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Guggenheim Museum Terminates Negotiations with Gulf Labor Coalition(GLC) over Labor Rights in the UAE

April 19, 2016

Dear Colleague,

In 2007, the Guggenheim Foundation and the leadership of the United Arab Emirates embarked on the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Museum project, designed to serve as a catalyst for cultural exchange and to expand narratives of art history. Eight years later, our mutual commitment remains strong.

While construction of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Museum has not yet begun, our work to deliver on its potential continues. A team of curators based in New York and in Abu Dhabi has been actively developing a curatorial strategy for the future museum and has convened several forums with leading academics and critics to chart the project’s curatorial and intellectual parameters.

To date, the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Museum project has acquired more than 250 artworks; 70% by non-Euro American artists, with a concentration on art from West Asia. In 2014, an inaugural exhibition, Seeing Through Light: Selections from the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Collection, welcomed more than 90,000 visitors in Abu Dhabi and was extended due to popular demand. At the same time, museum educators in New York and in Abu Dhabi continue to build on four years’ worth of public programs and workshops aimed at engaging with the vital and diverse populations of the UAE and the region.

Despite these tangible efforts and successes, the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi continues to be maligned by some critics as a symbol of aggressive commercial expansion and as a perpetrator of grave abuses against foreign migrant workers. We would like to set the record straight.

There are currently no workers on the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and there is no construction on the site because a contractor has yet to be selected. Since the inception of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi project, the Guggenheim and the Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC) have held ongoing discussions about TDIC’s plans to safeguard conditions for workers who will build the future museum and to define measures for continuous enhancement of those conditions. As the museum developer, TDIC is fully responsible for construction and selection of contractors, and has committed to selecting a general contractor of international standing and high integrity.

In 2010, TDIC developed its Employment Practices Policy (EPP), which outlines workers’ welfare requirements on its projects including the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. The EPP, which was endorsed by the Guggenheim and to which we contributed recommendations for its revision in 2015, has been noted by Human Rights Watch as providing “more labor protections than anywhere else in the Gulf.”

Annual public, independent monitoring reports by PricewaterhouseCoopers continue to show improvements among those who are working under the EPP on current TDIC projects on Saadiyat Island. At the same time, the government of Abu Dhabi has taken additional measures to strengthen protections for workers at the national level, including decrees enacted in January of this year that standardize contract terms and increase flexibility for workers to move between employers.

For six years, we have engaged in open dialogue with critics and others concerned about the topic of worker welfare. Despite this progress and our demonstrated and ongoing commitment to this issue, some of our critics have dismissed efforts by TDIC and the Guggenheim as meaningless while simultaneously taking credit for the changes that have been made. The Gulf Labor Coalition, in particular, has pursued a campaign of direct action against the Guggenheim since 2010 in the media and in our museums in New York and Venice. We believe this treatment is unfair, convenient for publicity purposes, and distracts from sincere efforts to address an issue to which TDIC and the Guggenheim have dedicated significant energy and resources with measureable progress.

Since 2010, we have engaged with Gulf Labor to seek common ground on the issue of worker welfare, participating in numerous phone calls and in-person meetings by members of the Guggenheim Foundation’s Board of Trustees and senior leadership. After our most recent meeting, held in February 2016, we reached the conclusion that these direct discussions are no longer productive. Gulf Labor continues to shift its demands on the Guggenheim beyond the reach of our influence as an arts institution while continuing to spread mistruths about the project and our role in it.

Despite this change in our posture toward Gulf Labor, our commitment to workers’ welfare on the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi project remains as strong as ever and we continue our dialogue with other NGOs including Human Rights Watch and the International Labour Organization. We also continue to pursue progress with our partners in the UAE and have offered to update Gulf Labor on major project developments.

The Guggenheim is and always will be a champion for art and for artists. We respect activism and recognize its value. We welcome dialogue and accept criticism. But we cannot stand silent in the face of deliberate falsehoods.

As global arts institutions in a rapidly changing world, we all face challenges that will require our best thinking and our mutual support. In that spirit, I welcome your questions and thank you for your continued collegiality.

Yours truly,

Richard Armstrong
Director, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation

Gulf Labor Coalition responded to Armstrong’s letter

On April 13, 2016, Guggenheim Board of Trustees unilaterally severed negotiations with the Gulf Labor Coalition (GLC). In a conference call, the Guggenheim informed GLC that they will no longer meet with us, nor listen to our proposals about the living and working conditions of the workers who are and will be building museums in Abu Dhabi.

On April 17, 2016, Richard Armstrong, Director of the Guggenheim Museum, sent an email to artists, art critics, curators, and museum directors all over the world describing GLC as a group that “continues to shift its demands,” is “continuing to spread mistruths,” and uses “deliberate falsehoods.”3 He insisted that no work had begun on the Abu Dhabi site, a recurring claim that GLC has already challenged.5

GLC has a long history of thinking creatively about how to advance dialogue with the Guggenheim and Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC: Abu Dhabi), about demands that are foundational to building a global museum on Saadiyat. The core demands (Living Wages, Recruitment Debts, Worker Representation) were formulated since the announcement of the artist boycott of Guggenheim Abu Dhabi in 2011, and were included in multiple letters to the Guggenheim.

GLC has published research reports, analyzed each Pricewaterhouse Cooper (PwC) monitoring report, invited NGOs and labor organizations (e.g., ILO, HRW, ITUC) to join discussions, and initiated multiple meetings with Guggenheim. In response to all this work by GLC, statements by the museum made it clear that the Guggenheim is not serious about dialogue with artist groups towards fair labor standards.

The GLC negotiation team regrets that Guggenheim has broken off negotiations in a hostile manner. Despite our show of good faith by maintaining a moratorium on protests for a year, and despite Guggenheim’s own public statements about constructive dialogue, the museum has rescinded and closed the path to working with rights organizations, ready to help create workable frameworks for guaranteeing workers’ rights.

GLC & NGO Coalition’s Meeting with Guggenheim (Feb 2016)
GLC spent the first half of 2015 requesting a meeting with the Trustees, to no avail. Only after a May Day occupation of the Guggenheim New York, and the Peggy Guggenheim in Venice, did they finally agree to meet with GLC. We had meetings with Guggenheim on June 3 (attendees included, for the first time after many requests, Guggenheim Board Chairman William Mack and President Jennifer Blei Stockman) and September 15, 2015 (attendees included Board member Stephen Robert). We then requested a “summit” level meeting between GLC, Guggenheim, and several organizations with global expertise capable of helping Guggenheim meet international labor and rights standards. We were told the earliest a meeting could happen was six months later in February 2016. As a gesture of good faith, GLC continued a moratorium on public actions (since May 2015) while negotiations were ongoing.

GLC assembled an NGO coalition for the February meeting. These organizations brought expertise in labor, migration, human rights, and construction in the Gulf. Their members were: Fiona Murie (Building and Woodworkers’ International), Jill Wells (Engineers Against Poverty), Sarah Leah Whitson (Human Rights Watch), Jeffrey Vogt (International Trade Union Confederation), Shilkha Silliman Bhattacharjee (Society for Labor and Development). The Guggenheim team was led by Richard Armstrong and Trustee John Calicchio. A significant aspect of the meeting was the NGO coalition’s view that what was transpiring in the Gulf would fall under the umbrella of “Human Trafficking” or “Forced Labor.”

At the end of what appeared to us as a productive three-hour meeting, we sent a letter to the Board with two concrete proposals:
1) To initiate, as of April 1, 2016, a meeting every two weeks between GLC, our NGO partners, and representatives from the Guggenheim Museum, the Board of Trustees, and TDIC.
2) At these meetings, propose revisions to TDIC’s EPP in 5 areas: i) Living Wages; ii) Recruitment Debt; iii) Worker Representation; iv) Accountability for Sub-Contracting Tiers; v) Enforcement of existing and future provisions; and vi) Robust Monitoring.

Guggenheim Breaks Off Negotiations (Apr 2016)
On April 13th we were told that the museum leaders feel that the museum has always conducted themselves in “a spirit of goodwill,” in contrast to GLC’s “antagonistic” conduct with “demands [that] are simply escalating.” The museum staff then told us that our proposals lie “outside of their reach,” as they are “matters of state.” Even though we left the February meeting feeling optimistic, we were now informed that “the tenor of the last meeting was not productive,” nor is the “general pattern of your behavior.” This is in spite of the fact that the core demands (Living Wages, Recruitment Debts, Worker Representation) were consistently included in multiple letters to the Guggenheim since 2011.

The upshot, in Guggenheim’s view, is that meetings have begun “to generate unrealistic expectations.” Consequently, the Guggenheim did not wish to have any more in-person meetings with GLC and the rights organizations. This was followed by Richard Armstrong’s email sent to curators, critics, and artists on April 17, which called us a group that uses “deliberate falsehoods.” Armstrong’s latest email matches accusations he also made against GLC in August 2015, when he sent an email to GLC describing us as people who “distort the facts and peddle mistruths” and use “deliberate falsehoods.”

GLC’s Track Record
GLC and allied groups G.U.L.F., Taxi Worker’s Alliance, S.a.L.E. Docks, Fair Labor Coalition, WBYA, and others carried out protests since 2011 that were reported by the global press. What is less widely reported are the research, fact-finding trips, and meetings by GLC to find solutions. Our members have carried out several fact-finding missions to the Saadiyat labor camps. In addition, we prepared analysis of PwC reports on labor conditions on Saadiyat, and made these reports public. No corresponding public analysis of PwC reports was forthcoming from Guggenheim or TDIC.

GLC initiated an average of two annual meetings with Guggenheim since 2011. These were attended by various Guggenheim staff, including Richard Armstrong, Sarah Austrian, Hanan Worrell, Reem Fadda, Suzanne Cotter, and Nancy Spector. Some meetings were also attended by TDIC members Bassem Terkawi and Rita Aoun Abdo. Unfortunately, the departure of multiple staff (Cotter, Spector, Terkawi) disrupted consistent dialogue.

In 2011, we introduced the Guggenheim to the Institute for Human Rights in Business (IHRB) and suggested they take IHRB’s consultative advice. In 2014, GLC urged Guggenheim to invite International Labor Organization (ILO) to join Guggenheim and TDIC for negotiations. In 2015, we introduced working models of fair labor practices in the UAE that Guggenheim could build upon (the carpenters’ union project). ITUC and Human Rights Watch invited Guggenheim to discuss measures for protecting labor rights. Guggenheim did not respond positively to any of these invitations.

Guggenheim’s Track Record
The Guggenheim seems to be pursuing a self-destructive path, putting institutional hubris and PR needs2 before migrant labor rights. Guggenheim appears to have agreed to meetings with GLC to stave off negative press following UAE travel bans on three GLC members1, and the May occupations of the Guggenheim in NY and Peggy Guggenheim in Venice. Now that the press has moved on, Guggenheim has broken off communication with GLC. This is institutional power that treats the labor force building museums, and the artists involved in museums, as disposable and replaceable.

Many of our signatories have long-standing working relationships with the Guggenheim. We are saddened to see a once prominent New York institution damage their global reputation, and goodwill among artists, by refusing to take legal and ethical responsibilities for a building that carries its name. The Guggenheim is following the same path NYU took in silencing critics, until a New York Times story on worker abuse forced the university to begin the process of paying reparations to workers.

Faced with a concrete and optimistic path forward, the Guggenheim chooses to focus on distracting issues like our “antagonistic” tone, avoiding the more relevant facts on the ground: the bodies, lives, and dreams of thousands of workers who are accumulating massive recruitment debts, being cheated on wages, exploited by corrupt contractors and subcontractors, denied any meaningful collective representation, and forced to live out of sight and under watch.

On behalf of the Gulf Labor Coalition (organizing committee):
Amin Husain, Andrew Ross, Ashok Sukumaran, Ayreen Anastas, Doris Bittar, Doug Ashford, Eric Baudelaire, Gregory Sholette, Guy Mannes-Abbott, Haig Aivazian, Hans Haacke, Joseph Rauch, Kristina Bogos, Mariam Ghani, Michael Rakowitz, Naeem Mohaiemen, Natascha Sadr Haghighian, Nitasha Dhillon, Noah Fischer, Paula Chakravartty, Rene Gabri, Sam Durant, Shaina Anand, Tania Bruguera, Walid Raad.

See the Gulf Labor Coalition timeline of events via downloadable PDF here: Gulf_Labor_Timeline_Apr-18.pdf

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