Protesters take over the Guggenheim on behalf of workers a world away

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman, this is The World.

The Guggenheim in New York City is the perfect museum, in my humble opinion. Not too big, not too small, and the venue itself - a Frank Lloyd Wright design - is a work of art. But all of that was not front and center on the minds of protestors who streamed into the museum last Saturday evening.

Their goal was to denounce the exploitation of migrant construction workers in the United Arab Emirates, specifically, those workers toiling on Saadiyat Island, future site of the new Guggenheim Abu Dhabi branch.

One of the protesters in New York was Nitasha Dhillon. She wants the Guggenheim foundation to do more to protect workers' rights in the UAE, and she says the Guggenheim's flagship building was the perfect place to send that message.

Nitasha Dhillon: It was beautiful. In fact, one of the artists recently wrote a article about how Guggenheim, New York, is the perfect building to protest, because it's got that vacuum of the space, and the spiral and all that. And we actually thought about that while we were planning our performance inside the museum.

Werman: You call it a performance. So did you kind of go to the top in the elevator, and then kind of protest your way down the spiral?

Dhillon: We actually had six different teams who were at different levels of the spiral, and we had a coordinated script that we spoke along with them.

Werman: And what were you saying? What was the script?

Dhillon: So basically, we started by saying, "Who's building the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi?" Just asking that question. And then we went into, "Migrant workers in labor camps. Migrant workers who demand their rights. Migrants working in 130 degrees of heat."

And so it keeps going on, and it keeps kind of bringing the migrant worker back to the museum, to art, to the future of art.

Werman: Yeah, fair question. What is the future of art?

Dhillon: What is the future of art? And especially when there's a futurism exhibition going on at the Guggenheim right now.

Werman: Right. Italian futurism. Great moment to drop it, yeah.

Dhillon: Yes.

Werman: Well, the Guggenheim director, Richard Armstrong, took notice and released a statement saying that the organization is committed to making progress on the issue of fair labor in Abu Dhabi, adding that the construction for the Guggenheim on Saadiyat Island has not started yet. So I'm just wondering, are you happy with that response?

Dhillon: Of course not, because you know, that is something that they have said before. And what we say is that construction already began with the fact that you've already started organizing events around Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. Also, you're part of the cultural capital of the island, right?

So there are other institutions that are getting built as we speak. The space to build the institution has been cleared out. So you know, we're not happy with the response, because I think as a team, they could do something together. It's not just one off, it's not just one institution, it's a collective of them on the island.

Werman: And what about your protest? Is it a one off, are you gonna go back to the Guggenheim?

Dhillon: We haven't planned anything yet, but we, you know... We put out a statement asking Guggenheim to open its doors this coming Saturday, again, to actually have a conversation about these issues in a assembly format and make it free for public. This was a response to the statement that Richard Armstrong put out. So let's see if he responds to that.

Werman: Nitasha, have you ever taken part in a demonstration before?

Dhillon: I have, but not... you know, just on and off. [Laughs]

Werman: Probably in a street somewhere, not in a place like the Guggenheim.

Dhillon: I have, actually. I was part of "Occupy Museums." So I have been to MoMa and other places, yeah.

Werman: Really? So you've got experience in this domain.

Dhillon: Yeah.

Werman: Nitasha Dhillon, thanks for speaking with us. Appreciate it.

Dhillon: Thank you so much.

Werman: By the way, we reached out to the Guggenheim today. They said the protesters have yet to contact the museum directly.