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boycott of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi
Photo from the Gulflabor website, a blog chronicling the boycott of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi


June 6, 2011

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The boycott of the Guggenheim Museum continues apace -- the boycott of the as-yet-unbuilt Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, that is. Called more than two months ago by a group of 130 avant-garde artists -- now some 1,300 artists have signed the petition -- the protest is designed to improve working conditions for laborers on the new museum under construction on the Arab emirate's Saadiyat Island. "Artists should not be asked to exhibit their work in buildings built on the backs of exploited workers," proclaims Gulflabor, an anonymous website for the boycott.

Among the artists refusing to show their work at the nascent museum are Abdel Abidin, Dennis Adams, Kader Attia, Monica Bonvicini, Tania Bruguera, Janet Cardiff, Sam Durant, Jimmie Durham, Andrea Fraser,  Hans Haacke, Mona Hatoum, Thomas Hirschhorn, Emily Jacir, Barbara Kruger, Matt Mullican, Shirin Neshat, Trevor Paglen, Cornelia Parker, Paul Pfeiffer,  Walid Raad, Allan Sekula, Katharina Sieverding, Rirkrit Tiravanija and Krzysztof Wodiczko.

Last week, the Guggenheim announced that it was "pleased to support the appointment" of PricewaterhouseCoopers to oversee workers' rights on the project. At issue have been questions of timely payment of wages, working hours and accommodation conditions, the payment of "recruitment fees," the ability to report grievances, and the withholding of workers' passports and other documents.

A spokesperson for the Guggenheim, Eleanor Goldhar, told Artnet News that “Our conversations with the artists and Human Rights Watch” -- whose original report prompted the artists' boycott -- ”are ongoing and will continue to be. This is a very important dialogue.”

“As we explained to the artists,” Goldhar said, “we engaged an expert in international human rights and labor conditions both to educate ourselves more effectively about monitoring and to provide recommendations and best practices for establishing a credible independent monitoring program.”

Both Human Rights Watch and the artists' group remain unconvinced. Human Rights Watch has been pressuring the Guggenheim, along with New York University and the Louvre, to condemn the arrest and detention in April 2011 of poet Ahmed Mansoor and two other human rights activists -- much as the Guggenheim has condemned the arrest and detention of Ai Weiwei in China.

Human Rights Watch called the Guggenheim announcement a “positive first step” in a release this weekend, but seemed to suggest that the move could be mere window-dressing. “Neither the Guggenheim nor Agence France-Muséums -- responsible for the Louvre Abu Dhabi --  have disclosed how they will ensure that [the Abu Dhabi Tourism Development & Investment Company] enforces its labor standards, or the recourse these institutions have in the event that TDIC fails in its labor commitments.”

The artists’ group added that it is skeptical of the appointed monitor. “PricewaterhouseCoopers was not one of the monitors Human Rights Watch recommended,” reads an update on the Gulflabor website. The artists want the appointed monitor to work in conjunction with another Human Rights Watch-recommended monitor. “We remain hopeful that significant new announcements. . . will be forthcoming.”

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Frank Gehry
Architect Frank Gehry's rendering of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi on Saadiyat Island, with the Louvre Abu Dhabi and the performing arts center shown to the right