed to the building and the Gugg locked its doors to visitors wanting to get in.
As before, the protest was directed at unfair labor practices associated with institution’s plans to build a Frank Gehry–designed branch on Saadiyat Island near Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. Once again, the rotunda was showered with stuff tossed from the ramps—this time in the form of fake dollars bills marked with phrases such as What Does an Ethical Global Museum Look Like? and Shit Is Fucked Up & Bullshit.
The bullshit in question is laid out in a New York Times op-ed by Gulf Labor spokesman and NYU professor Andrew Ross; his piece goes into the the controversy surrounding the project for Saadiyat Island, which will include not only the Guggenheim branch, but also satellites for the Louvre and for NYU itself, as well as a new local institution partnering with the British Museum.
As Ross notes, these showcases of high culture aren’t being constructed as a public good; rather they are amenities for future residents of an ultra-luxury real-estate development on the island. As extravagantly indulgent as the idea sounds, the main reason it seems like a throwback to the Pharaohs or to ancient Rome is the slavelike treatment accorded to the foreign laborers who are doing the building.
The problem rests on a system in which migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal arrive in the UAE already heavily in debt, thanks to transit costs and fees paid to recruiters. They are housed in substandard camps, while their employers are permitted to hold onto their passports—giving them no recourse to leave on their own once they discover that they’re being paid far less than they were promised. Worse, if they make trouble, they can be summarily deported with no payment at all for services rendered. While an oversight agency to enforce workers’ rights called the TDIC nominally exists, it is almost completely ineffectual.
In response to Saturday’s protest (and to a previous action on March 24, when GULF used a high-powered projector to throw anti-Guggenheim images and animations on the side of the building), the Gugg issued a somewhat schizophrenic statement, in which it claimed to be working with the TDIC to improve labor conditions (somewhat laughably, given the TDIC’s toothlessness), while also “clarify[ing] that the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi is not currently under construction, despite erroneous claims by protestors.” The evidently weasel-like tone of the Gugg’s statement suggests that it realizes just how much damage it’s done to its brand by getting into bed with the Emirates. Here’s hoping the museum will do the right thing by pulling the plug on the whole deal.

Video: Gothamist

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Editor: Marley Lynch (@marleyasinbob)

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