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Protest at the Guggenheim over Saadiyat Island labour conditions

25 February 2014

A protest was staged in New York’s Guggenheim on Saturday night as many art lovers enjoyed the museum’s pay-what-you-wish admission hours. Banners were draped from the museum’s spiral walls and leaflets were distributed as over 40 protesters attempted to highlight the labour conditions on Saadiyat Island, where Guggenheim Abu Dhabi – a franchise of the New York museum – is to be built. ‘Who is Building the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi?’ asked the participants, who were said to include a diverse group of artists, students and activists loosely associated with Occupy Museums, Gulf Labour and various NYU-related groups, and who were identifying themselves under the acronym G.U.L.F.

The Emirates are investing vast amounts into the development of a new sprawling cultural hub, which includes not only the Guggenheim but also outposts of the Louvre and New York University. Situated along the coast of Abu Dhabi, this stretch of sand is known as Happiness Island. And yet, reports suggest that migrant workers creating this Middle Eastern cultural paradise are anything but happy. Harsh working conditions were reported by the Observer at the end of last year, who ‘uncovered evidence of intimidation, strike-breaking, mass riots and an employment system trapping thousands of labourers on poverty pay.’

Last November, concerns about conditions on the island resulted in Gulf Labor’s coalition of international artists who began a year-long protest – known as ‘52 weeks’ – against exploitation. Thomas Hirschhorn and Walid Raad are among those artists involved. Gulf Labor have been working since 2011 to highlight the plight of migrant workers building on Saadiyat Island.

The Guggenheim’s Abu Dhabi project has been far from plain sailing and such recent antagonism has its precedents. In March 2011, citing a report by the advocacy group Human Rights Watch, more than 130 artists, curators and writers – including high-profile figures in the Middle Eastern art world – signed an online petition demanding that the museum improve working conditions amid claims of withheld wages and unpaid recruitment fees.

Since Saturday’s protest, the Guggenheim’s Director Richard Armstrong has issued a response after Hyperallergic requested comment from the museum: ‘…we share the concerns about human rights and fair labor practices and continue to be committed to making progress on these issues.’ And in response to this, one of the organisers of G.U.L.F issued a statement, ultimately calling on the museum to open its doors to a free public assembly on 1 March.

So, Saturday’s evening of protest aimed at the Guggenheim is not new, and clearly this is also unlikely to be the end of the story. Interesting that it took place during the museum’s recently opened ‘Italian Futurism’ exhibition, with its focus on the work of ideologically driven artists during 1909–44. A real meeting of art and politics.

More on the web:

G.U.L.F. and the Guggenheim have both posted statements and clarifications on Hyperallergic this week

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