Museums USA

Protest at Guggenheim over labour conditions on Saadiyat Island

A group of activists took to the museum this weekend to raise awareness about working conditions in Abu Dhabi, before its new branch has broken ground

Protesters fanned out around the Guggenheim’s Frank Lloyd Wright rotunda, sounded a bugle, unfurled signs, passed out flyers and began chanting phrases including, “Who is building the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi?” and “Art should not violate human rights”

A group of activists descended on the Guggenheim Museum in New York on 22 February to protest the museum’s planned branch on Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi. On a crowded Saturday evening during the museum’s pay-what-you-wish hours, protesters fanned out around the Guggenheim’s Frank Lloyd Wright rotunda, sounded a bugle, unfurled signs, passed out flyers and began chanting phrases including, “Who is building the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi?” and “Art should not violate human rights”.

The protest, which coincided with the opening weekend of the exhibition “Italian Futurism, 1909-1944: Reconstructing the Universe”, lasted for about 20 minutes. The group had planned to hold an assembly in the lobby where visitors could ask questions about the Guggenheim project, but it was cut short when police arrived and told participants that they would be arrested if they did not leave the museum, according to Andrew Ross, a New York University (NYU) professor who helped organise the event. Some protestors told the guards that their actions were part of a museum-sanctioned performance in conjunction with the Futurism exhibition. After the protest, the guards closed the museum to new visitors for the rest of the evening.

The action was the first in a planned series to raise awareness about working conditions on Saadiyat Island. Three advocacy groups are participating: the Occupy Wall Street-affiliated Occupy Museums, the museum-focused collective Gulf Labor and a group of activists from NYU, which is building a satellite campus in Abu Dhabi. The next event will take place on Wednesday at NYU, where a representative from the non-profit Human Rights Watch will present findings from a recent visit to Saadiyat Island.

Until now, most of the advocacy surrounding the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi has been relatively understated. “We’ve been holding off on forms of direct action for a while now to see how the conversations and diplomacy would proceed,” Ross says. The decision to transition from letter-writing and discussion to live protest was inspired in part by recent reports in the Guardian that detailed migrant workers’ continued abuse, squalid living conditions and low wages, Ross said.

A representative from the Guggenheim did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the protest, however in a statement to other media, the museum’s director Richard Armstrong said, “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.”

Ross said that the Guggenheim was complicit in the human rights violations on Saadiyat Island despite the fact that the museum has yet to formally break ground on its new facility. “The Guggenheim may be the last of these big brand buildings to be constructed but all the infrastructure is there,” Ross said. “To our mind, it is just a way of passing on the buck.”

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