Protest Action Erupts Inside Guggenheim Museum (NYC)
A view of the intervention from the floor of the atrium. (image provided by G.U.L.F. aka Global Ultra Luxury Faction)
Last night, over 40 protesters staged an intervention inside the Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan during Saturday night’s pay-what-you-wish admission hours. Unfurling mylar banners, dropping leaflets, chanting words, handing out information to museum visitors, and drawing attention with the use of a baritone bugle, the group worked to highlight the labor conditions on Saadiyat Island in the United Arab Emirates, where Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, a franchise of New York’s Guggenheim, is being built.
Staged in the midst of the museum’s newly opened Futurism exhibition, the intervention, a term used by some members of the group to describe the action, received both applause from visitors who seemed excited by the commotion and reactions of confusion from others unsure what was going on.
Flyers raining down onto the floor of the Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan, while protesters and chant and hold banners over the railings of the museum. (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)
The intervention began at 6:45pm EDT with a bugle call and a loud question: “Who Is Building the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi?” The whole action continued for roughly 20 minutes, during which time security guards appeared to react slowly to the protesters as hundreds of museum visitors captured images and video of the protests.
The participants, who were a diverse groups of artists, professors, students, and activists loosely affiliated with Occupy Museums, Gulf Labor, and various NYU-affiliated groups, timed their protest to take place during the pay-what-you-can hours of the museum, which normally charges $22 admission for adults. When I asked organizers if they purposely chose their action to coincide with the Futurism exhibition and the Carrie Mae Weems retrospective, they told me that they did not but they were delighted for the coincidence since Futurism sought to combine art and politics, while Weems is a champion of those who have been historically excluded from museums.
“This is a new phases of the campaign, we’re moving beyond talk to action, and bringing it home obviously to the Guggenheim,” said Andrew Ross, a NYU professor of sociology, who is involved in the Gulf Labor coalition and the NYU Fair Labor coalition. “There are so many more people involved in this action that were not involved in Gulf Labor until this point. We’re widening the circle of participation and that will have an impact.”
Gulf Labor is a coalition of artists, academics, and activists, who have worked for over a year to ensure that the labor conditions on Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi, which will house Guggenheim and Louvre-branded museums and a NYU-affiliated university, do not exploit workers. Many human rights organizations say that the workers who are brought to Saadiyat Island are victimized by the nation’s sponsorship system and face grueling and inhuman conditions on a daily basis.
During our brief conversation, Ross explained how their work raising awareness about workers’ debt, which translates to a type of indentured servitude for migrant workers, is connected to much bigger issues.
“We’re trying to make a connection with chains of debt that are transnational, and in the various locations we’re looking at, Bangladesh, Abu Dhabi, NYU, and the art world, there’s an enormous accumulation of debt in each of these places, and the money is getting extracted by the transnational creditor class,” Ross said. “And artists are more and more [in debt], and in order to practice art, you’re required to take on a big debt burden … so there’s a connection across many continents. Another art world is possible, one that’s more principled and ethical, and that looks out for the human and labor rights of all. Artists should not be asked to exhibit in museums that have were built on the back of abused workers … that’s what it boils down to. When you’re acquired by a museum that does that, that’s unfair. Your complicity is being bought along with the artwork.”
A close up of some of the banners unfurled during the intervention.
The idea of using art as a way to reimagine the world was at the heart of another participant’s passion for the issue. “Art among other things is about doing, living, and imaging a better world,” said artist Nitasha Dhillon of MTL Collective. “Art should not violate human rights, art should not endanger workers lives, and art should not create debt slaves. And definitely not be part of a system that creates debt bondage.”
She sees yesterday’s actions as “a call for solidarity and a call for museums to do the right thing.” She added that “it’s important for museum goers to understand what kind of system they are participating in.”
One college student I spoke to, who originally hailed from China, said she was taking part in this, her first action, because it excited her to think about how art and social justice can work together to help change people’s lives. When I asked her how that interconnectedness changed her perception of art, she replied: “It changes art for the better for me.” She said she’d like to bring these ideas to China when she returns, though she was not clear about how.
One Polish artist who participated with the group dropped one-sided leaflets he printed and brought to the event. The ambiguous pieces of paper featured an eye, a recycling symbol, an EKG, and the words “Human Toy Tool.”
I recorded as much of the intervention as I could on my smartphone and it is posted here:
After guards removed all the remaining banners, the intervention participants slowly left the museum. One man, who was playing the bugle, was temporarily detained by the NYPD, though he was released after a few minutes without providing ID or other personal information.
Guggenheim guards, who were obviously unnerved by the event, yelled at one participant in front of the museum entrance. A few moments later, a guard came out to the street to tell hundreds of people lined up in front of the museum that no one else would be allowed into the building that evening. The crowd was visibly disappointed and many people lingered hoping the museum administration would change their mind.
Museum visitors reading the manifesto tacked to the wall beside the introductory text to the Futurism exhibition.
After the intervention, I encountered artist Amin Husain, who helped lead the chants, and I asked him if he thought it was all a success. “I think it was well-received by the people in the museum. One person told me that they didn’t know that was happening, so public education is really important,” he said. I asked him about the exhibitions themselves and whether he thought people understood what they were saying in that context, and he said he did: “I think the context is really appropriate, because they [the Futurists] talked about restructuring the universe, so clearly the museum is giving that some thought at this moment, and we want to talk about restructuring the universe without fascism and without slave labor.”
The intervention, which was the first by a new coalition that includes Occupy Museums, Gulf Labor, and various New York University-affiliated groups, came about after a month of meetings between the various organizations. The coalition, which was using the acronym G.U.L.F. (Gulf Ultra Luxury Faction) to identify themselves in their informational brochure, hope that this will be the first in a series that builds bridges in their continuing fight for social justice. The next event is scheduled for Wednesday, February 26, 5:15pm EDT, at NYU’s Global Center for Academic & Spiritual Life (GCASL), which is located at 238 Thompson Street, Room 369, in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village.
Hyperallergic reached out to the Guggenheim Museum for comment last night and we have yet to hear back from the organization.
The G.U.L.F. coalition’s manifesto that was placed on the wall of the museum and read by visitors.
These were the words participants were chanting tonight (according to a text provided to Hyperallergic during the intervention):
Members of Occupy Museums had this to comment on the protest action:
Today in the Guggenheim, the Global Ultra-Luxury Faction [G.U.L.F.] which includes Occupy Museums joined together to call for labor justice in constructing the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. The fact that a bunch of institutions including Guggenheim, the Louvre, and NYU are building on a luxury island for the global 1% is a symptom of the increasing wealth inequality and concentration of capital. Art is not a luxury asset! Art should not be build on labor abuse! More info at gulflabor.org
Video Documentation of the Action at Guggenheim Museum February 22, 2014
Statement from Director Richard Armstrong in response to the protest:
The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation is engaged in ongoing, serious
discussions with our most senior colleagues in Abu Dhabi regarding the
issues of workers’ rights. As global citizens, we share the concerns
about human rights and fair labor practices and continue to be committed
to making progress on these issues. At the same time, it is important to
clarify that the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi is not yet under construction.
Richard Armstrong, Director
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation
Statement from G.U.L.F. in response to director Richard Amstrong:
Monday, February 24th
On Saturday, the G.U.L.F (Global Ultra Luxury Faction) staged a protest at the Guggenheim Museum in support of the rights of migrant workers in Abu Dhabi.
Earlier today, the Guggenheim director, Richard Armstrong issued a statement pointing out that construction has not begun on the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. In reality, however, construction on the Saadiyat Island infrastructure has been underway for several years, and the Guggenheim is central to the island’s overall development plan, along with the Louvre and NYU. Moreover, the Guggenheim brand is being used to promote the exclusive, ultra-luxury ambience of the island’s appeal to potential investors and tourists.
An in-depth discussion on Saadiyat Island is scheduled for Wednesday, February 26, 5:15pm EST, at NYU’s Global Center for Academic & Spiritual Life (GCASL), which is located at 238 Thompson Street, Room 369, in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village.
Art is not a Luxury Asset for the Wealthiest Global Citizens.
In the course of the Saturday protest, we were outraged to learn about the inadequate pay of the museum’s security guards. As part of their efforts to keep us and the priceless art on display safe, they are paid a mere ten dollars an hour by one of the wealthiest institutions in New York and indeed globally. In New York City, this is not a living wage, by any estimates. The Guggenheim can and should be paying them more. As the wealth gap widens and the global 1% literally builds exclusive luxury islands, the fates of those left out are bound together. They include both Guggenheim’s NYC museum guards and migrant workers who are constructing the museums on Saadiyat Island.
Museums Should Not be Built on the Backs of Ill-Treated Workers.
We call on the Guggenheim Museum to open its doors to a free public assembly on these issues on Saturday March 1. We look forward to the conversation.
Museums Should Be Raising Labor Standards, Not Lowering Them.
(global ultra luxury faction)