What was up with the protest at the Guggenheim on Saturday?

An intervention protesting unfair labor conditions at the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi’s construction site erupted at the NYC museum on Saturday

View of G.U.L.F.’s protest at the Guggenheim on February 22, 2014, from the atrium

View of G.U.L.F.’s protest at the Guggenheim on February 22, 2014, from the atrium Photograph courtesy G.U.L.F.

On Saturday evening during the Guggenheim’s pay-what-you-wish hours, a group of some 40 demonstrators instigated a protest in the middle of the museum's rotunda, right in the newly opened historical survey of Italian Futurism. Their intervention, as they called it, was straight out of the Futurist playbook, with bugle blasts, banners unfurled over the rotunda’s ramparts and leaflets showered on the museumgoers below. And their demand? Better working conditions for the laborers building the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, the museum’s Frank Gehry–designed annex on Saadiyat Island in the United Arab Emirates.

The UAE is notorious for condoning near-slave-labor conditions on major building projects such as the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, currently the world’s tallest skyscraper. The way it goes is like this: Guest workers are brought in from places like Bangladesh and other parts of Asia. Their passports are seized by authorities and held for the duration of their stay, so that they can’t leave the country on their own. They are put to work in 130-degree heat, and isolated in squalid tent encampments in the desert, with their freedom of movement restricted, basically, to being bused to and from the construction site. Many of them don’t get paid, and if they protest, they are unceremoniously deported.

The group on Saturday night, a coalition of artists, academics and activists—which calls itself G.U.L.F., a.k.a. Gulf Ultra Luxury Faction—says its aim is to keep pressure on the Gugg to ensure fair working conditions on the Saadiyat Island project, which will also include branches of the Louvre and NYU, as well as five-star hotels. Although Guggenheim officials have assured the public that it is doing just that, The Guardian reported in December that the Emirates’ Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC), which oversees work on Saadiyat, has failed to enforce its own employment policies.

This episode is another instance of what may be a growing problem in the cultural sphere: Museums, under pressure to constantly expand in order to attract more money, engage in activities unbecoming to nonprofit institutions dedicated to the care and cultivation of art—and to the Enlightenment values that should dictate their actions. MoMA’s decision to tear down the American Folk Art Museum is a recent case, though the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi is a potentially more egregious example. While it’s true that the Guggenheim is not directly overseeing construction, and that there is only so much it can do to mitigate abuses in an illiberal country where agencies are weak and subject to corruption, its name will appear on the building once it is finished, and parts of its collection will be housed therein. For that reason, it cannot escape ultimately responsibility for what goes on under its aegis. If the Gugg won’t accept that responsibility, it deserves all of the negative attention it gets.

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Editor: Marley Lynch (@marleyasinbob)


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