In an interview appearing in the current issue of Foreign Policy and posted to the publication’s website on Monday, Frank Gehry admitted that he was “reluctant” to participate in the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi project, citing the distance and the fact that the “cultural issues seemed so different.” He further revealed that he worked with a Human Rights Watch lawyer to vet the project “when we started,” though it’s unclear what kind of follow-through this effort had — widespread labor abuses were later documented, provoking the ire of labor activists worldwide and prompting the formation of Gulf Labor, a working group for artists and activists that ended up boycotting the Guggenheim.
Earlier this year, a show at the Louvre of works destined for the French museum’s own Abu Dhabi offshoot was accompanied by a critical exhibition of works by the artist Walid Raad, an intellectual rejoinder to the master-planned “universal museum” envisioned by the Abu Dhabi regime. Concerning the problematic and revisionist histories put forth by these Western-branded Emirati institutions, Raad told The Art Newspaper, “when these objects [the Paris Louvre’s collection of Islamic art] travel overseas, they will change in ways that are more insidious than the curators, conservators or museum directors could have predicted.” Gehry’s is a slightly less sophisticated reticence, telling FP that master-planned Dubai, with its great rush skyward, was “like every other cruddy city in the world … It’s just cheap copies of buildings that have already been built somewhere else.” He adds that “the sheiks and the deciders” sold him on the concept when they told him “this was going to be a museum for a globalized art culture … to show off this new era of contemporary art.” Whatever that means.
At any rate, it’s apparent that the Foreign Policy interviewer wasn’t aware of the chronology of developments at the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, as it would have been journalistically appropriate to further press Gehry on a number of issues relating to his stated objections. Why was his “human rights lawyer from Human Rights Watch” — allegedly hired from the start of the project — not able to discover and prevent the labor issues everyone saw coming? The abuses documented there later prompted a boycott reported in the New York Times and a capitulation from the Guggenheim itself. Should we be concerned that one of the world’s most visible architects apparently doesn’t understand the difference between an iron-willed urban planner — Robert Moses, whose proposals were generally mediated by democratic processes — and autocratic urban development as cultural diplomacy?
To his credit, Gehry coins a great aphorism in the interview — something one might imagine carved into this mausoleum of a museum, a suitable epitaph to the cupidity of the Gulf’s Ozymandias class:
“I think the best thing is to have a benevolent dictator — who has taste!”
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.