Arts, Culture & Media

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

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MTL Collective

Protesters take over the Guggenheim to protest labor conditions in the United Arab Emirates on February 22, 2014.

Some think the Guggenheim in New York is the perfect museum.

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

Not too big.

Not too small.

And the venue itself, a Frank Lloyd Wright design, is a work of art.

Many have taken over the museum, like James Turrell did in a dazzling display of light.

But last Saturday evening, protesters took over the space. Their goal was to denounce the exploitation of migrant construction workers in the United Arab Emirates, specifically, workers toiling on Saadiyat Island. It’s the future site of the new Guggenheim Abu Dhabi branch.

The group goes by the name Gulf Labor. It's a coalition of international artists "working to ensure that migrant worker rights are protected during the construction and maintenance of museums on Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi, UAE."

One of the protesters invovled with the Gulf Labor protest 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.

“It’s beautiful,” she says. “In fact there was a recent article about it. The building is the perfect place to protest. And we actually thought about the space when planning our performance inside the museum.”

Performance? Well, sort of.

Dhillon says the group formed into six teams that took up space at different levels on the central spire. It was planned and orchestrated for maximum effect. And Andrew Ross, a professor at NYU advocating for labor rights, says the group captured the Guggenheim’s eyes for 25 minutes.

There were chants, too.

The group asked, “Who is building the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi?” And they answered, “Migrant labor in labor camps. Migrants working in 130 degree heat.”

We reached out the Guggenheim for comment. They told The World no one was available.

But Richard Armstrong, director 
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation put out this statement on their website:

The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation is engaged in ongoing, serious
 discussions with our most senior colleagues in Abu Dhabi regarding the 
issues of workers’ rights. 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 yet under construction.

While the actual museum hasn't begun construction yet, Guggenheim is part of a group of investors on the island that include New York University and the Louvre. And Dhillon’s not happy with this response.

She says it's something the Guggenheim has said before. And she says Guggenheim needs to step up, as the foundation is part of the future cultural capital on Saadiyat Island. And with other institutions already in progress, she says it has a responsibility to speak now.

Essentially, she feels the Guggenheim is part of a team, and that team could use its combined power to do something together to improve the working conditions for workers.

Dhillon says the group isn't finished protesting the Guggenheim. They want their voice heard. She says they reached out to the museum in a statement asking if it would participate in a public forum on the issue this weekend.

But the Guggenheim told The World in an email: "GULF has not reached out to us directly."

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