The scene at Manhattan’s Guggenheim Museum on pay-as-you-wish evening this Saturday was soggy. Throngs of damp visitors, having been undeterred by the spring rainstorm and block-long line, mingled on the spiraling ramps for the museum’s exhibit of Italian Futurist art. Suddenly, a bell clanged, and a moment later, thousands of colorful slips of paper fluttered down from the balconies like confetti. Looking up from the rotunda had the cheerfully surreal effect of being within a snow globe. Visitors looked mostly happy and confused, and snatched the bits of paper as they fell.
“Is this part of the show?” one woman asked her companion. “I have no clue,” the other replied.
The paper turned out to be false dollar bills, intricately illustrated by Occupy Wall Street-affiliated artist Noah Fischer. One side of the bill read, “No Sustainable Cultural Value,” above a sketch of the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim soon to be built in Abu Dhabi. The other side was sketched with a protest scene, the red “Joie de Vivre” sculpture of lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park in the background. An image of the globe was wrapped in the question “What does an ethical global museum look like?” The upper edge read, “By the authority of s**it is f****d up & bulls*t.”
The bills were flung over the balconies by an activist political group called GULF (Global Ultra Luxury Faction), an affiliate of the activist groups Gulf Labor and Occupy Museums. A few days before, the group launched a fake Guggenheim website, where it is hosting a design competition for a “sustainable” Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. GULF got significant press last month for a similar interruption, when it unfurled banners over the Guggenheim ramps painted with the words “1% Museum,” “Abu Dhabi” and “Wage Theft.”
Both “interventions” were staged to protest what participants described as the indentured servitude of migrant laborers on Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi, where the new Guggenheim franchise will be built alongside the under-construction branch of the Louvre museum and a campus of New York University.
After the first protest, longtime New York Times art critic Holland Cotter wrote an article assessing the risk globalizing museums face of resembling multinational corporations built for the wealthy at the expense of the poor.
“What if seemingly incompatible institutional features—humane local wisdom and custodianship of treasures of art—could be made to coexist?” Cotter asks. “We’d have museums that are on the right side of history, and in which the future of art would be secure. That ideal is worth storming an empire for.”
In an op-ed published in the Times the same day as the second protest, NYU professor Andrew Ross, one of the main organizers behind GULF, urged the Guggenheim to establish good labor practices in a region where migrant laborers typically work for years to repay recruitment and relocation fees under the kafala sponsorship system and endure miserable conditions, as recently reported by The Guardian.
“If liberal cultural and educational institutions are to operate with any integrity in that environment, they must insist on a change of the rules,” Ross wrote.
Migrant labor is the majority of the population of the United Arab Emirates, where development continues at a breakneck pace. Over the past few years, Abu Dhabi has brought in tens of thousands of laborers to transform Saadiyat Island into a thriving $27 billion cultural development.
In 2009, a Human Rights Watch report found that workers had to “work for months or years simply to pay off their loans” from recruitment and relocation fees, and some employers reduced workers’ wages after hiring and withheld their passports, threatening fees to return them. By 2010, both NYU Abu Dhabi and the state-run Tourism Development & Investment Co. (TDIC) had announced new labor practices, praised by Human Rights Watch, that made contractors responsible for all recruitment fees and barred them from withholding passports.
PricewaterhouseCoopers was hired by the government to audit employer compliance each year, and NYU brought on a compliance monitor as well, though its independence has been questioned: Mott MacDonald, the contractor hired by NYU, is also “in charge of the electricity and responsible for [maintaining] the sewage and gas” in Abu Dhabi, according to Human Rights Watch’s Nick McGeehan.
According to a PricewaterhouseCoopers report released in December 2013 and analyzed by The New Yorker, some problem areas have improved: 100 percent of workers interviewed said they had “free access” to their passports, the instance of wage deductions had gone down, and more workers had access to better living quarters. Yet the kafala fees were even more widespread than before: 86 percent of the workers said they had paid recruitment fees, compared with 75 percent in 2012.
Within eight minutes of the bills fluttering down through the Guggenheim’s spiraling space, guards had cordoned off the rotunda and swept away most of the bills that plastered the rotunda floor and floated above the pennies in the museum fountain. Within an hour, New York City police had arrived.
The Guggenheim’s deputy director of global communications, Eleanor Goldhar, said in a statement that the museum is “currently engaged in ongoing, serious discussions with our most senior colleagues in Abu Dhabi and TDIC, the authority responsible for building the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi museum, regarding workers’ rights. Our chairman of the board of trustees and director have just recently returned from meetings in Abu Dhabi where this issue was a top priority for discussion.”
The statement continues:
As global citizens, we share the concerns about human rights and fair labor practices and continue to be committed to making progress on these issues. At the same time, it is important to clarify that the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi is not currently under construction, despite erroneous claims by certain protesters. The building foundations and pilings were completed in 2011.
While in Abu Dhabi in mid-March 2014, our director revisited the workers village to ensure that living conditions for workers who will work on the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi will set new and respected standards for workers engaged in building other projects on Saadiyat Island.