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Activists Picket Guggenheim Gala over Labor Abuses

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A guest arrives at the Guggenheim’s International Gala as activists bang pots and pans in protest of labor conditions at the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi on the evening of November 6. (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

Amid a phalanx of black-clad attendants, security, and ushers, the Guggenheim Museum welcomed guests to its annual International Gala. But not all who landed at the November 6 event were invited: gatecrashing the black-tie fête were protestors with Gulf Ultra Luxury Front (G.U.L.F.), the activist group that the day before had dropped a 39-foot banner inside the museum denouncing ongoing workers’ rights violations connected to the museum’s Abu Dhabi outpost. Patrons and gala-goers emerging onto a rain-slicked Fifth Avenue had to contend with shouted slogans — “Exploitation is your name!” — and a clanging cacophony of pots and pans (and one booming brass instrument) as they made their way past velvet ropes into the lobby, which bore an illuminated backdrop of Christian Dior and Guggenheim logos.

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“It’s a free society,” a bemused silver-haired Guggenheim guard told inquiring guests at the curb. “They do their thing, we do our thing.” Not all were satisfied by this party line, with many attendees accepting informational leaflets prepared by the activists, who numbered between 10 and 20 throughout the evening. One couple emerging from a black SUV told Hyperallergic that this was the first they’d heard of the issue as it affected the Guggenheim. “I’m very receptive to them [the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi] not abusing labor,” the man, wearing round black spectacles, said. “If that’s indeed what they’re doing,” his female partner added as they made their way inside.

A few moments later, a familiar face came down the block — the artist Lawrence Weiner, wearing a red leather jacket. He paused before the assembled protest with a serious expression, ignoring entreaties from ushers to continue, “this way please,” into the museum. Asked what he thought of the situation at the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, the artist replied, simply: “It’s disgusting.” “I was supposed to be on the façade [of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi], but I’m not — it’s not happening,” Weiner added, noting that he had initially worked on such a project with Thomas Krens, the Guggenheim’s previous director and initiator of the Abu Dhabi project.

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The protest, which alternated between a parade-like procession up and down the sidewalk in front of the museum and a barricaded pen at the north end of the block, lasted a little over an hour, beginning as guests started arriving just after 6:30 and concluding at around 8pm. An intermission of sorts featured speakers from activists in solidarity with the labor issues in Abu Dhabi, including the Marxist activist-intellectual Biju Mathew of the New York Taxi Workers’ Alliance, who stressed that the Abu Dhabi recruitment fees were especially deleterious to the South Asian communities where construction staffing firms operate. Kristin Bogos, from the Coalition for Fair Labor at New York University (NYU), spoke about NYU student and faculty involvement with calls to reform labor practices at the school’s outpost on Saadiyat Island, the cultural development that also contains the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi.

Mona Kareem of Bedoon Rights, a Kuwaiti migrant rights organization, told Hyperallergic that Gulf activists such as herself were keen to hold the Guggenheim accountable. “Such institutions are complicit … they refuse to admit their role in enabling abuse.”

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