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Mar. 24, 2011

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Is the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi engaged in widespread and serious “human rights violations”? A week ago, a group of more than 130 avant-garde artists -- including Emily Jacir and Walid Raad, who initiated the petition, as well as Hans Haacke, Shirin Neshat, Trevor Paglen, Allan Sekula, Rirkrit Tiravanija and Krzysztof Wodiczko -- threatened to boycott the museum if it failed to “protect the rights of workers employed in the construction and maintenance of its new branch museum in Abu Dhabi.”

This sudden and rather strange concern for low-paid workers in the Middle East was prompted by reports on the United Arab Emirates issued by Human Rights Watch (HRW), which claims that “a cycle of abuse” leaves workers there “deeply indebted, poorly paid and unable to defend their rights or even quit their jobs.” According to a 2009 HRW investigation, South Asian migrant workers on Saadiyat Island -- site of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, as well as a prospective branch of New York University -- must pay “recruitment fees” of between $1,800 and $4,100, and earn an average annual salary of only $2,575, effectively producing “conditions of forced labor.”

Now, the Guggenheim Museum has responded in a letter co-signed by museum director Richard Armstrong and chief curator Nancy Spector, claiming that important steps have already been taken to protect laborers on the Guggenheim project. Since November 2010, the Gugg says, an independent monitor has kept an eye on conditions at the work site, and workers are also now guaranteed reimbursement of any recruitment fees. These new protections are part of “fundamental changes in the emirates’ decades-long labor practices.”

Though welcoming continued dialogue on the issue, Armstrong and Spector aren’t completely lying down before the art-world radicals. “It is very troubling to us that your statement portrays the Guggenheim as a passive agent with little consciousness of the issues at hand,” they write. “That is the exact opposite of the truth.”

The letter suggests that the artists, along with HRW, “are jeopardizing a project that promises to have a very positive effect in the region by casting a negative light on the Guggenheim.” If all goes according to plan, they say, the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi should serve as a “beacon” for “intellectual activity, cultural exchange and, ultimately, critical shifts in social practice.”

Stay tuned.

With the Tudors and the Borgias all over cable TV, it’s perhaps no surprise that the art world is getting in on the act. “Fashion in the Middle Ages,” May 31-Aug. 14, 2011, at the J. Paul Getty Museum, organized by Getty curator Kristen Collins and scholar Margaret Scott, uses the museum’s manuscript collection to explore the ways that social hierarchies were reflected by what people wore. An illustrated, 112-page publication, with an essay by Scott, author of Medieval Clothing and Costumes: Displaying Wealth and Class in Medieval Times (2004), accompanies the show.

Meanwhile, in Paris, the manuscript specialist gallery Les Enluminures, in celebration of its 20th anniversary, presents “Dressing Up and Dressing Down in the Middle Ages and Renaissance: Costumes in Art,” May 5-Aug. 25, 2011. Featuring approximately 35 artworks, including sculptures and rings as well as manuscripts, the show illuminates the symbolism of color (blue = royalty, green = hope and youth, red + green = bold youth), and notes that stripes -- the costume of prisoners -- was to be avoided. An online catalogue is promised.

Finally, here in New York, the Morgan Library presents “Illuminating Fashion: Dress in the Art of Medieval France and the Netherlands,” May 20-Sept. 4, 2011, featuring over 50 manuscripts and woodcut-printed books drawn from the museum collection. The show, which is sponsored by the Kress and Coby foundations and others, also includes four costumes recreated from illustrations in the exhibition.

SeaFair, the floating art fair launched in 2007 by David and Lee Ann Lester on a custom-made, $30-million, 228-foot yacht, returns to the art-fair waters this weekend in Sarasota, Fla. Temporarily dubbed Art Sarasota, Mar. 25-29, 2011, the onboard show features “mostly contemporary” art, though the mix includes jewelry and design. Taking part is Forum Gallery, which promises 13 works by Robert Cottingham; Art Link International from Lake Worth, presenting Dale Chihuly’s 1980s “Venetian Series”; Habitat Galleries from Royal Oak, Mich., with an installation of bronze and glass sculptures by Albert Paley; and Projects Gallery from Philadelphia, which is debuting a show of works by Florence Putterman. According to a report in the Sarasota Herald, SeaFair costs $300,000 a month to operate, but could bring in $600,000 a week in gallery-space rentals.

Calling all subversives! Artist Peter Coffin and The Suburban gallery in Chicago invite you to submit an “instructional drawing” for a book project called "How to Sneak into a Museum" (without paying admission). Simple floor plans are sought; no forged tickets or fake badges or anything like that. Among the examples provided is a map to the Warhol Museum showing how to avoid paying admission by entering the bookshop, going downstairs to the café, following a corridor and then taking an elevator to the museum’s top floor. Drawings should be scanned at 300 DPI -- do not write your name on the drawing -- and sent to Deadline is Apr. 30, 2011.

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