Richard Armstrong, the director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation, contacted Hyperallergic with the following response to “When Artspeak Masks Oppression” (March 6, 2013) by Mostafa Heddaya. The letter is addressed to our Editor-in-chief Hrag Vartanian, and our two senior editors, Jillian Steinhauer and Kyle Chayka. We have reproduced the full text of the letter in full with no editing:

Dear Hrag Vartanian, Jillian Steinhauer, and Kyle Chayka,

We take the commentary concerning our colleague, Reem Fadda, and the Guggenheim Foundation outlined in the article “When Artspeak Masks Oppression” seriously and would like to respond.

The author based the article on the use of what has recently been termed “International Art English.” He contends that in Ms. Fadda’s talk about the history of art in the United Arab Emirates, she uses this art-industry language to obfuscate human rights violations in the UAE. The intention of this talk, entitled “The Contemporary History of the UAE Art Scene,” was obscured by the author’s emphasis on this theme, and we believe the larger context for it is worthy of further explanation here.

The Guggenheim Foundation, and by extension the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, is invested in and dedicated to the research and representation of artists and art movements from places that have long been overlooked by the Western art world. This is evidenced by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s current exhibition program, which includes the critically acclaimed Gutai show and the retrospective of the Indian artist Zarina Hashmi. The talk delivered by Reem Fadda was an extension of that commitment and practice. As Associate Curator of Middle Eastern Art and an art historian and academic in the field, Fadda undertakes in-depth, scholarly research on artists from the Arab world and the Middle East — including the important contributions by artists from the UAE — from the early 20th century to the present, in an effort to articulate a history that has not yet been told fully.

In this context, Fadda’s talk introduced the public to the rich variety of issues, among them social, cultural, and political, which artists from the UAE address through their visual practice. As she explained: “Artists are independent intellectuals and I respect and support their free reign of thinking vis-à-vis the arts and their communities, especially in the Middle East in places like, Egypt, the UAE and Palestine. They have practiced art even when there was no infrastructure to support them and when it was most needed. They did so with no expectations but to uphold criticality and creativity, when all else seems to be failing around them. Many have faced oppression of multiple kinds. If we wish to learn historically about the most progressive of ideas in the region, of our modern times, we just need to trace the works of artists and what they have synthesized in their practice of critical thinking. However, artists are not national mascots. I will be glad when the day comes and each nation embodies what their artists stand for. And I do believe in the arts and in representing the critical voice that emanates from artists, such as Mohammed Kazem and others that can steer their country into the necessary change that they wish for.”

With respect to the humanitarian concerns raised by the author, the Guggenheim Foundation has been working closely with the government of Abu Dhabi to safeguard the rights of the workers who will be building the future museum. Many achievements have been made to this day — including independent monitoring of labor conditions, the results of which are publicly reported annually and addressed by the local authorities responsible for construction.

We continue to work with the government of Abu Dhabi on these important issues in preparation for the time when the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi will be under construction. Currently, no work is underway nor are any workers present on the site.

As a cultural institution, we are dedicated to upholding freedom of expression as it relates to art and other creative practices. We believe that the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi will be a beacon for artistic free expression, which is critical to the work of all artists, including UAE artists Hassan Sharif and Mohammed Kazem, whose work was the very basis of the talk presented by Reem Fadda.

Richard Armstrong, Director
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation

*     *     *

We asked the author of the original post, Mostafa Heddaya, if he would like to respond to Mr. Armstrong’s letter, and he provided us the following text, which we’ve reproduced in its entirety:

Response to Richard Armstrong, Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

I am grateful to the Guggenheim for this on-the-record response “upholding freedom of expression as it relates to art and other creative practices.” My argument proceeds in a straight line from that assumption, and to that end the rest of Mr. Armstrong’s letter is deficient:

(1) The UAE’s dynastic rulers have no interest in free expression; dissent as trivial as online commentary and caricature is prohibited by law and regime opponents are arbitrarily arrested and tortured. This is widely documented, along with many other contraventions of international law. The pacification offered on labor for the Guggenheim’s physical plant on Saadiyat Island skirts the systemic criminality of the regime. Further, international art exhibitions in the Emirates have been repeatedly subject to censorship. Rita Aoun Abdo, state-appointed head of artistic and cultural development on Saadiyat Island: “Censorship has always existed and it’s just the respect of what are the values of the place.”

(2) The obfuscatory language of contemporary art makes it a ready tool for propagandists looking to repackage unsavory political realities, as Reem Fadda demonstrated in her ostensibly “historical” talk. This, not the alleged merits or hard work of the individual artists discussed, is the focus of my article. Ms. Fadda is quoted at length here explaining that artists aren’t “national mascots,” a position flatly contradicting her views circa 2009. Back then, she made the case for a wholesale boycott of a different nation’s culture on humanitarian grounds, holding an individual’s work indistinguishable from their country’s human rights violations. Fortunately for both of us, I reject such a stance, and agree that artists aren’t state actors — my argument is about language and institutions, not art itself. Ms. Fadda did not respond to my repeated requests for comment in the days prior to publication, so we don’t know why the record of Emirati abuses was palatable enough to induce such a dramatic change of heart.

(3) Given contemporary art’s amenability to doublespeak, it is ripe for capture by political interests: the Guggenheim sold its imprimatur to an authoritarian regime without, apparently, compromising its image as a nonprofit institution committed to unfettered expression. A respected and formerly independent institution is now a diplomatic chip, a legitimating totem for a government rotten to the core on matters of artistic, academic, and political freedom.

Should any readers remain unconvinced, the Foundation is expanding their cash-for-credulity program: Guggenheim Abu Dhabi is hiring another Associate Curator to “work in close association with the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s senior curatorial staff and the staff of TCA (Tourism and Culture Authority) in Abu Dhabi.” Qualifications include an “interest in cultural diplomacy” and comfort giving “VIP tours … as needed” to torture-happy despots and their guests. Jack Persekian need not apply.

— M. Heddaya

5 replies on “Guggenheim’s Richard Armstrong Responds to “When Artspeak Masks Oppression””

  1. Thank you Mr Heddeya for your original article and your succinct and clear reply to the obfuscation, as elegant as it appears, from Mr. Armstrong.

  2. Thank you for keeping ethics center-stage in conversations about good museum and curating practices, and thank you for your willingness to stand up to powerful cultural institutions.

  3. Is anyone here worried about the Guggenheim’s reputation? Its not about you Googs, its about ways that art speak can marginalize and distort the narrative of the oppressed to serve its own context. But yes Googs you are the victim, you poor multi million dollar, well respected institution that can employ highly educated and articulate people to defend you if you get a scratch.

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