A Museum in the Making: The Guggenheim Abu Dhabi

New York, Berlin, Bilbao, Venice … Abu Dhabi?

“The new Guggenheim Abu Dhabi will be located in the Cultural District of Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Designed by internationally renowned architect Frank Gehry, the 450,000-square-foot museum will house its own major modern and contemporary art collection and present special exhibitions that will include works from the Guggenheim Foundation’s extensive collection.” This blog reported on the development of the museum in November of 2010.

There’s only one thing standing in the museum’s way – a group of 130 artists, curators, and writers.

The group is threatening to boycott the Guggenheim, at all of the museum’s locations, unless labor conditions are improved.

According to the New York Times, the museum is one of the most high-profile construction projects in the Middle East, and will form part of a complex including a branch of the Louvre and luxury resorts. According to the group threatening the boycott, the workers involved in this construction project are dealing with unpaid recruitment fees, withheld wages, and hazardous conditions. ArtInfo reports that this is not the first time that the museum has faced such charges.

“Artists should not be asked to exhibit their work in buildings built on the backs of exploited workers. Those working with bricks and mortar deserve the same kind of respect as those working with cameras and brushes,” says Walid Raad, an organizer of the boycott, as quoted by the New York Times.

Human Rights Watch suggests that the group’s boycott pledge is bringing much-needed attention to a documented cycle of abuse of migrant workers on Saadiyat Island. The Guggenheim has responded by announcing that it will strengthen regulations to have fees reimbursed and will appoint an outside monitor to address complaints. Human Rights Watch told the New York Times that, “the monitor would only track compliance with Emirates law and the agency’s employment practices policy, which don’t meet stricter international labor and human rights standards.”

Here is an example of human rights intersecting with art law. Art and architecture should not be produced in violation of important labor laws, and neither should the museums that showcase them. Even if a great museum is built in violation of workers’ rights, it cannot stand without art to fill its interiors. These boycotting artists may be able to make important strides for human rights in the UAE, because the museum will need them.

Read the article at the New York Times and The Art Newspaper

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