Last week, we reported on the growing concern in the visual art and human rights communities about the treatment of workers at the Abu Dhabi Guggenheim project, and this week two Guggenheim leaders have written directly to two prominent artists who signed the petition.
In a letter addressed to artists Walid Raad and Emily Jacir and signed by Richard Armstrong, director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation, and Nancy Spector, deputy director and chief curator of the Guggenheim, the Guggenheim heads provide some new information about the human rights situation at the Abu Dhabi outpost. The Guggenheim leaders obviously feel the protest has the potential to halt the project:
At present we fear that Human Rights Watch’s statement and your petition are jeopardizing a project that promises to have a very positive effect in the region by casting a negative light on the Guggenheim.
Why the letter is addressed to Raad and Jacir specifically isn’t clear, as there are dozens of artists on the petition sent to the Guggenheim, but here it is in its entirety.
GUGGENHEIM RESPONDS TO PROPOSED ARTIST BOYCOTT
From: Richard Armstrong and Nancy Spector
Sent: Monday, March 21, 2011 3:49PM
Subject: Letter from the Guggenheim
Dear Emily and Walid,
We wanted to share with you information that we are sending to Human Rights Watch in response to their letter dated February 24, 2011 to the Guggenheim, Louvre, and NYU regarding workers’ welfare in Abu Dhabi. Up until now we have not been briefed on such details by TDIC, our partner in Abu Dhabi. Since the release of the Human Rights Watch most recent report and our sustained conversations with TDIC, we have a new opportunity to comment on several important issues that have been the focus of your concern.
As you well know, Human Rights Watch has singled out two key issues since the publication of the joint agreement between the Guggenheim and TDIC in September of 2010, which announced several milestones in securing workers’ rights on Saadiyat Island. These issues comprise the appointment of an independent monitor and a provision to ensure that employees at the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi site are reimbursed for any recruitment fees paid.
As you know from our previous correspondence, TDIC has committed to appoint a recognized independent monitor in May 2011 to monitor compliance and to publish its results annually. With respect to the recruitment fee issue, TDIC has expanded the safeguards in its Employment Practices Policy (EPP). The existing EPP (and our joint statement) prohibited contractors using any agent charging a recruitment fee to employees, and required that contractors be solely liable for and pay all recruitment fees. The EPP now goes beyond this provision to require contractors to reimburse workers in full for any fees associated with their recruitment. This provision mirrors what New York University has done, and reflects precisely what Human Rights Watch recommended to us that we should do.
We hope you can recognize that this represents substantial and concrete progress in the two areas that Human Rights Watch conveyed to us were the ones in which they felt our statement was lacking, and where they suggested progress should be made. In Human Rights Watch’s recent draft report, they have also raised the issue of compliance with the provisions of the joint statement, including whether workers retain their passports and whether employment contracts are consistent with the jobs workers are asked to perform. TDIC has shared with us the report issued by the outside firm it hired to monitor compliance at the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Museum site in November of 2010. We found the results were encouraging. For example, the report found that 90 percent of the workers interviewed held their passports and the remaining 10 percent had visas in process, and 100 percent of the workers interviewed were holding their employment contracts and in all cases the actual conditions were found to be consistent with what was described in the agreements.
In evaluating the conclusions in Human Rights Watch’s draft report we took into account the fact, which they shared with us, that they actually only interviewed 5 to 10 of the workers on the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Museum site, whereas the report we received prepared by the outside auditor was based on a much broader sample. When Human Rights Watch visited the site, there were only 50 to 100 workers since construction is in its very early stages. It is also worth mentioning that these reforms have been put into place before significant construction gets started.
We believe that the statements that were made last week by Human Rights Watch have painted an inaccurate picture of the substantial progress in safeguarding workers’ rights that has been made to date. Clearly, the Guggenheim shares the goals expressed by you, the signatories of your petition, and Human Rights Watch to protect worker’s rights in Abu Dhabi. We believe that the progress made thus far is more than ceremonial. In fact, it signals fundamental changes in the emirates’ decades-long labor practices. It is important to us that you understand this was achieved through persistent and sustained effort on our part working in tandem with TDIC. We recognize that there is still much to strive for but know from past experience that change such as this is incremental around the world. It is very troubling to us that your statement portrays the Guggenheim as a passive agent with little consciousness of the issues at hand. That is the exact opposite of the truth.
Now that you are in contact with TDIC and even made a visit to the workers’ village, we hope that information from all sides will be more direct and timely. It will certainly be more productive if we can all work together to insure that our common goals are met. We will welcome your continued involvement now that construction of the museum is imminent.
At present we fear that Human Rights Watch’s statement and your petition are jeopardizing a project that promises to have a very positive effect in the region by casting a negative light on the Guggenheim. We strongly believe that the Guggenheim Museum Abu Dhabi, with its future program of transnational contemporary art and thought, can serve as a beacon for important intellectual activity, cultural exchange, and, ultimately, critical shifts in social practice.
Having shared this with you, we plan to make this information public to a broader audience to further greater understanding of a complex and many-sided situation.
Please bear in mind, that we want to maintain a dialogue with you about this most crucial of issues.
Richard Armstrong, Director, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation
Nancy Spector, Deputy Director and Chief Curator