November 5 G.U.L.F. action at the Guggenheim (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

A thirty-nine-foot banner was unfurled in the rotunda of a sparsely-attended Guggenheim Museum this evening, the latest action carried out by the Gulf Ultra Luxury Front (G.U.L.F.) activist group. Decrying labor abuse at the museum’s planned Abu Dhabi outpost, the banner announced the forthcoming “Countdown” campaign by Gulf Labor, the larger collective of artists and activists of which G.U.L.F. is an offshoot. “Countdown,” according to Gulf Labor, will consist of a series of direct actions, and follows the recently concluded “52 Weeks” campaign that saw individuals and collectives weigh in on the labor issue, with contributions from such artists as Hans Haacke, Thomas Hirschhorn, and Andrea Fraser.

The banner, reading “Stop Labor Abuse / Countdown to Guggenheim Abu Dhabi,” was brought into the museum hidden inside a baby stroller, and one G.U.L.F. member arrived in light disguise to avoid detection by the Guggenheim’s guards. Held aloft from the rotunda’s upper tier for several minutes, the sheet was torn down from below by two male guards. At one point a female guard approached the pair holding the banner, asking them if this was part of the current Zero: Countdown to Tomorrow, 1950s–60s exhibition, to which they replied it was. That guard then walked away. Though the banner was confiscated, all involved G.U.L.F. members left the museum without incident.

The unannounced action precedes a protest planned for tomorrow’s International Gala at the museum; the $75,000-a-table fundraiser, sponsored by fashion brand Christian Dior, benefits the institution’s global efforts. To that end, the banner joined another temporary, albeit official, intervention in the rotunda — Otto Piene’s “White Balloon,” designed by the artist before his death this summer and installed for three days on the occasion of the International Gala and tonight’s Young Collectors Council party. Preparations for the latter were well under way by the time the banner was displayed a little after 5pm ET, and entry to the museum was free.

Tonight’s event marked the fifth protest of its kind at the museum this year linked to concerns over alleged labor violations on Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat cultural district, which contains the Guggenheim and other outposts of Western cultural institutions. A New York Times investigation of New York University’s Saadiyat campus published in May found widespread instances of abuse, and followed similar accounts from the Guardian, Human Rights Watch, and Gulf Labor themselves. Gulf Labor’s Walid Raad told Hyperallergic that the museum now has a number of steps at its disposal for resolving the labor issue:

What the Guggenheim can do today:

Officially and publicly recommend that the UAE Ministry of Labor intervene ASAP to monitor and enforce UAE laws on Saadiyat Island.  Clearly, abuses are ongoing. The Guggenheim knows this, and for some reason, has yet to decide that addressing labor abuses in the building of their museum in the UAE must be their most urgent priority. The Guggenheim has leverage to affect positive change in labor practices. They should use it. I am certain they have willing partners in the UAE Ministry of Labor.

Officially and publicly recommend that the UAE Ministry of Labor seek and follow the advice of experts from, for example, the International Labor Organization, to help the Ministry fine-tune the implementation and enforcement of existing laws, close loopholes in the law, and develop and implement new laws to protect workers (with regards to, for example, recruitment fees paid by workers).

Where is PricewaterhouseCoopers’ third annual report? The Guggenheim can recommend the immediate release of this overdue report. [Ed. note: The first annual report was released in September 2012, the following one was released in late December 2013.]

Reached by email, the Guggenheim declined to comment on the action and declined to respond to Raad’s comments.

Correction, 11/6: An earlier version of this article described the G.U.L.F. banner as “thirty-foot.” This has been amended to “thirty-nine-foot.”

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Mostafa Heddaya

Mostafa Heddaya is the former managing editor of Hyperallergic.

One reply on “Protesters Unfurl Three-Story Banner in Guggenheim Museum”

  1. Join us today Thursday at 6.30 pm in front of the Guggenheim…

    Tonight, the Guggenheim Museum is hosting one of the premier fund-raising events for New York’s high society. Guests will be feasting royally at $75,000 tax-deductible tables. On the other side of the world, Guggenheim Abu Dhabi’s migrant workers are being exploited while having meager rations on their plates and very little time to prepare their meals after a punishing 12 hour workday.

    Do the diners on Fifth Avenue know that these workers are subjected to well-documented human rights abuses, or that they bear a heavy debt burden–which is the price they pay for getting to build the new museum? Do they know that these workers are fighting for their rights despite threats of dismissal and deportation? Are they aware that more than two thousand artists, curators, and critics worldwide are observing the Gulf Labor Coalition boycott of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi until fair labor standards can be verifiably established on Saadiyat Island?

    The Guggenheim Foundation has been waging a war of misinformation and dragging its feet on labor issues in the Abu Dhabi expansion for years, but phase two for construction is only months away now: a point of no return. Director Richard Armstrong claims that work on the Abu Dhabi museum has not yet begun, yet, this summer, an investigative journalist found two work crews laboring under substandard conditions that are typical of the UAE’s migrant workforce. Will the museum take strong action to ensure that workers are not living in punishing debt owed to recruiters and that they are treated fairly on the job BEFORE Phase 2 construction commences in early 2015?

    The Global Ultra Luxury Faction (G.U.L.F.) has put The Guggenheim Foundation on Notice. The time to speak up and stand with workers in Abu Dhabi is now.

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