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Member of the Gulf Ultra Luxury Faction (known as G.U.L.F.) unveiled a large parachute in the Guggenheim Museum rotunda with the words “Meet Workers Demands Now” (all images by the author for Hyperallergic)

At noon today, a group of artists and activists including members of the Gulf Ultra Luxury Faction (known as G.U.L.F.) unfurled a large parachute in the atrium of the Guggenheim Museum, demanding to meet with a member of the institution’s board of trustees to discuss the labor conditions at its Abu Dhabi site. At the appointed time, members of the collective threw leaflets inspired by the current On Kawara exhibition from the museum’s upper levels and the protesters articulated their demands through a human microphone chant.

Some of the multilingual On Kawara-influenced flyers dropped in the Guggenheim atrium during today’s protest.

“It’s the most beautiful piece in the show,” remarked a French tourist watching from the top of the museum’s rotunda. I asked an older man visiting the museum if he knew what the protest was about, and he said: “I think it has something to do with treatment at a university.” Nearby, a Guggenheim employee was explaining to two visitors that “they’re protesting the museum’s expansion in Abu Dhabi.” Throughout the occupation, protesters explained the purpose of the demonstration to curious museum-goers.

Though the protesters’ banner was swiftly destroyed by a guard wielding scissors, the group was allowed to remain seated in the museum atrium. As many as six NYPD officers arrived on the scene but, an hour after the protest began, they were called off by the museum administration.

“The museum doesn’t want to arrest us,” Amin Husain, one of the organizers, told the group after consulting with NYPD officers. “The museum has communicated to us through the cops that we can stay in this number, but we can’t grow.” The announcement was met with cheers.

After the parachute was confiscated, protesters still occupied the main level.

While the museum has remained open since the protest began — no effort was made to clear the building — no new visitors have been admitted for over an hour now and a long line has formed outside the building.

The Guggenheim has not acquiesced to the protestors’ demands by sending a trustee to meet them, but reportedly sent a deputy legal council to the museum from its offices on Hudson Street in Lower Manhattan.

Protesters on the ground floor of the Guggenheim Museum.

According to various tweets, protesters, including members of the Guerrilla Girls, are outside the Fifth Avenue museum with banners that read “Right to Organize” and “Debt Jubilee Now.”

Today’s event is the latest in a series of actions that began in February 2014 at the Guggenheim Museum related to the labor issues at the museum’s Abu Dhabi franchise.

Protesters’ On Kawara-inspired leaflets floating in the Guggenheim Museum fountain.

We will update this story as it evolves.

Update, 1:45pm ET: The One Million Years reading in the atrium of the Guggenheim — which invites volunteers to read years aloud — stopped when the occupation began at noon but resumed roughly 20 minutes later.

This is currently the view in the museum atrium:

Update, 2:07pm ET: The protesters have three demands, which are on the back of their flyers:

And the occupying group’s specific demand is to meet with a Guggenheim trustee to discuss these points.

Update, 2:20pm ET: The On Kawara reading stopped at 2pm. It’s unclear if the break was scheduled, or because of something else, like the readers not being able to get into the building.

Update, 2:37pm ET: The museum has tweeted that it will close for the day, though there are still small scheduled group tours coming in. It appears that a lot of staff members have been sent home.

Update, 2:55pm ET: Still about a dozen protesters outside the museum chanting “Listen up Guggenheim,” “Shut it Down,” and other messages, while they are holding up banners with the three demands.

The On Kawara reading has also resumed.

Update, 4:11pm ET: Protesters just spelled out the word “Win” in the Guggenheim lobby:

Update, 4:45pm ET: Protesters are discussing their next move:

Update, 5:25pm ET: The 16 remaining members of the group that took over the lobby of the Guggenheim left the museum and gave a public declaration outside.

The declaration said:

Today we successfully occupied the museum with bodies and voices, inside and out. The Guggenheim authorities would rather shut down the museum for the day than talk to their critics. We didn’t come to shut the museum — we came to ask to attend a meeting with the Board of Trustees, and we hope that meeting happens soon.

Today is International Workers’ Day. When workers in Abu Dhabi — who are not allowed to organize — go on strike, they may be arrested, beaten, and deported. We repeat the demands for a living wage, a debt jubilee, and the right to organize.

We appreciate all the workers we spent time with. On this May Day, we also stand in solidarity with the struggles of workers everywhere, including the museum guards who make $11 an hour, and the groundskeepers who make $9 an hour, which is not a living wage in New York City.

The art we brought with us was shared by all but then violently destroyed by the museum. We thank SASI (South Asian Solidarity Initiative), DRUM (Desis Rising Up and Moving), the Taxi Workers Alliance, the Guerrilla Girls, Mahina Movement, and our allies in the South Asian community who rallied in support outside.

This is part of an ongoing campaign, with 52 weeks of actions to come. The   museum’s disdain for the public and criticism will mean that this movement only grows.

When the group left, it was met with 20 pizzas sent by art nonprofit Creative Time.

Update, 6:40pm ET: The  Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, which operates the Guggenheim Museum in New York City and the forthcoming Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, responded to our request for a comment on today’s action with the following statement:

We are disappointed that the actions of today’s demonstrators forced the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum to close its doors and turn away thousands of members of the public.

We have met with representatives of the group behind today’s demonstration on several occasions and have tried to maintain open lines of communication. We share their concerns about worker welfare in the Gulf Region, but these kinds of disruptive activities run counter to our objective of building the cooperation and goodwill necessary to further change on an extremely complex geopolitical issue.

Despite erroneous reports to the contrary, construction of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi has not yet begun and a contractor has not yet been selected. In preparation for these milestones, the Guggenheim has been working with our partner, the Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC), and other authorities and stakeholders inside and outside of the UAE to continue to advance progress on conditions for workers.

The Guggenheim seeks, as we have from the start, to advance meaningful and verifiable actions. This is evidenced by our continuing contributions to the TDIC Employment Practices Policy (EPP).  Significant and documented progress has been made on a number of fronts, including worker accommodation, access to medical coverage, grievance procedures, and retention of passports.

We believe the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi project presents an opportunity for a dynamic cultural exchange and to chart a more inclusive and expansive view of art history.  These efforts at real action will take time to become a reality on the ground.  We understand that this endeavor comes with great responsibility and we believe strongly in the transformative potential of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi.

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Benjamin Sutton

Benjamin Sutton is an art critic, journalist, and curator who lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn. His articles on public art, artist documentaries, the tedium of art fairs, James Franco's obsession with Cindy...

5 replies on “May Day Occupation at Guggenheim Closes Museum #GuggOccupied”

  1. I believe the museum would not lie about not having started the construction, but I have visited Saadyat Island, and my home was 300 feet from Abu Dhabi’s TDIC headquarters. I’ve seen the models pf the Guggenheim and the other world classic museum replicas to be built on the island. Just like many other developments in the UAE, it’s breath taking. I do suspect that there has been some ground laying of the museums there, and there is no doubt there will be some poorly paid Eastern countries employees there.Yet, they will be housed and transported daily, provided free lunches and likely all meals during the work week. This is the way of Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and such. No American would work for the wages these people will be paid. I suspect the real protest is for the current ground laying construction teams.

    On a separate note, who says 11.00/hr is not living wages in NYC? My daughter lives there and that’s her wage rate. Share an apartment(with 2 or 3 people), stream videos rather than have cable TV, and you can make it there. If they want to live a normal single bedroom situation, in NYC, they need $20.00.hr base wage rate, and one room mate, maybe.

    1. Share and apartment with 2 or three people? That doesn’t make 11.00 an hour a living wage. But hey, it’s your kid. You wanna enforce capitalist austerity measures upon her, that’s your doing.

      1. I realize you don’t have sufficient information for your assumptions. Maybe it is a shock to you but people are living in NYC for less than that. Her choice, She’s happy, and I keep a car and place for her as does her mother, whenever she chooses not to. It is not a good wage, but I’ve seen families living together in one house in San Jose. Cal. All of this was called at one time “creative living”. Would I like to see better wages? I’d like to see better job availability. We will ALWAYS have jobs that are not paying ‘living’ wages, but when college graduates from pricey schools like NYU have to take those jobs, something is wrong. Well, forget NY, and reflect more on the $200.00/month workers get paid in Abu Dhabi.

  2. Liberals like the Guggenheim Board have to decide whether to adhere to any real meaningful human principles and rights, or to keep choosing money over them, as they have always done and rationalized while their rapacious country and its economy, which they falsely ascribe to the right, lays waste the world. It’s always been hypocritical, but with what we now know about that, as well as a destructively unsustainable capitalist monster, you can’t do both.

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