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Protesters Rain Down Thousands of Bills in Guggenheim Rotunda

Dollar bill leaflets rain down Guggenheim rotunda at 6:45 pm (all photographs by the author for Hyperallergic)
Dollar bill leaflets rain down Guggenheim rotunda at 6:45 pm (all photographs by the author for Hyperallergic)

At 6:45 pm ET yesterday evening, a handheld bell sounded in the rotunda of the Guggenheim Museum in New York, signaling the second protest action in as many months from the Global Ultra Luxury Faction, or G.U.L.F. The ringing was followed by the release of 9,000 “1%” bills of parodic currency which fluttered downward as patrons rushed to the inner edge of Frank Lloyd Wright’s spiral ramp. But unlike G.U.L.F.’s intervention at the museum late last month, there were no shouted demands or Occupy-style mic checks — the only sound that could be heard after the bills were released was the collective gasp of the hundreds of patrons who packed the museum, where lines for entry wrapped around the block (Saturdays are a free night). Posters and bills were also placed in the museum’s bathrooms and later posted in a number of the city’s subway stations and trains.

A view of some of the bills dropped during the protest action. (click to enlarge)
A view of some of the bills dropped during the protest action. (click to enlarge)

What’s more, the action also coincided with G.U.L.F.’s inauguration of their “sustainable design” competition, announced Friday on a spoof website, and followed New York Times op-ed published by the group’s Andrew Ross, a professor at New York University (NYU). (Though Ross was not at the Guggenheim, his 12-year-old daughter Zola rang the bell, while her younger sister Stella helped throw the bills.)

The event marks a transition away from G.U.L.F.’s previous Occupy-influenced style and an embrace of a more aesthetically-oriented strategy of protest. The group, a relatively new offshoot of the Gulf Labor coalition, has distinguished itself by injecting a dose of activist spectacle to the longstanding labor rights campaign. The action, explained Nitasha Dhillon of G.U.L.F., was inspired by Abbie Hoffman’s 1967 intervention at the New York Stock Exchange, where he orchestrated the dumping of dollar bills in the middle of the trading floor.

The dollar bills, designed by Noah Fischer, were printed at NYU on six different colors of paper and were produced and deployed collaboratively by the 20 or so people involved in this action. Artist and activist Amin Husain told Hyperallergic that the group intentionally skewed the run to red paper to achieve the maximum amount of contrast with the Guggenheim’s white interior. The bills themselves play on the traditional language of fiat currencies (“By the authority of shit is fucked up & bullshit,” “No sustainable cultural value”) while asking the pointed question: “What does an ethical global museum look like?”

Though none of the participants were arrested or detained by museum security, the Guggenheim’s staff responded to the incident in several ways. Photography was immediately banned in the rotunda — I overheard a guard characterize this to one confused patron as a lifting of a temporary condition of permission rather than a ban — and guards shut down the main floor. Ticketholders continued to be admitted until around 7:15 pm, when the museum shut down and all patrons were asked to leave. Gothamist’s Christopher Robbins told me that he had been escorted out of the museum by police officers at the behest of Guggenheim security, who apparently objected to his interviewing patrons regarding the incident.

We have reached out to the Guggenheim for comment on the protest action.

Update, 1:38 pm ET: The Guggenheim has provided Hyperallergic with the following statement. It is worth noting that the organization again denies that the Abu Dhabi structure is under construction, a claim addressed by Andrew Ross in his New York Times op-ed. (He wrote: “[T]he extensive foundation pilings and much of the surrounding infrastructure have already been laid.”)

Guggenheim Foundation Statement – March 30, 2014

The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation has been and is currently engaged in ongoing, serious discussions with our most senior colleagues in Abu Dhabi and TDIC, the authority responsible for building the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi museum, regarding workers’ rights. Our chairman of the board of trustees and director have just recently returned from meetings in Abu Dhabi where this issue was a top priority for discussion.

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 currently under construction, despite erroneous claims by certain protesters.  The building foundations and pilings were completed in 2011.

While in Abu Dhabi in mid-March 2014, our director revisited the workers village to ensure that living conditions for workers who will work on the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi will set new and respected standards for workers engaged in building other projects on Saadiyat Island.

The museum's first floor was cleared by security shortly after the action was completed
The museum’s first floor was cleared by security shortly after the action was completed
Interior view of pamphlet distributed to patrons
Interior view of pamphlet distributed to patrons
Poster placed in museum bathrooms
Poster placed in museum bathrooms
Cleaning staffers collect bills on main floor
Cleaning staffers collect bills on main floor
Bills float in main floor water feature
Bills float in main floor water feature
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Patrons read bills

Video courtesy Becca Rothfeld

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