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G.U.L.F. v.s. Guggenheim (NYC)

February 27, 2014

UPDATE on the February 22 protest action carried out by members of G.U.L.F., Occupy Museums and concerned artists, students, professors a the Guggenheim Museum, decrying the labor conditions on Saadiyat Island in the United Arab Emirates, where Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, a franchise of the Guggenheim in New York has been under construction. For more background information read here. 

Asked by Hyperallergic writer Hrag Vartanian whether the museum or its infrastructure was under construction on Saadiyat Island, The Guggenheim responded:

The posting is incorrect. The museum is not currently under construction. There are no workers on the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi site. It is also important to put the museum building project and our relationships in Abu Dhabi into context. We have had a collaborative relationship with TDIC (the authority responsible for building the museum) including working with them to improve the EPP (which governs workers rights), many of us have visited the construction village regularly and seen the living conditions that will be available to workers building the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, and, along with our colleagues at TDIC, we continue to invest in this relationship to encourage progress on labor issues in advance of any construction taking place.

 

The Abu Dhabi Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC) had this to say in response to clarifications asked by Vartanian:

Kindly note that currently there is no construction taking place for the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi  – and therefore, no workers are on site. As the Saadiyat website correctly states, the only work that took place was in 2011 during two separate phases: the concrete pour for museum’s ‘back of house’ areas, as well as the platform from which the main museum and gallery structures will be built from; and the placement of 1,400 piles. We plan to announce the museum’s main contractor appointment this year, and with that construction is set to begin according to schedule for the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi’s opening in 2017.

Members of G.U.L.F. issued this statement reacting to the above declarations:

Each time the Guggenheim speaks, its approach to migrant labour issues on Saadiyat Island sounds more like that of a global corporation than that of an educational or art institution. We would like to remind the Guggenheim that it’s a museum, with a mission to “explore ideas across cultures through dynamic curatorial and educational initiatives.” Museums should help the public come to a greater understanding of the global complexities we all face.

Each day the Guggenheim hides behind the excuse that “construction has not yet started on our building” is another day of evading decisions and actions which could prevent a future migrant worker’s servitude. Right now, the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi’s infrastructure is being constructed. That infrastructure includes roads, sewage, water, electric, net pipes, etc., leading to the museum. But other components of the work are also under way. We can only assume that money has been transferred to the Guggenheim here in New York in order to hire the curators and administrators of Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. We know that events off-site have already been organized. Works of art have certainly been bought, insured, and stored. Last but not least, Saadiyat Island is being sold to investors on the basis of the Guggenheim’s name, along with those of the Louvre, the British Museum and others. How can the Guggenheim claim that construction has not begun?

Even if we were to take at face value the claim that construction of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi has not begun, we would say the following: NOW thousands of workers who will build your museum are taking on the massive debt that will take them years to repay; NOW workers are being recruited with promises that will not be fulfilled, for jobs that will pay less than they expected; NOW workers are applying for the passports that may be confiscated as soon as they land in the UAE; and, surely, NOW is the time to do something about all of this.

It is unfortunate but not surprising that the Guggenheim refuses to open its doors to a serious public dialogue about the migrant labor issues in Abu Dhabi. A museum of its stature must foster public education about the conditions under which art is viewed. The Guggenheim is stepping back from this social responsibility as it focuses on expanding into new global markets.

As for the underpaid Guggenheim guards’ wages in New York, passing off culpability to a subcontractor is no longer an acceptable practice, even in the corporate world. The Guggenheim should pay all employees at least a living wage, even if they are on a contractor’s payroll.

Sadly, the Guggenheim’s latest response confirms our expectation. It has tried to hide behind technicalities and PR spin as it waits for news cycles to die down. We know the composition of their board and it does not surprise us. A 1% Global Museum with a 1% Board that cares very little about its lowest-paid employees and the example it is setting to the world.

We will be back.

G.U.L.F.
(Global Ultra Luxury Faction)

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