Locals and tourists alike regularly stand outside the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, to marvel at its gleaming, Frank Gehry-designed postmodernist structure, built in 1997 at a cost of $100 million. This Sunday morning, visitors to the art institution were greeted by a sight usually hidden behind its glitzy facade: 12 members of Guggenheim Bilbao’s cleaning staff, who earn just €5 (~$5.65) an hour to scrub the museum’s atrium, exhibition halls, bathrooms, offices, corridors, storage rooms, auditorium, and other indoor spaces.
As they stepped up one by one to the top of the massive stairway leading to the museum’s entrance, forming a spaced-out line that did not block access but forced the public to confront their presence, each worker pronounced the same question: “Is everyone’s work equally important?” The provocative query, also printed on their matching white t-shirts, is the title of the protest-performance they staged with artist Lorenzo Bussi, who goes by the alias of the fictional collective “Art Builders Group” to underscore the collaborative nature of his work.
The workers remained unmoving “like columns” for an hour and 15 minutes, Bussi said in a statement — a position that emphasized “the importance of their invisible labour in the functioning of the ‘titanium temple.'”
Guggenheim Bilbao’s cleaning team is comprised of 19 employees, 15 of whom are women. All are hired as subcontractors via Ferrovial Services, a multinational company that describes itself as “a global leader in designing, maintaining, operating and managing infrastructures.” 13 of them have been on strike since June to protest precarious working conditions and low pay. (Guggenheim Bilbao and Ferrovial Services have not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s separate requests for comment.)
“Working as a cleaner in the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao means earning €35.04 gross for 7 hours; it means having different shifts every day and working up to 51 hours a week instead of the 35 stated in the contract; it means skipping days off to cover all the shifts and not having enough time to rest,” reads Bussi’s statement for the collective action, based on interviews he conducted with the striking workers.
“Working as a cleaner in the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao means being a slave to the policy of subcontracting,” the text continues.
Bussi started Art Builders Group in 2017 to raise awareness of issues with Italy’s national arts system, which he views as insufficiently supportive of emerging artists. Through unauthorized actions in public institutions, the artist explores themes of labor and precarity, focusing on the experience of art workers whose professions are often undervalued. For one ongoing project, Bussi records art handlers installing exhibitions at Tate Modern in London and presents the footage as “performance documentation.”
He saw the striking Guggenheim cleaners for the first time in July, when they gathered in the museum square for one of their daily protests.
“I wanted to learn about the problems they were facing help them gain visibility through something different from what they usually did, hence the t-shirt and the idea of uniting them with a slogan,” Bussi told Hyperallergic.
The titular question is based on a line from Jenny Holzer’s Truisms (1977–1979), pithy declarations printed on posters distributed in public spaces. “Everyone’s work is equally important” and other messages from the series appear in her “Installation for Bilbao,” a towering work conceived by Holzer as a permanent, site-specific work for the Guggenheim’s atrium in 1997.
“We reformulated one of the Truisms as a question, to ask the museum and the public to reflect on the situation the cleaning workers are living through,” Bussi said.
Guggenheim Bilbao’s cleaning staff are among the many institutional workers hired through outside subcontracting firms, a model of employment that some say leads to more job insecurity. Last year, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in New York City, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City terminated all its museum educator contracts, laying bare the challenges faced by contingent workers.
But the cleaners at the Bilbao museum are among the few subcontracted workers for whom striking is possible, thanks to their membership in the trade union Eusko Langileen Alkartasuna (ELA, “Basque Workers’ Solidarity” in Basque).
“Twenty-five percent of union dues go to ELA’s resistance fund,” Carmen Casas Cárdenas, one of Guggenheim Bilbao’s cleaning workers who is leading the strike, told Hyperallergic. “Because of this, we can fight and support the strike, the tool to improve our working conditions.” Earlier this year, approximately 90 workers for the tire company Michelin’s warehouse in the village of Araia, also subcontracted through Ferrovial, secured salary increases and other significant gains after a 37-day strike through ELA.
“Because of this resistance fund, the strike can last for several months,” Bussi said. “The museum has been silent; they’re waiting for them to give up and say, ‘Fine, we’ll go back to work.’ But I think the workers are very strong.”