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Gulf Labor Criticizes Guggenheim’s Silence on Migrant Workers’ Rights

Months have passed since the Guggenheim broke off six years of negotiations with the Gulf Labor Coalition over migrant workers’ rights in Abu Dhabi.

A billboard on Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island advertising several of the Guggenheim's projects (photo by Hrag Vartanian for Hyperallergic)
A billboard on Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island advertising several of the Guggenheim’s projects (photo by Hrag Vartanian for Hyperallergic)

Months have passed since the Guggenheim broke off six years of negotiations with the Gulf Labor Coalition (GLC) over migrant workers’ rights in Abu Dhabi, where construction of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi has long been delayed. In that time, the coalition has steadily continued its campaign to advocate for workers hired not only at that site but across the Saadiyat Island Cultural District in general, including the Louvre Abu Dhabi and the Zayed National Museum — for which the British Museum is “a consulting partner.” Yesterday, its members released a letter directed at its network of supporters that addresses the Guggenheim’s prolonged silence, making clear they will not back down from holding the institution — and others that do not follow fair labor standards — accountable for any possible human rights violations.

“We believe a substantive path toward meeting our concerns is to engage directly with the NGO coalition we assembled, which has the experience needed to implement fair working standards under many different national legal structures and conditions,” the letter reads. “As the Guggenheim has now abandoned a path of constructive dialogue, we will continue to advocate for workers rights through other means, including the media.”

In April, the museum’s director Richard Amstrong had sent an email describing GLC as an organization that “continues to shift its demands … beyond the reach of our influence as an arts institution while continuing to spread mistruths about the project and our role in it.” GLC had then urged the board of trustees to reconsider the decision and continue negotiations with its partner organizations, which include the Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). Representatives from these groups had met with museum administrators in March to offer advice on creating a contract of fair labor practices. In a further attempt to resume talks, artists had also staged a public protest at the Guggenheim on opening day of the exhibition But a Storm Is Blowing from Paradise: Contemporary Art of the Middle East and North Africa.

“After the April ‘divorce’ we very much encouraged the Guggenheim leadership to pursue social justice policies and the development of fair labor contracts with our NGO partners even if they did not wish to meet with Gulf Labor per se any longer,” GLC member Gregory Sholette told Hyperallergic. “Their refusal to follow up with the NGOs was only confirmed later on.” Sholette refers to letters sent to HRW and ITUC in May from Armstrong and British Museum director Hartwig Fischer, both of which suggest future discourse would not occur.

“We decided to take this moment to remind our extensive member network, as well as the art world and social justice advocates, that migrant labor and cultural labor must stop being appropriated to prop-up the interests of financial elites,” Sholette said.

The coalition’s latest letter to signatories of its campaign also spotlights other acts of opposition over the Guggenheim’s projects abroad, including the widespread objection to its plans to build an outpost in Helsinki. It also notes that “key members of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi team” —  curators Reem Fadda and Fawz Kabra — left the project this year, following the previous departures of senior Guggenheim staff members Suzanne Cotter, Nancy Spector, and Bassem Terkawi.

“The exit of these key personnel from the Guggenheim signals, we believe, a substantial shift within the institution that further reduces Gulf Labor’s capacity to communicate with the museum,” Sholette said.

The Guggenheim declined Hyperallergic’s request for comment on the coalition’s reiteration of its boycott of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi.

The letter by Gulf Labor reads, in full:

To Signatories of the Gulf Labor Campaign

 

Subject: Gulf Labor Addresses Guggenheim’s Silence

 

Dear friends,

We, the organizing committee of Gulf Labor, are writing to you with an update on our work.

 

Since 2010, we have advocated for labor rights guidelines for ethical museum construction and maintenance in the Gulf region. Our campaign focused on Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, but we have also been critical of the absence of labor rights at the already constructed NYU Abu Dhabi, the currently ongoing construction of Louvre Abu Dhabi, and other cultural institutions in the region. We have always understood this struggle to have global implications. The rights and fair wages we have advocated apply to precarious migrant workers, as much as to non-unionized citizen workers, who are building and maintaining global institutions that support and exhibit our work. Our hope is that labor rights won for workers in the Gulf would be an inspiration for institutions elsewhere.

 

In spite of several positive developments generated by our campaign – changes in employment regulations (EPP) on Saadiyat Island, periodic reports by Gulf Labor, official monitoring reports by PricewaterhouseCoopers, greater public awareness around migrant labor issues, affinity groups working on campaigns elsewhere – the Guggenheim leadership abruptly broke off meetings with Gulf Labor in April 2016. In response to this, Gulf Labor, the NGO coalition we had assembled, and a group of artists in Guggenheim’s “Storm is Blowing” show all joined in urging the Museum to return to the negotiating table with Gulf Labor and/or the NGO coalition.

 

We waited four months for a positive response from the Guggenheim or TDIC (Abu Dhabi’s Tourism, Development & Investment Company), but there was none. In the meantime, media reports show that the Finnish government has declined to fund the Guggenheim Helsinki, and that we are in the midst of a slowdown in spending on cultural activities in the Gulf. Key members of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi team left the project in fall 2016, following earlier departures of senior Guggenheim staff involved with the project in 2015.

 

Although there were constructive meetings, and positive developments in the years 2014-2015, since 2016 the director and board of trustees of Guggenheim has no longer been willing to work with Gulf Labor toward a solution for workers rights. We believe a substantive path toward meeting our concerns is to engage directly with the NGO coalition we assembled, which has the experience needed to implement fair working standards under many different national legal structures and conditions. As the Guggenheim has now abandoned a path of constructive dialogue, we will continue to advocate for workers rights through other means, including the media.

 

As we remain focused on advocating through our alliances and partners for workers rights in the Middle East, we are also committed to struggling for these rights in Asia, Latin and South America, Africa, North America, and Europe. Our alliances include Workers Art Coalition, Occupy Museums, Fair Labor Coalition, G.U.L.F. (Global Ultra Luxury Faction), Taxi Worker’s Alliance, S.a.L.E. Docks, Who Builds Your Architecture, Aaron Burr Society, as well as the NGO coalition of Human Rights Watch, International Trade Union Confederation, Engineers Against Poverty, Building and Woodworkers International, and Society for Labour and Development.

 

Gulf Labor’s boycott of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi shall continue; Gulf Labor reiterates that human rights and fair labor standards must be a starting point and ongoing concern for any museum being built anywhere in the world. We urge all signatories to maintain their critique of Guggenheim, Louvre, NYU, and any other institution that does not respect workers’ rights. Please continue this struggle together with us, as it moves forward. Another art world is possible.

 

Sincerely,

 

On behalf of the Organizing Committee of Gulf Labor Coalition: Amin Husain, Andrew Ross, Ashok Sukumaran, Ayreen Anastas, Doris Bittar, Gregory Sholette, Guy Mannes-Abbott, Haig Aivazian, Hans Haacke, Kristina Bogos, Mariam Ghani, Michael Rakowitz, Naeem Mohaiemen, Natascha Sadr Haghighian, Nitasha Dhillon, Noah Fischer, Paula Chakravartty, Rene Gabri, Sam Durant, Shaina Anand, Tania Bruguera, Todd Ayoung, Walid Raad.

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