Yesterday, September 28, the artist-activist groups Artists for Workers (AFW) and the Illuminator descended on the Guggenheim Museum in New York for a series of guerrilla projections on its facade. The action was held in solidarity with the Guggenheim’s unionized workers and workers of Guggenheim Abu Dhabi ahead of the museum’s New York reopening this week (September 30 for members and October 3rd for the general public).
Traffic was scarce on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue when an old white van parked in front of the Guggenheim at 7:40pm last night. The vehicle, retrofitted to raise a large projector through an opening in its roof, belonged to the Illuminator. This is the third time that the group directed its projector at the Guggenheim’s spiral structure: It did it with the group Gulf Ultra Luxury Faction (G.U.L.F.) in 2016 and 2014, and with Visual AIDS in 2015.
Within minutes, the Illuminator’s crew was atop the van to set up their gear. At 8pm, the projection lit up the Guggenheim’s facade with a series of messages reading: “Fair Contract,” “Seeking New Management,” “Open for Racism,” “$1.4 Million Dollar Director Salary,” “Austerity Wages for Workers,” and more.
“This action seeks to connect the exploitation of workers at the Solomon R. Guggenheim with the experience of workers in other Guggenheim locations, like the one in Abu Dhabi,” said a member of AFW, who prefers to remain anonymous, in a conversation with Hyperallergic during the action.
“Our aim is to put pressure on the museum to understand these are not isolated instances but are related through modes of racial oppression and exploitation of workers,” the activist continued. “That’s why the museum needs to ratify a contract with the Guggenheim’s workers union as soon as possible.”
AFW is a group of American and international artists based in New York City, which formed to support organizing museum workers across the city. In June, the group launched with a parody of the New Museum, presenting a website that replicates the museum’s branding to provide resources for anti-racist organizing. In July, the group launched the “Guggenheim Transparency Initiative,” a webpage that similarly mimics the museum’s official website but supplants its original contents with information about alleged race- and gender-based wage discrepancies within the museum’s departments.
AFW says that all of its actions against the Guggenheim are organized independently from the Guggenheim union and that its members have no professional affiliation with the museum. The group added that ahead of yesterday’s action, it consulted with the Gulf Labor Collective, a group of artists and activists that has been advocating for migrant worker rights in the Gulf since 2010.
The Guggenheim Union has not responded to Hyperallergic’s immediate request for comment.
The Guggenheim will open its doors tomorrow, September 30, against the backdrop of a string of controversies related to its policies of diversity and inclusion; grave financial losses that led to 92 furloughs and 24 layoffs; and unresolved contract negotiations with the Guggenheim union.
Most recently, an anonymous group of current and former workers called A Better Guggenheim accused the museum’s leadership of fostering an environment of sexism, racism, classism, and abuse. In a letter sent earlier this month, the group demanded the resignation or removal of the museum’s three top executives: Richard Armstrong, Director; Elizabeth Duggal, Senior Deputy Director and Chief Operating Officer; and Nancy Spector, Artistic Director and Chief Curator.
Last night’s projection caught the attention of passersby who stopped to snap photos, but only a few of the Fifth Avenue pedestrians reported having knowledge of the tensions between workers and management at the Guggenheim.
Tito Urunca, an artist who has been selling his photographs outside the Guggenheim for 10 years, was taking an evening walk when the projections started. “I know many of these workers; they work very hard for little money,” he told Hyperallergic. “Many of them had to change jobs during the shutdown.”
In a statement to Hyperallergic, the Guggenheim wrote: “We continue to negotiate in good faith with Local 30. We hope for a fair resolution that benefits our employees and the long-term financial health of the museum.”
“The Museum is listening to all our staff about our shared vision for the Museum going forward – a more diverse, inclusive, equitable, and accessible institution that can continue to operate for generations to come,” the museum’s statement continued. “We are committed to moving forward with a fair, respectful, and positive work environment for all Guggenheim employees. We recognize and appreciate the contributions of the talented staff who bring our mission to life every day.”
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I am so happy to see museums get their due with respect to the unfair and exploitive policies that have gone unchecked for so many years … It has been something that has bothered me for quite some time as an artist and a member of the arts community, . I began to see that museums were at the predilection of rich board members who are usually collectors. They exhibit their collections at said museums to enhance their value and status while at the same time they exploit the many artists who work at the museums with terrible wages and the imminent possibility of receiving a pink slip at the whims of the museum, for example when they are renovating. The workers will simply be dismissed and told that the museum will be closed for as many years as it takes to renovate! Also, the advantage the museums have taken with employees of color, minority or other status that can be exploited by the museum to enhance their image as institutions that support the minority community in the arts when the reality is that they are no more than colonialists in their approach.
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