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Guggenheim Trustees Break Off Negotiations with Gulf Labor Protesters

As of April 13, the Guggenheim board of trustees has ceased negotiating with the Gulf Labor Coalition (GLC)—which has staged a series of protests at multiple Guggenheim locations around the world—on the topic of the living and working conditions of the workers who will be building its museum in Abu Dhabi. The director of the Guggenheim Museum and Foundation, Richard Armstrong, sent an email yesterday containing an open letter to many artists, critics, curators, and museum directors around the world, decrying GLC’s demands and methods. Talks between the Guggenheim and Gulf Labor protesters originally began after the 2015 May Day occupation of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the protest on May 8 last year at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice during the Venice Biennale, and lasted for roughly a year.

After agreeing to negotiate, GLC met with representative from the Guggenheim on June 3 and September 15, 2015, which included the two Guggenheim board members William Mack and Jennifer Stockman. Another meeting via phone was held on December 14, 2015. GLC have stated they requested a summit-level meeting between themselves, the Guggenheim Foundation, and several other nonprofit organizations: “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 coalition assembled by GLC in anticipation of 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 meeting in February, 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,” requesting that the Guggenheim respond by April 1.

The Guggenheim has apparently balked at this however, and as Armstrong notes in his email: “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 further notes in his circulated email: “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. 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…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.”

GLC member Walid Raad told Hyperallergic’s Hrag Vartanian that “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…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.”