Guggenheim Breaks Off Negotiations with Gulf Labor Over Migrant Rights

by Hrag Vartanian on April 17, 2016

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On May Day 2015, members of the Gulf Ultra Luxury Faction (G.U.L.F.) unveiled a large parachute in the Guggenheim Museum rotunda with the words “Meet Workers Demands Now” (image Benjamin Sutton/Hyperallergic)

On April 13, the Guggenheim Board of Trustees informed the Gulf Labor Coalition (GLC) that it will no longer negotiate with the group regarding the living and working conditions of the workers who are and will be building its museum in Abu Dhabi. Today, Richard Armstrong, director of the Guggenheim Museum and Foundation, sent an email [at the bottom of this post] to numerous artists, critics, curators, and museum directors around the world describing GLC as a group that “continues to shift its demands” and uses “deliberate falsehoods.”
The failure of the talks comes after a roughly yearlong process that began after the 2015 May Day occupation of the New York Guggenheim and the May 8 occupation of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice during the Venice Biennale.

Following their agreement, GLC had meetings with the Guggenheim on June 3 and September 15, 2015, and two Guggenheim Board members (William Mack and Jennifer Stockman) were in attendance. They had another meeting by phone on December 14, 2015.

GLC says they requested a “summit” level meeting between themselves, the Guggenheim Foundation, and several key NGOs. “We were told the soonest such a meeting could happen was six months later in February 2016. As a gesture of good faith, GLC agreed to a moratorium on public protests while negotiations were ongoing,” the GLC wrote in a statement released today.

The NGO coalition assembled by GLC in preparation for the February meeting included Fiona Murie (Building and Woodworkers’ International), Jill Wells (Engineers Against Poverty), Sarah Leah Whitson (Human Rights Watch), Jeffrey Vogt (International Trade Union Confederation), and Shilkha Silliman Bhattacharjee (Society for Labor and Development). After a “productive three-hour meeting” in February, according to GLC, the group told the Guggenheim that they wanted to meet with the museum biweekly to develop the “contractual language needed to build a museum in Abu Dhabi.” They asked that the Guggenheim respond to their request by April 1. The Guggenheim’s decision arrived last week.

A billboard on Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi, advertises several of the museum projects as The World’s Finest Masterpieces, including the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi on the top right. (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
A billboard on Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island advertising several of the museum projects, including the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi at top right (photo by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)
In his email today, Armstrong lays the blame on GLC, writing: “Gulf Labor continues to shift its demands on the Guggenheim beyond the reach of our influence as an arts institution while continuing to spread mistruths about the project and our role in it.” He outlines progress in the field of labor rights by Abu Dhabi over the last few years, to which he suggests the Guggenheim has contributed.

“GLC regrets the Guggenheim’s decision to walk out of our good-faith negotiations, and we urge the Chairman of the Board of Trustees, William L. Mack, President of the Board of Trustees, Jennifer Blei Stockman to reconsider this decision,” GLC member Walid Raad told Hyperallergic. “Especially at this very moment, and after our February 19, 2016, meeting with the Guggenheim, when we presented the museum with a clear path forward, one that was also endorsed by Human Rights Watch, Building and Wood Worker’s International, Engineers Against Poverty, Society for Labor and Development, and the International Trade Union Confederation. It seems that our recent meeting confronted the Guggenheim with a moment of true decision, to work with a group of committed organizations to hammer out tangible solutions or continue with vague generalities about ‘doing our best,’ and they have opted for the latter.”

Andrew Ross, another member of GLC, echoed Raad’s thoughts. “Walking away from a six-year dialogue with artists and writers is in very bad faith. But the timing is especially ill-considered,” Ross told Hyperallergic. “This is the moment when the general contract is being drawn up and when the opportunity to make a breakthrough in labor relations in Abu Dhabi should be seized, not spurned. The museum leadership continues to make unwise decisions.”

Another member of GLC, Paula Chakravartty, told Hyperallergic that she found the Guggenheim’s tone odd. “It is unfortunate that the statement that has been issued by the Guggenheim tries to personalize (targeting well-known artists who are active in this campaign) the GLC intervention,” she said. “The most recent unilateral decision to terminate dialogue in the wake of a productive opening for real change seems cynical at best. The mischaracterization of GLC’s role in this process serves only to deflect attention from the largely invisible migrant workforce who continue to struggle for decent wages and dignity in the UAE, experiences and realities that GLC will continue to raise and amplify in our ongoing campaign.”

A view in March 2015 of one of the many illegal markets set up by migrant laborers in the Abu Dhabi worker camps (photo Hyperallergic/Hyperallergic)
A view in March 2015 of one of the many illegal markets set up by migrant laborers in the Abu Dhabi worker camps (photo the author for Hyperallergic)
The signatories of the GLC statement are Amin Husain, Andrew Ross, Ashok Sukumaran, Ayreen Anastas, Doris Bittar, Doug Ashford, Eric Baudelaire, Gregory Sholette, Guy Mannes-Abbott, Haig Aivazian, Hans Haacke, Joseph Rauch, Kristina Bogos, Mariam Ghani, Michael Rakowitz, Naeem Mohaiemen, Natascha Sadr Haghighian, Nitasha Dhillon, Noah Fischer, Paula Chakravartty, Rene Gabri, Sam Durant, Shaina Anand, Tania Bruguera, and Walid Raad.

Hyperallergic has reached out to Armstrong for comment.

* * *

The following is the entire email by Richard Armstrong that was circulated to various recipients today:

Dear Colleague,

In 2007, the Guggenheim Foundation and the leadership of the United Arab Emirates embarked on the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Museum project, designed to serve as a catalyst for cultural exchange and to expand narratives of art history. Eight years later, our mutual commitment remains strong.

While construction of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Museum has not yet begun, our work to deliver on its potential continues. A team of curators based in New York and in Abu Dhabi has been actively developing a curatorial strategy for the future museum and has convened several forums with leading academics and critics to chart the project’s curatorial and intellectual parameters.

To date, the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Museum project has acquired more than 250 artworks; 70% by non-Euro American artists, with a concentration on art from West Asia. In 2014, an inaugural exhibition, Seeing Through Light: Selections from the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Collection, welcomed more than 90,000 visitors in Abu Dhabi and was extended due to popular demand. At the same time, museum educators in New York and in Abu Dhabi continue to build on four years’ worth of public programs and workshops aimed at engaging with the vital and diverse populations of the UAE and the region.

Despite these tangible efforts and successes, the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi continues to be maligned by some critics as a symbol of aggressive commercial expansion and as a perpetrator of grave abuses against foreign migrant workers. We would like to set the record straight.

There are currently no workers on the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and there is no construction on the site because a contractor has yet to be selected. Since the inception of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi project, the Guggenheim and the Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC) have held ongoing discussions about TDIC’s plans to safeguard conditions for workers who will build the future museum and to define measures for continuous enhancement of those conditions. As the museum developer, TDIC is fully responsible for construction and selection of contractors, and has committed to selecting a general contractor of international standing and high integrity.

In 2010, TDIC developed its Employment Practices Policy (EPP), which outlines workers’ welfare requirements on its projects including the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. The EPP, which was endorsed by the Guggenheim and to which we contributed recommendations for its revision in 2015, has been noted by Human Rights Watch as providing “more labor protections than anywhere else in the Gulf.”

Annual public, independent monitoring reports by PricewaterhouseCoopers continue to show improvements among those who are working under the EPP on current TDIC projects on Saadiyat Island. At the same time, the government of Abu Dhabi has taken additional measures to strengthen protections for workers at the national level, including decrees enacted in January of this year that standardize contract terms and increase flexibility for workers to move between employers.

For six years, we have engaged in open dialogue with critics and others concerned about the topic of worker welfare. Despite this progress and our demonstrated and ongoing commitment to this issue, some of our critics have dismissed efforts by TDIC and the Guggenheim as meaningless while simultaneously taking credit for the changes that have been made. The Gulf Labor Coalition, in particular, has pursued a campaign of direct action against the Guggenheim since 2010 in the media and in our museums in New York and Venice. We believe this treatment is unfair, convenient for publicity purposes, and distracts from sincere efforts to address an issue to which TDIC and the Guggenheim have dedicated significant energy and resources with measureable progress.

Since 2010, we have engaged with Gulf Labor to seek common ground on the issue of worker welfare, participating in numerous phone calls and in-person meetings by members of the Guggenheim Foundation’s Board of Trustees and senior leadership. After our most recent meeting, held in February 2016, we reached the conclusion that these direct discussions are no longer productive. Gulf Labor continues to shift its demands on the Guggenheim beyond the reach of our influence as an arts institution while continuing to spread mistruths about the project and our role in it.

Despite this change in our posture toward Gulf Labor, our commitment to workers’ welfare on the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi project remains as strong as ever and we continue our dialogue with other NGOs including Human Rights Watch and the International Labour Organization. We also continue to pursue progress with our partners in the UAE and have offered to update Gulf Labor on major project developments.

The Guggenheim is and always will be a champion for art and for artists. We respect activism and recognize its value. We welcome dialogue and accept criticism. But we cannot stand silent in the face of deliberate falsehoods.

As global arts institutions in a rapidly changing world, we all face challenges that will require our best thinking and our mutual support. In that spirit, I welcome your questions and thank you for your continued collegiality.

Yours truly,

Richard Armstrong
Director, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation

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