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Human Rights Watch Endorses Protest Against Gulf Guggenheim

by Kyle Chayka on March 18, 2011

A construction model of the Abu Dhabi Guggenheim (image via nytimes.com)

In reaction to exploitative conditions for construction laborers at the site of the upcoming Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, an international group of artists and art world figures are boycotting the Guggenheim, refusing to “participate in museum events or sell work to the museum,” reports the New York Times and today, Human Rights Watch endorsed the artist protest.

The petition released by the protesting group outlines its complaints and demands, stating that the Guggenheim is visibly supporting human rights violations and injustices in how it treats its labor for the museum’s construction:

Human rights violations are currently occurring on Saadiyat Island, the location of the new [Guggenheim Abu Dhabi] museum. In two extensive reports on the UAE, Human Rights Watch has documented a cycle of abuse that leaves migrant workers deeply indebted, poorly paid, and unable to defend their rights or even quit their jobs.

These violations, which threaten to sully the Guggenheim’s reputation, present a serious, moral challenge to those who may be asked to work with the museum. No one should be asked to exhibit or perform in a building that has been constructed and maintained on the backs of exploited employees.

The human rights violations in question focus on workers’ rights issues. As it stands, workers may have had to pay a “recruitment fee” simply to get a job, and now find it impossible to quit even under harsh work conditions. The protesters are calling for reimbursement of recruitment fees, securing workers’ ability to quit and for the presence of an “independent monitor” to ensure that the standards of the Guggenheim’s construction process are up to international law.

The group includes such figures as Lebanese-born artist Walid Raad, Iranian artist and filmmaker Shirin Neshat and Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum. Human Rights Watch has called out the Guggenheim’s perceived violations in a statement released today. Says Sarah Leah Whiston, Middle East Director of Human Rights Watch,

This leading group of artists is making clear that they will not showcase their work in a museum built by abused workers, and that the steps taken to date by Guggenheim and TDIC are inadequate … If the Guggenheim and TDIC (Abu Dhabi Tourism Development and Investment Company) fail to address the artists’ concerns, the museum may become better known for exhibiting labor violations than art.

Lee Rosenbaum has the Guggenheim’s response to the accusations, calling the artists “misinformed” and stating that they, along with TDIC, have carried out measures to ensure worker safety, including the presence of an independent monitor group reporting on the situation.

The Guggenheim has been getting some bad press with some recent attempts to grow their franchise. Their possible Finland branch, currently under feasibility study, could force the closure of Helsinki’s local art museums.

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