News

Protest Action Erupts Inside Guggenheim Museum

by Hrag Vartanian on February 23, 2014

A view of the intervention from the floor of the atrium. (image provided by G.U.L.F. aka Gulf Ultra Luxury Faction)

A view of the intervention from the floor of the atrium. (image provided by G.U.L.F. aka Gulf 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 Italian 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)

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 EST 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 group of artists, professors, students, and activists loosely affiliated with Occupy Museums, Gulf Labor, and various NYU-related groups, timed their protest to take place during the pay-what-you-wish 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 Italian Futurism exhibition and the Carrie Mae Weems retrospective, they told me that they did not, but that 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.

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The front cover of an informational brochure distributed during the February 22nd intervention. It was designed by Noah Fischer of Occupy Museums.

“This is a new phase 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, are not exploitative to 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 been 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.

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 imagining 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 action 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.

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 the video 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.

Museum visitors reading the manifesto tacked to the wall beside the introductory text to the Italian 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 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.

Hyperallergic reached out to the Guggenheim Museum for comment last night, and we have yet to hear back from the organization. [UPDATE: The Guggenheim Director Richard Armstrong has provided Hyperallergic with a statement.]

The coalition's manifesto that was placed on the wall of the museum and read by visitors.

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 last night (according to a text provided to Hyperallergic during the intervention):

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  • Gregory Sholette

    Images taken from 1971 Demonstration/performance by the Art Workers Coalition at the Guggenheim Museum in support of Art Workers’ Coalition co-founder Hans Haacke, whose exhibition was canceled by the museum’s director over his artwork Shapolsky et al., Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, A Real Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971. Photographer unknown.

    • Suzanne Elizabeth Howard

      Thanks for posting these Gregory.. I hope you don’t mind – have reposted them in comments in a share of this article as many friends in Australia would be interested in the historical links between art actions.

  • Paul Werner

    YESSSSS!

    Paul Werner
    Former Gug employee; author, Museum, Inc. Inside the Global Art World
    http://www.theorangepress.com/publications/museuminc.html

  • elgati

    Well done!

    I advise the organizers that the next time they do it they should coordinate with educators who can gather people around them in smaller groups and interpret what is going on. Very much in the model of museum education. It will leave a better lasting impression on the visitors and provide for better sound quality than the usual chanting of slogans.

    Just my two cents…

  • Richard Haden

    It seems to me that a Globalized Art World an its agents are pretty much interchangeable with Globalized capital and its agents–in that the concentration of wealth whether it be capital or cultural capital must feed off the exploitation of human labor as well by the exploitation of the environment–both of which create scarcity and accelerate environmental and social degradation.

    http://www.artlurker.com/2014/02/the-wood-eternal-environment-architecture-and-the-perez-art-museum-miami/

    • Cat Weaver

      I wonder, though, if the museum, or any museum should be lumped in with “agents”– I know that’s going to sound naive at first blush, btw: but Armstrong did state (hilariously, I might add) that Gugg Abu Dhabi is *not yet under construction* and that they are working to address the labor issue; I think that’s a statement well worth examining. We WANT museums to have global outreach and to interact with other cultures. I HOPE that can be something which is possible in Abu Dhabi.

      Did G.U.L.F. contact the Gugg and communicate with them? And will Armstrong answer questions? Those are the questions I ask myself. I hope those are the questions that the press will ask in general.

      • http://hragv.com/ Hrag Vartanian

        Cat, Armstrong’s statement contradicts his statement to the Art Newspaper in 2011 that “construction of the museum has started.” http://www.theartnewspaper.com/articles/Guggenheim-Abu-Dhabi-on-hold/24880
        And G.U.L.F. has been in communication with the Gugg for a while. Perhaps you’ve missed our passed reports on the stories.

        • Cat Weaver

          Indeed, this is the first story I’ve read about this. You should note the contradiction in the story! ;)

          • http://hragv.com/ Hrag Vartanian

            The protesters told us they will be releasing a statement. We assume they’ll address it, but if they don’t we will.

          • Cat Weaver

            Took a look at the link you sent and then did some deep reading! I was indeed being naive.

            I think what we have here is a big time conflict of interest: the Gulf emirate of Abu Dhabi wants a tourist attraction at Saadiyat Island and those workers are, essentially slave labor for building it. Meantime, major cultural institutions want in, in the name of culture (?). Concerned as NYU or the Guggenheim may be, they’re communications with leadership in the UAE have failed to halt abuses and the construction goes on. Now the new Gugg is scheduled for 2017.

          • CH1EF_QUEEF

            Abu Dhabi ITSELF was built by foreign slave labor. They’ve “failed to halt the abuses” because the abuses are an inextricable part of UAE’s economic development model. This is common knowledge and any Western investors who pretend they were unaware of how this museum was being built are guilty of rank hypocrisy.

          • Paul Werner

            About Armstrong’s statement: it’s an open secret that the Sheikhs are diddling the Guggenheim and diddling the French Government over the supposed construction of the Louvre: this project isn’t about building something, it’s about raking off profits from the process.

            I imagine Greg and Andrew are doing the Guggenheim a favor; I know the French are trying to find a way out of the Louvre Abu Dhabi project before it blows up in their face. Ever heard of L’Affaire Karachi?

            Best,

            Paul Werner
            ex-Guggenheim employee, author, Museum, Inc., Inside the Global Art World.

      • Richard Haden

        Cat,
        First, I like your phrase: “at first blush”.

        Secondly, I think today, an “agent” is a title given to someone whose job it is, to create monetary profit… and this title is not any different than a museum director whose job it is to sell admission.

        As for a museum program to be oriented towards Global Outreach? Well…I am not sure if I am aligned with that being the purpose of a museum. Outreach might be better served as a local community thing, rather Globalization.

  • jmco

    They blew it. Like most artist, they never even bothered to ASK the museum if they would allow a protest in the spirit of the Futurists. Yes, one critical of the museum. Versus sneaking in under cover and whipping out a horn to blow and shiny mylar protest placards.
    At best, the museums would have agreed and it would have been a KNOWN event with much more coverage in the press. At worst, they would have said no and they still could have done what they did.
    Museums are lead, trustee’d by, and often funded now by the generation that did a lot of protesting in the 60s and 70s (or were sympathetic to it). Chances are, they would have said OK and maybe even enacted some change *regardless* of the protest happening or not. In any scenario of simply *asking*, both sides would have learned a lot more.
    Now, all the protesters have done is embarrass the museum, nobody learned anything, and heals might be dug in even deeper on both sides.
    Lesson: just ask!

    • disqus_xO5aL84kau

      pfft! you are missing the whole point of an intervention! tell them so they can tighten up security??? your view point on this matter is extremely naive. I am in berlin and I heard about this so I would say they did a pretty good job and accomplished what they set out to do.

      • BWB

        I would have to agree that it was successful and it was not meant to be a kumbaya with the museum. I still have some philosophical questions as to how groups of intellectuals band together and “symbolically” make a difference. Not sure if it made any impact at all on the workers….Perhaps they will report back on this?

        • punktoad

          Its about changing the conversation.

    • BWB

      ummm……I respect and empathize with the intervention but I can’t get all worked up over a high end school like NYU taking up a cause so far away….why not start in your own backyard? That is, how many homeless people did you pass on your way to the museum? There are numerous “local” social causes that may not be so “sexy” but nonetheless could use a revival of energy and intervention….just sayin’….no one asked anyone to become an artist (or an art student)….BWB

      • Patrick Song

        NYU is building a campus in Abu Dhabi which is why there were NYU-affiliated groups involved in the protest. In a sense the issue really is taking place in the university’s backyard.

        • BWB

          Makes sense; thanks for the clarification. I am still confused about how that all ties in with high tuition for students versus a worker making $112 per month; but as an earlier post replied “its about changing the conversation”. And, certainly, as a child of the sixties, I understand the purpose of protest. Good work.

      • http://www.thebambamblog.com/ Tiernan BamBam

        If we all just debated which causes we ought to devote our time to, we would achieve very little. We live in a global economy where the connections between people and commerce are largely invisible. Effects are felt on a local and global scale. These activists are spot lighting one such link and should be applauded for their efforts. Everyone can devote a little of their time to a cause they believe in. You, me, the Guggenheim activists. They’ve highlighted a cause where the results of decisions in NYC are adversely effecting the lives of people in the UAE. Both local and global causes are important – Is there no such thing as a common humanity?

        A side note – the AWC (pictured in this thread by Gregory Sholette) successfully campaigned for NYC museum’s to have one free day per week. So the fact that these museum visitors were present on “pay-what-you-wish day”, and witnessed these protestors, is a direct result of the AWC’s legacy.

    • elgati

      I’m trying to remember the last time a museum agreed to featuring an uncurated polemical protest and critique of themselves by unknown people. I think it was back in nineteen ninety-NEVER?

      And I agree. They totally blew it by getting their message spread in newspapers and places like that. Totally.

    • Jarryh • S

      Museums are lead by money, which doesn’t deal with any kind of protestors. Asking a permission is to show your hand in a poker game before you raise. Sympathetic voices inside museums (some “leaders”, trustees, funders) will be muzzled by the true leaders – the Global Money League. GML is a hideous multi-headed beast of which we have an artistic rendering:

    • jmco

      Update: from what I have read subsequently, basically, I was right. http://goo.gl/7JUKOa
      Just ask, first. Try to form a partnership. Learn from each other. The world is not black and white, liberal protesters, of all people, should know this.
      Then, if after some time, nothing is done, protest peacefully.

  • John Buonocore

    https://vimeo.com/87375470

    here is another video of the protest…

  • Ryan Shank

    I was visiting NYC Saturday and wanted to see the museum. Was in line right when it happened and they closed the building

  • Cat Weaver

    A good link to Human Rights Watch for anyone who wishes to delve deeper: http://www.hrw.org/features/saadiyat-island-happiness-revisited

  • Shilpa Suchak

    thanks for posting this..have shared it. it brings me hope

  • http://Catton.co/ Donald Catton

    O bother, more 1960 s agit prop which reflects nothing more than the self importance of the individuals involved.If you want politics do politics ,if you want art do art.

    • Cat Weaver

      Seriously? Do you imagine that art and politics are separate? All of life is political. Being human is political.

      Look, I understand impatience with pickets and sign carriers and drum beaters: I really really do. But, in this case, there’s a real issue and it’s a sad one.

      Just please do, take a look at the Human Rights Watch link.
      It looks really bad, Donald.

      This, from someone who really does hate the tents ‘n drum circles thing.

  • http://Catton.co/ Donald Catton

    Yes Cat,politics is all around us however, nothing is more repellant than the political morality of the moment to the individual spirit . As an artist if one continually surrenders to fashional inthusiasms one will be completely lost. What is a museum to you. You need to be fixed on what is precious to you your deepest needs.There you will find true morality if of course you find anything at all. Nothing is harder than genuine artistic expression. You must grip yourself as if your very life depends on it because, of course, it may.

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